Just after midnight, Mary Hayes crept into the kitchen of the Buffalo Asylum for Young Ladies and opened a small door on the side of the enormous cast-iron stove. Then she took a deep breath and shoved herself inside.
These are the first few sentences of my new book, The Door By The Staircase. Want to know what happens next? If you do, then I’ve done my job as a writer.
“What happens next?” is one of the most important questions to make a reader ask. We have a lot of fancy ways of talking about this: suspense, mystery, conflict, foreshadowing, cliffhanger. But these terms all really mean the same thing: Show your reader that something interesting and unusual, something dangerous or scary or magical or problematic, is about to happen. Make them wonder about it enough to turn the page.
The Door by the Staircase is about magic. Magic works best when you show but also conceal at the same time. That’s a lot like writing. Great writing shows just enough to hook the reader and make them read on but doesn’t rush to give away the whole story.
The first lines of a book are a key place to make your reader wonder what happens next. Here are a few I love:
“’Where’s Papa going with that axe?’ asked Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast.” (Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White).
“Kouun is good luck in Japanese, and one year my family had none of it.” (The Thing About Luck, Cynthia Kadohata)
“There was a hand in the darkness, and it held a knife.” (The Graveyard Book, Neil Gaiman)
Note that even though only one of these lines starts with an actual question, they all raise intriguing and troubling questions that compel the reader to keep on going: What bad thing could be happening with that axe? And why is Fern’s father marching out with it just before breakfast? What happened to the narrator’s family during the year of bad luck? How bad could it have been? Whose hand was in the darkness? And what were they doing with that knife?
1) Ask students to think of a family story. It could be funny, sad, scary, or exciting. Ask them to come up with a first line or couple lines that would make a reader want to know “what happens next?” Let students read their lines aloud and note the lines that pulled them in most. Afterwards, lead a discussion about the most popular ones: What about them pulled you in? What did they show? What did they conceal or not tell you? How did they make you feel? How did they set up a sense of conflict, tone, or character?
2) There’s more than one way to start a story. Working off another book students have read in your class, ask them to come up with an alternate first line or couple lines that would also draw readers in.
3) Have students come up with a first line or lines for a fictional story. Collect and anonymously read them aloud. Have the students vote on their favorite.
Katherine Marsh is the Edgar-Award-winning author of The Night Tourist, The Twilight Prisoner and Jepp, Who Defied the Stars. Her middle-grade fantasy, The Door By The Staircase, comes out January. In a starred review, School Library Journal called it, “A sparkling tale full of adventure, magic, and folklore.” A onetime high school English teacher and journalist, Katherine lives in Brussels, Belgium with her husband, two children and cat, Egg. You can visit her at www.katherinemarsh.com