Teachers Write 7.22.15 Opening Scenes in Nonfiction with Steve Sheinkin

Good morning! It’s Q and A Wednesday on Teachers Write, which means the comments today are open for your questions about all things writing, relating to today’s topic of nonfiction or whatever else is on your mind. We’ll have a number of authors popping in during the day to respond.

Also today, we have guest author Steve Sheinkin, who used to write history textbooks but now creates high interest historical narratives like Bomb: The Race to Build — and Steal — the World’s Most Dangerous Weapon.

Steve’s works of nonfiction have earned him a Newbery Honor, two YALSA Awards for Excellence in Nonfiction for Young Adults, a Sibert Award, and National Book Award finalist honor. Today, he joins us to talk about beginnings…

The All-Important Opening Scene

Obviously, the opening paragraphs of a book are super important. This may be especially true of nonfiction for young readers—because let’s face it, kids may be picking a book up expecting it to be boring. Actually, it’s not just kids. I’ve lost count of the number of librarians who’ve told me, “I have to confess, I don’t really like history… but I gave your book a chance and was pleasantly surprised!” And a lot of them tell me the opening scene helped hook them in.

That’s nice to hear, because I always end up working on those opening few pages more than any others in the book. Basically, I always wind up writing at least four or five different opening scenes. I’ll start with one that I think is good, and my fantastic editor, Deirdre Langeland, will say something like, “Okay, this is a nice scene, but is it really what the book is about?” 

She’s very tough, Deirdre, in the best way. And that’s one of the things she hammers away at. “What is this book about?” She forces me to think about this, and it always impacts our opening scenes. 

For example, in my book Bomb, one (of my many attempted) opening scenes showed the physicist Robert Oppenheimer as nerdy kid. He’s completely out of place at this sports summer camp—all he wants to do is write poetry and collect minerals. When he goes for a walk in the woods a bunch of boys jump out and attack him wielding paint brushes dripping with green paint.

It was a great little scene, and you got to know and sympathize with one of the main characters…  but this wasn’t meant to be an Oppenheimer biography. We tried again.

Another attempt was a scene that ended up making the book, a scene in which these two Hungarian scientists are lost in Long Island, driving around in search of Albert Einstein’s beach house. It’s funny and visual… but as Deirdre pointed out, the scene works a lot better if you know why it’s so important that these guys find Einstein, and that requires background knowledge of nuclear fission and 1930s world events. Opening scenes can have some background info, but ideally not in the first few paragraphs.

We went through a few other options, and finally hit on the idea of opening with a moment from the end of the story, where FBI agents corner Harry Gold in his Philadelphia home and confront him with evidence of years of spying for the Soviets. It’s a true stand-alone piece of action, it’s tense and visual, with great eye-witnesses sources of dialogue and details. It hooks the reader, hopefully, and from there I can step back and take you back to the beginning of the story. And to Deirdre’s point, it’s what this book is about. I wanted Bomb to read like a spy thriller, and this Gold arrest scene sets that mood right from the start.

Writing Exercise:

Try writing an opening scene to a nonfiction story.

First, look over your story outline, if you have one, or just think it through. Make a list of maybe three or four scenes—little bits of action that involve main characters. Then, think, “What is my story about? What sort of mood do I want to set?” Pick a scene that lets readers know what sort of book they’re about to read.

Ask yourself: “Do I have good enough sources to really make this scene come alive?” And “Can the reader jump right into this scene without needing a ton of background info?” I try to find scenes that meet these conditions.

Write the scene. My opening scenes tend to be about 600–800 words, but that’s just a loose guideline.

Note from Kate: Some of you may have a nonfiction work-in-progress right now and will be able to get writing on this prompt immediately. For most of us, though, this may be one of those lessons to tuck away. Bookmark it to share with your students when they’re working on research papers, too (Because who says those have to be textbook-boring? Use opening scenes in books from authors like Steve, Loree Griffin Burns, and Sarah Albee as mentor texts to show compelling beginnings.)

