Monday, July 1, 2013

9 Jacqueline Green Shares Her Wonderful Checklist for Novel Openings

Today's guest post is by Jacqueline Green, author of TRUTH OR DARE. She's worked in the children's publishing industry in both marketing and editorial, but is now a full time author. The checklist she uses for novel openings is an excellent tool, and we're thrilled that she's here to share it with us today!

Advice for Openings
by Jacqueline Green 

The only thing worse than a blank page at the beginning of a chapter? A blank page at the beginning of the first chapter. There is little that terrifies me more when writing than the opening paragraph of a book. In a very short amount of time, you need to establish your setting, distinguish your protagonist—oh and accomplish that tiny act of irreversibly hooking your reader.

It’s a lot of pressure, and my first instinct is always: run! Skip to the next chapter, or page, or even just the next paragraph. But a book can’t exist without a beginning, which means eventually I always have to face my fear. So I do what always do when I’m scared. I make a list. A check list, to be exact.

There is just something about neat, orderly points, all lined up in numerical order, that helps the panic to subside. When you look at the big picture, writing a beginning can seem completely overwhelming. But broken down into smaller, fragmented pieces? Not as bad. It’s like taking a fang-bearing, claw-swiping lion and looking only at its furry tail.

When I sit down to tackle a beginning, I use the same check list every time:

1. Does the opening make the reader feel? It could be fear or humor or sadness or excitement—just something.

2. Does the setting come to life? Does it establish itself as unique and/or appealing?

3. Is there catchy dialogue? Does it work to establish the protagonist’s personality?

4. Are we thrown immediately into heart-racing, break-neck action?

5. Do the character’s thoughts distinguish him or her as someone interesting and unique—someone you’d want to read more about?

6. Is the character’s “want” established? (In other words, does the reader learn quickly what the protagonist’s main desire in the book is?)

7. Is the mood of the book instantly recognizable? i.e. Can the reader tell if he or she is in for a funny story, or a scary story, or an action-packed story?

My theory is that if I can answer yes to at least three out of those seven questions, then I’m on my way. And more importantly, so is my book.

My experience with TRUTH OR DARE

The opening for TRUTH OR DARE presented me with a challenge. The book centers around a series of threatening, anonymous dares received by the main characters. The dares propel everything: they launch a mystery and cause the girls lives to unravel. They’re at the root of all the fear and excitement and dread that abound in the town of Echo Bay. But the book opens before they begin.

How could I capture the real tone of the book when Sydney, the first character featured, doesn’t yet have any idea what’s in store for her? I knew I could do other things: seed angst from her daily life, establish her personality, explore the haunted feel of the book’s beachside town. But was that enough to hook readers, to truly give them a sense of what’s to come?

My editor and I decided that, in this case, a short prologue would be the perfect solution. It could take place in the future and show the aftermath of the dares: someone is dead! That way, from page one, the reader immediately knows just how high the stakes will get.

Favorite Openings

Walking to school over the snow-muffled cobbles, Karou had no sinister premonitions about the day. It seemed like just another Monday, innocent but for its essential Mondayness, not to mention its Januaryness. It was cold, and it was dark—in the dead of winter, the sun didn’t rise until eight—but it was aloes lovely. The falling snow and the early hour conspired to pain Prague ghostly, like a tintype photograph, all silver and haze.
—Daughter of Smoke & Bone by Laini Taylor

I loved this opening paragraph. Right away we get a sense of the setting, the author’s beautiful writing, and the idea that something big and sinister is about to happen.

Jason was going to Brain Camp. It had another name, a real name, but that’s what everyone called it.
—The Truth about Forever, by Sarah Dessen

I thought this was such a great opening line for realistic fiction YA; I immediately got a taste of the character’s voice, and wanted to know who she was and how she was connected to Brain Camp boy.

About the Author

Jacqueline Green grew up in Wynnewood, PA, where she devoured books the way other kids did candy. She never stopped loving those books she read as a kid, so after receiving her BA from Cornell University, she went on to get her MFA in Writing for Children from The New School. She's since worked in many parts of the children's publishing field, from marketing to editorial to writing. She now lives in Brooklyn, NY with her husband and their very small dog, who moonlights as her writing companion.

Check out Jacqueline's website

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About the Book

When a simple round of truth or dare spins out of control, three girls find it’s no longer a party game. It’s do or die.

It all started on a whim: the game was a way for Tenley Reed to reclaim her popularity, a chance for perfect Caitlin “Angel” Thomas to prove she’s more than her Harvard application. Loner Sydney Morgan wasn’t even there; she was hiding behind her camera like usual. But when all three start receiving mysterious dares long after the party has ended, they’re forced to play along—or risk exposing their darkest secrets.
How far will Tenley, Caitlin and Sydney go to keep the truth from surfacing? And who’s behind this twisted game?

Set against the backdrop of Echo Bay, an isolated beach town haunted by misfortune, Truth or Dare will keep readers in suspense from beginning to end.

Purchase Truth or Dare on Amazon

View Truth or Dare on Goodreads


  1. Whew! I'm relieved we don't have to do ALL the things in that first paragraph. 3 out of 7 sounds doable, and if I can work in another one, even better. Thanks for the checklist!

    1. I love that Jacqueline isn't giving us absolutes. As with everything in writing, there are no hard and fast rules, and I love that this list is flexible! :)

  2. I'm getting so great feedback sharing my first page with Dianne Salerni and Marcy Hatch. I'm loving what they're sharing about the opening, along with the comments, because it gives me a lot of great things to consider. Plus, this list can help me improve the opening of my story, make the essence of it more "known" in the beginning and not so vague.

    Thanks for sharing.

    1. That's a great point Angela! Getting the reader solidly grounded is important, but it's a fine balancing act sometimes, It's great that you've got great critique partners to help you test that balance and give you feedback!

  3. I've already printed up this checklist and pinned it to the board above my writing desk. Thanks so much Jacqueline.

  4. Wonderful advice! I'll be referencing this checklist for all my future WIPs!

  5. Great checklist! I'm bookmarking it.

  6. I've resorted to keeping a notebook that I flip through periodically. If I put up all the great checklists authors have shared lately, I wouldn't be able to FIND my computer! :)

    This is a fantastic checklist, isn't it?

  7. I love this checklist. I'll add it to my "Writing Fiction" workshops!


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