This week I wrote a new picture book story. I couldn’t have gone about it more poorly if I’d tried. After three days I had kept 39 words. The opening lines of a story carry a lot of responsibility. They must introduce the main character, set the stage for what will follow, and present a problem that drives the plot. The reader will decide within those first words if he likes the character and is drawn to the situation. If a writer messes up the opening, the story is all over before it begins.
The idea for this one started with a scene in my mind that would make an exciting ending. The character would be young, innocent, and adventuresome. All I needed was to write the story. I jumped into the opening lines but stalled out right away. I’d committed one of the oldest mistakes in the game: beginning without knowing where I was going. Once in a while this approach works. Usually it leads to disaster.
The problem was that by making my character young, I couldn’t use the finale I had in mind because it would get my character in trouble at home, no way to end a story. Out went the scene that got me going in the first place.
I changed the character to a scruffy little guy who is forever getting in trouble. But that quickly became trite and it telegraphed the obvious. The reader would know right away he’s headed for trouble.
I changed the character to an adult and rejiggered the plot I had in mind — and lost my empathy for him.
In the end I changed the character back to a young one and gave him a touch of stubbornness. I like him better. Finally, after writing and rewriting those opening lines until the story came together in my head, I was ready to go. In the next twenty-four hours I finished it.