You want to write a picture book, but how to begin?
In early 2020—you know, eons ago—I wrote a post called Top-Notch Titles, which was by far my most popular blog post to date. I wanted to challenge myself to write an equally impactful craft-based post for 2021.
I put on my newest thinking cap (it’s shaped liked a cupcake, in case you’re wondering)…
How about beginnings?!
I just needed an angle. Then I binge-watched the show The Queen’s Gambit in the fall, learned about the book Modern Chess Openings, and voila! This post was born.
Just as your opening moves are an important part of your chess game, strong opening lines are a critical part of your picture book manuscript. You want to grab your reader’s attention and make them think, Ooh, I want to read on! You also want to show the reader that they’re in good hands: you’re a master storyteller, so they should sit back, get cozy, and enjoy the ride.
In this post, I’ll discuss three openings I’ve seen in recently-published fiction picture books. There are many, MANY ways to start a story, and this is by no means a comprehensive list—but if you’re struggling with your opening and looking for ideas, look no further!
Opening #1: The Classic
The Classic opening is essentially Act One of the classic three-act storytelling structure. It works particularly well for character-driven stories.
To begin your story with The Classic, start by introducing your main character. You might show the MC in their everyday life, share a bit of their backstory, or give readers a sense of some important character traits that will impact the MC’s journey later on.
After you give readers a taste of who the character is and what they’re about, it’s time for the inciting incident. Your MC should grapple with a fear, goal, or flaw that will propel their journey forward. Here’s an example of how this might look:
Here we are in the character’s everyday life—la di da!—and she generally thinks it’s swell, but there’s a problem: something the character longs for, something the character is missing…
The bolded word—but—is our clue to the story conflict.
Let’s see how this plays out in some mentor texts you can borrow from your local library (or buy for your home library, if you’re so inclined).
I’ll start with one of my favorites: Piglette, written by Katelyn Aronson and illustrated by Eva Byrne. (The sequel, Piglette’s Perfect Surprise, comes out in May!)
The story opens on a farm in France, with the title character being born seventh in her litter. Her mother is pleased—seven equals perfection! Aronson gives us a but in the last line of the first spread: country life isn’t Piglette’s idea of perfect. We learn all this information in four sentences—just 33 words!
You’ll find another great example in Making a Friend, written by picture book queen Tammi Sauer. (Fun fact: this book is illustrated by Alison Friend. I have no idea if this is pure coincidence? Maybe someone in the know can tell us.)
The story opens by showing us all the things Beaver is good at making: a lodge, a slide, some pretty nifty socks… but, there’s one thing Beaver isn’t good at making—a friend. (Poor Beaver!)
The but angle, if you will, is just one way to use The Classic Opening. I’m also a fan of the One day…
Here’s an example:
The character is minding their own business, doing typical business-minding things in their everyday life. One day, a problem occurs that shakes things up and pushes the MC out of their comfort zone.
In Two Bicycles in Beijing by Teresa Robeson (illustrated by Junyi Wu), bicycles Lunzi and Huangche come out of the factory together. The best-pal bicycles sit side by side in a shop window, watching the world. They’re just as happy as two bikes in a pod, until one day, a girl buys Huangche, a boy buys Lunzi, and the two are separated. Oh no! The reader just *has* to read on to find out if these pals are reunited.
Mother Bruce, written and illustrated by comedic genius Ryan T. Higgins, also uses One day… to propel main character Bruce into conflict.
Higgins spends two and a half spreads showing us Bruce’s irritable personality, preference for living alone, and penchant for eating eggs. The third full spread begins with One day… and this is where the story takes a turn: the eggs Bruce finds in the forest hatch, and the goslings who emerge think Bruce is their mother.
Now, I know you might be wondering: how is this a modern picture book opening? The name itself implies that it’s a tried-and-true method.
The key to using this opening in today’s market is the execution. To use The Classic in a modern picture book, you should:
1) be economical with your exposition—it shouldn’t be too wordy
2) get to the conflict quickly—within the first 2-3 spreads
(Remember, in Piglette, Katelyn Aronson gives us the backstory and gets to the problem in just 33 words!)
Ready for more? Buckle your seatbelts—we’re heading for trouble with opening #2!
Opening #2: The Uh Oh
Forget the backstory—The Uh Oh drops readers right in the action, and shows the conflict in the very first line. It starts with the inciting incident, and builds the story from there.
