Sunday, March 8, 2015

Stuck for starters? Viral story starters from 3 kids’ best-sellers.


How should you start your story?  Every children’s book editor and agent will tell you:  the action needs to begin on Page One.

But hey, isn’t that a little unfair?  What if you have a great idea, but you need to take a few pages to get to it?  Shouldn’t the reader be patient and bear with you? 

The cold hard truth is that today’s readers won’t, and neither will today’s book-buying parents and grandparents.  Your story has to hook us on Page One if you want anyone to invest their time and read any further.

What does that mean for today’s writer (that means you)?  It means starting your story in the middle of the action.  (In Latin, if you want to get fancy, that’s called in media res.)

Let’s see how some of today’s hottest-selling kids’ books do it.  Take a peek at what’s flying off the virtual shelves at Amazon:

Viral Bestseller #1:  The Day the Crayons Quit

The Day the Crayons Quit, by Drew Daywalt Take a look at the current bestseller The Day the Crayons Quit, by Drew Daywalt, illustrated by Oliver Jeffers.  How does it start?

“One day in class, Duncan went to take out his crayons and found a stack of letters with his name on them.”

That’s it:  short, sweet, simple.  Who’s Duncan?  We don’t know, we don’t care.  All I know, as the reader, is that he has a problem.  Why the heck does he have letters instead of crayons?  Turns out that his crayons have quit (as the title warns!) and have left him a stack of complaint letters instead of sticking around in the box.

How doesn’t the story start? 

There are so many ways an amateur would start this story:

  • “Duncan was a boy who really loved to colour…”
  • “One day, Duncan’s teacher told the kids to take out their crayons…”
  • “Tuesday started out as an ordinary day for Duncan McPherson McPhee…” (okay, I don’t know his real last name, and in fact, we never do find it out)

But the pros – the writer and editor – know where this story really begins:  the moment Duncan notices that his crayons have quit.

Viral Bestseller #2:  Giraffes Can’t Dance

Giraffes Can't Dance, by Giles Andreae What about Giraffes Can’t Dance by Giles Andreae, illustrated by Guy Parker-Rees?  Is there a problem right on Page One?

Gerald was a tall giraffe
whose neck was long and slim
But his knees were awfully crooked
And his legs were rather thin.

The title of this book gives it away – as so many great titles do.  Gerald is tall and gawky, definitely not a dancer… but that’s all he really wants to do.  And so, he does.

Is this a problem?  Sure it is.  The other animals don’t think Gerald’s going to be much good, and suddenly, he starts to doubt himself as well.

How doesn’t the story start? 

You wouldn’t believe how many stories like this have been messed up by would-be children’s authors with very good intentions, but very bad ideas about how to start a story:

  • “Gerald signed up for ballet classes…”
  • “Gerald was very good at running, he was very good at jumping, he was very good at leaping.  He had a nice life with his mother and father and sister in the African savannah.”
  • “Gerald was an ordinary giraffe.  When his teacher told the giraffes that they would be studying dancing, Gerald was kind of looking forward to it.”

These are all very boring beginnings.  The actual opening throws us right into the middle of things with a vivid description of the problem:  he simply isn’t built right to be a dancer.

Viral Bestseller #3:  Dragons Love Tacos

You might think this one’s a little different. 

Dragons Love Tacos, by Adam Rubin In the bestselling Dragons Love Tacos, by Adam Rubin and illustrated by Daniel Salmieri, we don’t see the main problem on Page One.  Instead, the illustrations work together with the text to hint at the mayhem to come.  First, we meet a boy and his dog:

image from Dragons Love Tacos, by Adam Rubin

The boy is clearly obsessed with dragons, in almost an unhealthy way.  Dragons cover every surface of his bedroom and have taken over every aspect of his life.

The text reads:

Hey, kid!  Did you know that dragons love tacos?  They love beef tacos and chicken tacos, They love really big gigantic tacos and tiny little baby tacos as well.

Clearly, this boy, so dragon-obsessed, is going to have to make up some tacos to lure real, actual dragons into his life… and that’s where the problem lies.  Because, as we learn on Page Three,

But wait!  AS much as dragons love tacos, they hate spicy salsa even more.  They hate spicy green salsa and spicy red salsa, They hate spicy chunky salsa and spicy smooth salsa.  If the salsa is spicy at all, dragons can’t stand it.

So isn’t this third book going against our rule of putting the problem on Page One?

Not exactly.  The problem is that dragons… are dragons.  They’re dangerous critters.  The dragon in the poster on Page One is clearly very menacing.  Yet the boy in the story is desperate to make friends with them nevertheless.  And when you make friends with dragons… mayhem is bound to ensue.

All we need to do is modify the rule slightly:  If there’s enough tension in the situation (hey, they’re DRAGONS!), you don’t need to put the WHOLE problem on Page One. 

Hint at the problem, set up the problem, include enough of the problem (“making friends with dragons”) that the reader will want to keep flipping the pages.

How doesn’t the story start?

Listing all the ways this story doesn’t start would take days, but some common bad beginnings that this author has managed to dodge include:

  • “Fred really loved dragons.  Really, really, really loved dragons.  Really.  Then one day, he read in a book that what dragons love is tacos.”  (Huh?)
  • “Out of the blue one day, Fred came up with a scheme to lure dragons to his house with tacos.”  (Deus ex machina, the god in the machine, rarely works, but in this case, the god-like narrator (“Hey kid!”) really is a great way to introduce the idea unobtrusively.)
  • “On Friday, some dragons showed up on Fred’s doorstep demanding tacos.”  (Here, the story doesn’t stem naturally from Fred’s obsession.)

Those would be three totally different stories about dragons and tacos, but none of them is exactly right.  The author and illustrator here have struck the perfect (and perfectly absurd) tone to get their specific story across.

By the way, in case you think I hand-picked these three stories because they prove my point… I didn’t.  In fact, I picked them almost at random, three stories I’d never read before.  I was so sure of this rule that I didn’t need to hand-pick the examples.  And they all proved it right.

For you, this is actually good news.

You may feel like you have to hide your best stuff up your sleeve… work your way up to it slowly but surely.  Nope.  Saving the best for last isn’t how you write a kid’s book. 

Instead, learn from the viral best-sellers.  Take your best, the funniest, grossest, weirdest, most memorable part of your story’s premise… and put it right up front.  Hand your main character a problem.  Not just any problem, but the biggest one you can imagine.  And do it right there on Page One.

Send his crayons out on strike; make him too gawky to dance; give him a lifelong obsession with dragons that’ll eventually get his house burned down.

Then just sit back, relax and enjoy yourself as your story plays itself out on the next 30 or so pages.  It’ll be an awesome ride, I promise.  It may even land your story up there on the bestseller lists, too.

[baby typing photo credit Paul Inkles via flickr]


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