I heard a recent radio interview with novelist E.L. Doctorow . He said, “[First lines] are the acorns from which the oak grows.” While he was talking about novels, I couldn’t help applying his statement to some of our recent nonfiction titles.
Horatio Jackson sits up straight. Of course it can be done, he thinks. Those new automobiles can do anything.
–opening of Jackson and Bud’s Bumpy Ride: America’s First Cross-Country Automobile Trip by Elizabeth Koehler-Pentacoff One of the sweetest sounds in the world is the SWISH a ball makes as it brushes against the thick cords of a basketball net.
–first line of Swish: The Quest for Basketball’s Perfect Shot by Mark Stewart and Mike Kennedy
Don’t look now, but there’s a booger in your nose!
–first line of Crust & Spray: Gross Stuff in Your Eyes, Ears, Nose, and Throat by C.S. Larsen
A shape is a form. It’s how something looks,
with a top and a middle and bottom.
And knowing about them all inside and out,
they’re easy to name when you spot ’em.
–opening stanza of Windows, Rings, and Grapes—a Look at Different Shapes by Brian P. Cleary
What strikes me is how different all of these openings are and also how well they capture the books as a whole. They really do set the mood and tone for everything to follow, and they set a reader’s expectations for the book. You could probably do a pretty good job at guessing the books’ reading levels and intended audiences from just these brief excerpts.
So whether you’re writing your first—or fiftieth—nonfiction book or you’re a teacher working with students on a writing assignment, you may want to spend a little extra time on that opening line. Getting it just right is well worth the time and effort.
Check out the Nonfiction Monday roundup this week at The Miss Rumphius Effect.