If you’re writing a story with an Uh Oh opening, you should put your character in a pickle on the first page. For example:
On the day of the singing competition, Ruby opened her mouth and… Nothing. Nada. Her voice. Was. GONE!
Now that you’ve established the Uh Oh moment, you can tell readers about Ruby’s life-long dream of becoming a professional opera singer, and oh, did you mention the survival of her family’s flower shop depends on her winning the prize money? Yikes!
Let’s look at Dandy, written by one of my personal favorite authors, Ame Dyckman, and illustrated by the amazing Charles Santoso.
Dandy is the story of a daddy lion who takes great pride (pun intended) in his perfect lawn. We don’t learn that the rest of the neighborhood also obsesses over lawn maintenance just yet, or that Daddy has an adorable daughter named Sweetie. Those details come later. Instead, Dyckman has Daddy spot a something horrifying amid his gorgeous green grass—a dandelion!—in the first line of the story. (Trust me, this picture book is perfect in every way, and you need to buy it and study it right meow.)
Want another example? Check out One Day in the Eucalyptus, Eucalyptus Tree by lyrical language wizard Daniel Berstrom (illustrated by Brendan Wenzel).
The first line of this story tells us there’s a “scare in the air”, and the art shows a boy, happily skipping along with his toy, unaware of a sneaky snake that hangs in the tree above his head. In the second spread, the snake slides down from the tree and gobbles up the boy. Wowza! Bernstrom doesn’t mess around with putting the story conflict front and center. (For readers who are concerned: never fear! This is a very clever little boy.)
I also recommend reading Llama Destroys the World by dynamic husband-and-wife author-and-illustrator duo Jonathan Stutzman and Heather Fox, particularly if you write humor. The premise of the story is this: On Friday, llama will destroy the world. This is also the first line of the book, which is, in my opinion, pure genius. The story backtracks from there to show us each day in Llama’s week, and the series of mistakes that ultimately leads to mass destruction. (Spoiler: it has to do with eating cake—lots of cake—and a pair of dancing pants that make Llama’s butt look groovy.)
The Uh Oh can take many different forms, but the key is to grab your reader’s attention with an Oh no! moment in the very first line.
Let’s take a look at one last opening before we wrap up…
Opening #3: The Opportunity
Imagine if Cinderella’s story started with a knock at the front door. She opens it to find an invitation to a ball at the royal castle. What an opportunity! But can she pull it off? What obstacles stand in her way?
To write a story with an Opportunity opening, your character should be presented with a chance at something they really want—but can they do it? Maybe your MC spots a flyer for Ninja Camp, receives an invitation to Superhero School, or stumbles upon a neighbor with a box of free kittens (they look a little bit like tiger cubs, but it will probably be fine, right?)
For a stellar example of The Opportunity, check out First Day of Unicorn School, a brand-new book out just last month from debut author Jess Hernandez and delightful illustrator Mariano Epelbaum.
The story starts by showing us MC Milly’s acceptance letter to the prestigious Unicorn School. How exciting! Except, Milly isn’t actually a unicorn. She’s a donkey in a party hat. Milly suffers from imposter syndrome, which is, you know, not at all familiar for us writerly types. (Cough.)
For a unique spin on The Opportunity, you can also study Be Kind by Pat Zietlow Miller (illustrated by Jen Hill). This story opens with a girl named Tanisha spilling grape juice on her new dress. Now, I know you might be thinking, Laura, this sounds more like an Uh Oh. Are you getting confused because you’re at the end of a long blog post? Reasonable for you to wonder such a thing, but no.
In this story, the MC is an unnamed character who witnesses the grape juice incident and realizes she has an opportunity to be kind to Tanisha. The problem is, she isn’t quite sure how to go about it. The story follows the MC as she considers what kindness truly means.
So there you have it: three modern picture book openings. Of course, there are oodles of ways to open a story. Pull some recently-published books down off your shelves, or (safely) visit your local library. Pay close attention to how each story opens. Do you spot any patterns? Do the openings fall into one of the categories above? Can you think of other categories that might work well for your next great story?
I hope you’ve enjoyed this post! If you want to connect, you can follow me on Twitter and/or Instagram: @llavoieauthor, and keep an eye out for my debut, VAMPIRE VACATION, out from Viking in 2022!