Jun 26, 2018

First Line, First Paragraph, First Chapter: Three Questions from Richard Peck

craft review by Lindsay Lackey

In May, Richard Peck, beloved children’s author and champion of writers, passed away. He was a prolific storyteller, penning 41 books in 41 years, and winning numerous awards, including the Newbery Medal in 2001. He was also a generous and wise mentor, offering writers encouragement and advice in conferences and classes all over the world.

As a tribute to his life and work, I thought I’d revisit my favorite of his books for middle grade readers, The Mouse with the Question Mark Tail, through the lens of his own advice on craft.

In both his Master Class video, sold by the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, as well as in person, Mr. Peck poses several key questions writers should attend to in the opening pages of their book. I’ve chosen to focus on three of his questions, looking at how they apply to the first line, first paragraph, and first chapter, respectively.

  1. Is the first sentence a line and a half long at the most?
  2. Does it start with people, not place?
  3. Is there a good reason to turn the page?

The Opening Sentence

We all know the importance of the opening sentence. We know it needs to hook the reader into continuing with the rest of the page, then chapter, then—hopefully—book. But have you ever considered the length of that first sentence? When I saw him speak at an SCBWI conference in 2016, Richard Peck was very specific about sentence length, and even provided a page of memorable first sentences to prove his point.

“Where’s Papa going with that axe?” (E.B. White, Charlotte’s Web)

“When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow.” (Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird)

“There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.” (C.S. Lewis, Voyage of the Dawn Treader)

Each of these memorable lines follows Peck’s insistence that the first sentence not exceed a line and a half in length. The first line of The Mouse with the Question Mark Tail reads:

“Every time a human walks out of a room, something with more feet walks in.”

Like the previous examples, this first line packs a punch. It is clever as well as brief, which makes it both memorable and intriguing. We want to know more. Keeping the first sentence short gives it the necessary heft and hook a reader responds to.

Action: How long is the first sentence of your manuscript? Can you shorten it? How can you give it more punch without increasing the length?

The Opening Paragraph

Once you’ve grabbed the reader with a powerful first line, you’d better bring in your characters. As Peck asks, does your first full paragraph introduce the reader to people, or are you getting lost in setting? Yes, readers want and need to know where your book is set, but it’s the characters they’re really here for!

In The Mouse with the Question Mark Tail, the paragraph following that clever first line immediately alerts the reader to who this book is about:

“Mice, of course, who are only a whisker away and everywhere you fail to look. It’s true of the room where you’re sitting. It’s truer still of Buckingham Palace.”

Did you catch that masterful move on Peck’s part? We are exactly three sentences into the book, and we not only know who, we also know where. As he introduces us to his characters—mice—he also manages to set us firmly in a place—Buckingham Palace. And again, we’re hooked! Who doesn’t want to hear the stories the mice in Buckingham Palace have to tell?!

Action: Can you, in just three sentences, manage to hook your reader, introduce the characters, and give us a sense of place? How many sentences does it currently take you to do these three things in your manuscript?

The Opening Chapter

Getting your reader engaged in the first few lines of the book might be the trickiest part of writing the first chapter, but that doesn’t mean the rest of the chapter gets the day off. One of the things Peck said over and over during his keynote at the SCBWI conference I attended was, “Is there a question?”

What keeps your reader engaged? Questions.

Where is Papa going with that axe? How did Jem break his elbow? What is it about Eustace Clarence Scrubb that makes him almost deserving of such an awful name? What are mice doing in Buckingham Palace?

Keep your reader asking questions, and you’ll get your reader to the last page! The first chapter needs to lay out some concrete details: who the story is about, where it’s set, what the problem is. But this chapter also needs to keep your reader guessing. Why is the problem a problem? How will the character deal with it?

Keeping the questions focused around your character is key here, too. After all, readers are here for the character. In The Mouse with the Question Mark Tail, we learn a little more about the mice of Buckingham Palace in the first chapter. We learn that the mice have a “whole private honeycomb of mouse passages” under the cobblestone walkways of the palace. And we’re told the mice were there the day Queen Victoria celebrated her Diamond Jubilee. (Another subtle but effective detail establishing time and place.) It’s the final three sentences of the chapter that seal the deal for readers, however.

“Remember that great day when all the horses of the Royal Mews stamped across London in the proud jubilee parade. And the mice of Buckingham Palace swept out of the walls in a great gray tide that flowed across the marble floor.

“Remember that day, for it bears upon the story of my life.”

This is the first personal pronoun in the opening pages of the book, and Peck’s trick of waiting until the final sentence of the chapter is a savvy one. We’re picturing those proud horses and the startling “great gray tide” of mice across the palace floor. But to bring in that sudden “my” captures our attention and has us asking, who is this “my”?

And that single question gets us to do exactly what Richard Peck—and every writer—wants a reader to do: turn the page.

Action: What questions does your opening chapter get your reader asking?




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