And remember – it’s also Q and A Wednesday, for all of your writing questions, but especially those that relate to nonfiction. I’ll put out a special call for friends who write NF to stop by to chat today.

37 Replies on “Teachers Write 7.22.15 Opening Scenes in Nonfiction with Steve Sheinkin

  1. Hi, Steve.
    Thank you for your description of how you came to write the opening to Bomb. I read the Prologue and am completely pulled into this story. I used to shy away from reading nonfiction history because of its reputation for being dry and boring. However, since reading Candace Fleming’s The Family Romanov, I’ve changed my mind. Bomb is my next nonfiction read.

    I have a bunch of questions, but I’ll limit myself to two.  My questions for you, and any other NF writers who visit here today: (1) How do you keep track of your sources as you’re writing your story? (My students have a huge problem with this, and often forget to source something). (2) I’m assuming your work from an outline, so do you include your sources in your outline or do you incorporate them while you’re writing?

    Thank you in advance.

    1. Hi Wendy! Totally agree about Family Romanov – great example of exciting nonfiction.
      So, first, my system is not too sophisticated. I just type hundreds of pages of notes into Word files, each group of quotes/details listed under its source. Then I can use that material kind of like clay, to mold the outline and draft. In terms of outlines, I like to break down stories into small pieces and write each on an index card, then tape them all to the wall so I can move them around until it all makes sense. When the outline and draft are all done, I go back to my notes to source each piece of into that made it into the final product.

      1. Steve! You should post a picture of your wall notes! Great visual of you moving parts around to sculpt your clay into writing!

      2. Thank you for this idea! I done more non-fiction essay writing than anything. I would have never thought of this way to organize sources, details, and the writing itself. Wonderful!

  2. First of all, thank you for Bomb and Steal. As a librarian, I’ve put Bomb in the hands of students who don’t always engage in academics or novels and they were hooked. Non-fiction is such an important genre, and thank you for taking the extra time to ensure a great beginning so they can’t give me the excuse that it’s boring. These books are my bait for hooking certain readers.
    Although I’m writing fiction, it seems everything has a non-fiction aspect to it. I’m finding that research is an exciting, and slightly frightening aspect of writing. You have to put yourself out there & admit to people that you are writing a book and need information on a topic or even just need to know the proper lingo, sights or sounds, even if you don’t use all the details. I’ve got a tour of a gravel pit set up for tomorrow and am quite nervous. What is part of your research process? Where are some of the interesting places you’ve traveled to for research? Any tips you can give us on this? (You can just focus on one questions if you want.)


    1. To me, research is the best part. Kind of like nerdy detective work. But I agree, you have to be willing to ask for help, which can be hard. One time it really paid off for me was at the Lincoln tomb in Springfield, IL, where I went to research Lincoln’s Grave Robbers. I was embarrassed to ask about the grave robbing, and though they’d think I was being disrespectful. But I asked a ranger, and he ended taking me on this whole behind the scenes tour of the tomb, stuff that wasn’t open to tourists. As my mother always told me, “It never hurts to ask.”

  3. Good Morning, Mr. Sheinkin and TWer’s!

    Thank you for the wonderful lesson. Also, thank you for Bomb: The Race to Build – and Steal – the World’s Most Dangerous Weapon. My sixth grade students are really becoming interested in non-fiction because of books like yours. History is so interesting to read because often times (at least in the eyes of a sixth grader) it reads like fiction (protagonist, antagonist, conflict, resolution).

    Since today is also Q and A Wednesday, I have a research question: What research advice would you offer a middle school student/sixth grader while they collect data for a final presentation (examples from last school year: PowerPoint presentation on specific country, research paper on migrant workers, persuasive argument on the Dark Ages being dark or not, persuasive essay on a specific topic)? What advice would you offer a teacher working with students through this research process?

    Thank you again.

    1. I’ll often start with the most general book on a subject I can find. I read it, then look at the sources that author used, and type interesting looking sources into Google to see where I can find the books, websites, newspapers, whatever. It’s like looking for clues, and each source is a potential witness. The key is to take good notes about where everything comes from.

