Friday, June 5, 2015

The Opening Hook by Jim Hill

I’m teaching a picture book writing class at the Cotuit Center for the Arts, and it’s been fascinating exploring the connections between middle grade novels and picture books. How do you compare a five-hundred-word story to a thirty-thousand-word-plus novel? One way is to look at the opening.

Among the many books I’m drawing from for lessons is Ann Whitford Paul’s Writing Picture Books. She talks about the “story question” of a book, an idea I think of as the character’s need and theme bundled up together. Getting the reader involved with the character’s need is imperative from the get go, otherwise why will she turn the page? So, how do you do that? What’s the hook?

At the 2014 NESCBWI conference, Jo Knowles presented a fantastic workshop on baiting the hook, “Let’s Go On a Journey.” She proposed a series of questions that every book opening should answer:
  • Who is the main character?
  • What do you know about him/her? How?
  • What is happening?
  • Is there a conflict? What is it?
  • What is the overall emotion conveyed?
  • Would you keep reading? Why/why not?
With these questions in mind, I’ve been looking at my work-in-progress and published books to see how well Jo’s questions are addressed. The opening of Up & Down (Philomel, 2010) by Oliver Jeffers makes for an excellent example.

Up & Down features two characters (the Boy and the Penguin) established in Lost & Found (Philomel, 2005). Lost & Found can be described as “a wonderful story about the meaning of loneliness and the importance of friendship.” Up & Down continues that theme by looking at the importance of individual growth within a relationship.

It opens with a spread that establishes the relationship between the Boy and the Penguin with the text:
“Once there were two friends…”

The second spread continues:
“who always did everything together. Until the day the penguin decided there was something important he wanted to do by himself…”

The third spread takes the reader inside the head of the Penguin so that she can see his dream:

Run that opening through the magic of Jo’s Questions and you’ll see they’re all answered. And unless you’re the Grinch, pre heart-expansion, you want to read on. Now, in a middle-grade novel you’re more likely to hit these points within the first two pages. The brevity of text and the interplay with the pictures allows Jeffers to breathe space into the opening. And yet, there’s a ton of story in there that reveals the tone, the protagonist, the need, and addresses Anne Whitford Paul’s “story question.”

Now it’s your turn. Pull a book off the shelf, and give it a close read. How does it compare? Make notes. Next, take a look at your draft and do the same. You might find the opening needs a little revision love–I know mine did.


  1. Great list to check with your own opening that is handy for any genre, I would think! I was speaking to a middle school creative writing group this week and spoke about what I called the 3 nuggets of storytelling: character, setting, conflict. A simple list for them to check with openings and throughout the book. And to check specifically in the beginning of their story to make sure there is conflict that sets the character out on his journey. And there is here with Penguin for sure.

    1. Those three nuggets are just right for a middle school group to digest. Great idea. *stealing*

    2. Steal away Jim!! :) Anything for my fellow authors!

  2. As someone who writes picture books and MG, I really appreciate this. While I'm currently working on MG edits, I'm very, very aware of my areas of weakness and am reading other books with open eyes, ears, and heart.

    We should never stop learning. Thanks for this great reminder.

    1. The elements of story don't change because the age of the reader. Story is always the boss.

      You're right about always learning. one of the things I love about teaching is how my students teach me. Their questions lead me to see things from their perspective, and often that new perspective comes with new insights.

  3. Jim, your post wants me to grab UP AND DOWN and read it to my kids--even though (they think) they're beyond the age for picture books. ("Hey," I hear you say, "no one's beyond the age for picture books!" And I agree with you--just that getting preteens and teens to read them is kinda like lacing their cookies with zucchini, after they tell you they don't eat straight zucchini.)

    I look forward to using Jo Knowles' questions on my current w-i-p. Thanks for the reminder!

    1. Never put zucchini in the cookies! *dies*

    2. Sorry to plant that murderous idea in your mind.

  4. Since my books are geared more for upper middle-grade readers, I'm always comparing mine with true MG and YA books. Character, conflict, emotions all in the first paragraph make for a great read!


Thanks for adding to the mayhem!