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.
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.