      1. I’m so glad you asked this question! Every semester I work with my senior Film as Literature students on a heavily research-based project, and they’ve been coming up empty when it comes to finding texts on their particular film genres, directors and actors. They fall to quickly into the convenience of the internet (IMDB, Wikipedia) and fail to see the world of print articles, books, journals that awaits them if they just take the time to search. I am going to make it my mission this coming semester to have each of them find at least one basic text on their assigned/chosen subject for the project. Baby steps! Sometimes I miss that darn card catalog…:)

  4. Thanks for this exercise. I have not written much nonfiction and have a few stories I am thinking about. I wrote a small opening scene about a live oak tree that was moved to w new location at great expense by the highway department.

    Mr. Al needed a new home. Not that his old home was a bad one. It was actually a perfect home, a place where he could spread out his roots and grow old. But the highway department had another idea.”

  5. Thank you, Steve, for sharing insight into how you craft beginnings. This helpful glimpse of your process reminds me that good writing often involves REwriting, as with your drafting of multiple openings.

    I\’m wondering: Did you apply the same approach even to this blog entry? I was struck by how its first paragraph demonstrates what you laid out. The intro reveals what the piece will be about; sets a light, but emphatic mood; and offers two precise (hypothetical) sources that both resonate with your audience and underline why compelling intros are essential. I think I just answered my own question!

    My enjoyment of _Bomb_ compelled me to try your follow-up _The Port Chicago 50_ earlier this summer. Its exploration of civil rights in the context of wartime is powerful and timely. I just went back to reread the opening through the filter of what you taught us today, and I noticed how it also answers your guiding questions about topic, mood, sourcing, and background. With support from your advice and mentor texts, I can’t wait to challenge my student writers to enliven their nonfiction leads.

    1. Looking back on the opening above… yeah, I guess the think I was trying to do was keep it light and conversational, which I don’t really get to do in the types of books I’ve been writing lately. But setting that tone – that’s just what my editor always hammers away at.

  6. Steve,

    My middle school daughter and I are huge fans of your work! We enjoyed and learned a lot from _Bomb_ , _The Port Chicago 50_, _The Notorious Benedict Arnold_, and _Lincoln’s Grave Robbers_. I love adding your books to my school library collection and promoting them to kids. Looking forward to reading your new release!

    I have 2 questions related to nonfiction writing, particularly narrative nonfiction:

    1. Do you conduct all (or most) of your research before you begin writing, or is it a more cyclical process?
    2. How do you choose your topics? Are there nonfiction stories you’ve wanted to tell, but haven’t because you couldn’t find enough information?

    Thank you for sharing your insight!

    1. Thanks for the nice words, Susan. Yes, I conduct most of the research before I start to outline and write. About fifty percent of the time I’ll spend on a book will be that initial chunk of time researching. Then I always end up doing more research as I write, just to fill in extra details. And yes, definitely, to the second question. I’ve abandoned projects I loved because I couldn’t find enough info. I still think there’s something great to be done with a pirate story, but those guys just weren’t good about writing in their diaries – hard to find out what they were really up to!

  7. Star struck! I’ve had the pleasure of meeting you at ALA conferences and even sitting with you at a “Koffee Klatch” event where you presented BOMB. We love sharing your books in our 7/8th grade MS and use them to support our curriculum and model great research for NF writing. Your counsel regarding opening scenes is spot on: kids are critical judges! They want to be pulled in immediately and you always deliver. I will eagerly share your comments about that process with students. What are you currently working on? Thanks for sharing your insight and activity with TW Campers today

    1. Thanks, Kate. I’ve got a new one coming out in the fall, MOST DANGEROUS, a story from the Vietnam era – I’m starting to put up info about it on my webstie. And I’m currently researching a great underdog sports story from the early 1900s – I’ve always wanted to write a sports story, and this one really grabbed me. I think I know what the opening scene will be – but we’ll see!

      1. Great news! Our 8th graders cover the Vietnam era and kids always are drawn to sports stories. I’ll be delighted to share with students and with teachers.

  8. What do you do when you can’t visit the country or conduct interviews on or of the subject you want to write about? How do you conduct your research then?

    1. That happens. For BOMB, I would have loved to go to Norway, Russia, Japan, but no one would pay me to do it. But you can still find great stuff in libraries, museums, and through phone calls and email. I don’t think anyone will hold it against you if you don’t make it to every place in your book.

  9. Steve – Thank you for your wonderful books and for sharing your insight with us today!

    My question is regarding beginnings, however on a much smaller scale. The non-fiction writing focus in the classroom seems to be growing and I teach at the elementary level. I was taught the old adage “tell them what you’re going to tell them, tell them, and tell them what you told them”; this produces very dry writing in kids! Therefore, I have 2 questions—

    Do you have suggestions for writing a small-scale opening paragraph that would bring out a student’s creative personality?

    Do you typically write your beginnings when your story is finished?

    Again, thank you for your helpful hints and I look forward to reading more of your books!

    1. Yes, I remember that “tell them what you’re going to tell them” lesson from school. Glad I don’t have to do that anymore! In workshops in classrooms, I’ve had good success when I’ve described a scene for students and then asked them to picture it from the point of view of someone – or something – in the scene. Then write a paragraph or two in that voice. I’ve seen kids write scenes from the point of view of characters, or even of a car, or a dog walking past. They seem to enjoy getting into the voice, and I think it really helps to give them something they can picture. And in terms of when I write beginnings, I seem to write them before, during, and after – I mean, I write an initial one first, but it never ends up making the cut.

      1. Steve -Thank you for sharing your POV idea! I feel like this will be something all students will enjoy, no matter what the age. My brain is now whirling with excitement, which made me wonder if you had any tips for concluding the stories?

      2. POV seems to be a very strong way to get the creative juices flowing. I wouldn’t have thought of using it for non-fiction. Thank you for the tip!

  10. Hi Steve! I was surprised with a birthday gift from my 13 year old niece this summer, it was a copy of The Notorious Benedict Arnold signed by you! You came to visit her at her middle school in CT. I texted her as soon as I saw that you were today’s guest author! I’m a high school English teacher; reading your post and others’ comments has inspired me to look for some NF text pairings to our core works (I teach 10th and 11th), i’m thinking of texts like Lord of the Flies, or even some American Dream texts like Gatsby/Death of a Salesman. I would love to have them read a NF pairing for particular time periods they are working with fictionally. On a separate note,
    I am working on a creative project of my own – a picture book series that combines scientific facts as well as a fictional story about kids and bugs. I’m wondering if you have any tips for me on how to balance between my fictional characters and storyline, while at the same time imbedding my researched facts? I don’t want to have the book be too heavy on one or the other, I’m hoping to achieve balance (if that makes sense). Thanks, and p.s., my niece already wrote back and sent me a picture she has with you – she wrote “way cool!” Thanks for inspiring our young readers, and us! 🙂

    1. I can see where that would be tough, finding that right balance. It’s very different, but in BOMB I wanted that mix of story and science. The key for me was to put the story first, and work in the science where it was needed to move the story forward. Would that work for your project? Thanks, and say hi to your niece!

  11. Hi Steve,
    Life happened today and I’m visiting my kids at camp….yada, yada, yada….but I am popping in to say YOU ARE ONE OF MY FAVS! Thank you for your wonderful works that really get our non-fiction kids reading. And, the folks at audible have done a wonderful job of getting your work into listening format. I wept over Port Chicago 50 and wouldn’t stop listening to Bomb until the end! Keep writing and know that you are making an important difference in the lives of students — some who actually still love history.

  12. Hi Steve – Thank you for the wonderful ideas and tips. There are some excellent questions here. You mentioned a few hundred words for writing beginning for books. What are your thoughts on great beginning for shorter pieces, like 500 to 1000 words. Are there tricks for great beginning that you would use in this much shorter format? Thank you again for your time and energy with us!

    1. I still think the key is to jump right in – start with something specific, visual, surprising, an interesting quote – some kind of grabber. What I always do is come up with three or four options, and just try them out!