Quick Tip Tuesday: Good beginnings

March 8th, 2011

In their recent book Mentor Texts, Lynne Dorfman and Rose Cappelli show teachers how to use literature to help students become confident, accomplished writers. In this Quick Tip, Lynne and Rose talk about mentor texts for writing beginnings.

For all writers, the lead—the first sentence, the first paragraph, or the first several paragraphs that begin the story—is absolutely crucial. E. B. White wrote more than a dozen leads for Charlotte’s Web before he settled on a question written in dialogue form. His entire first chapter captivates the reader as Fern engages in a mental battle—a heated debate with her father—to save the runt, Wilbur, one of the story’s main characters.

The common ingredients of a good beginning include creating the mood by establishing the setting; information about the main character that reveals his hopes, thoughts, and feelings; and at least a hint of the problem, goal, or direction of the story. It’s like receiving an invitation to a party where you expect to have a wonderful time. Revisiting mentor texts can provide students with examples of well-crafted beginnings that they can try out with their own stories.

Linda Oatman High’s beginning for The Girl on the High-Diving Horse makes us feel like we are there in Atlantic City, in 1936, with the main characters, seeing it for the first time. She does this by including a rich description of setting that uses proper nouns and appeals to the senses. We know immediately how Ivy (the main character) is feeling.

Other books that begin by painting a picture of setting in the reader’s mind are Angels in the Dust by Margot Theis Raven, Wingwalker by Rosemary Wells, and Owl Moon by Jane Yolen. Another favorite of ours is Tulip Sees America by Cynthia Rylant because the entire book is basically a series of rich descriptions of setting.

The beginning is also a writer’s chance to create a mood through the description of the setting. Consider these two beginnings that create a feeling of loneliness:
“Alejandro’s small adobe house stood beside a lonely desert road. Beside the house stood a well, and a windmill to pump water from the well. Water for Alejandro and his only companion, a burro. It was a lonely place, and Alejandro welcomed any who stopped by to refresh themselves at the well. But visitors were few, and after they left, Alejandro felt lonelier than before.”
( from Alejandro’s Gift by Richard E. Albert)

“Amber lived on a mountain so high, it poked through the clouds like a needle stuck in down. Trees bristled on it like porcupine quills. And the air made you giddy—it was that clear. Still, for all that soaring beauty, Amber was lonesome. For mountain people lived scattered far from one another.”
( from Amber on the Mountain by Tony Johnston)

Students can imitate these beginnings—first, in their writer’s notebooks—or they can simply try them out. Lynne often begins by asking her students to make a list of settings. Then she asks them to choose a setting and try to describe it through their senses, keeping in mind the mood they wish to create. Often she returns to Amber on the Mountain because it is a mentor text and the children are familiar with it. Sometimes it is easier for students to start with Tony Johnston’s beginning, placing Amber in a different setting, rather than composing one from scratch. Jessica, a fourth grader, chose to put Amber on an island:
“Amber lived on an island so small it stood in the deep-dark sea like a lost whale. Palm trees tangled on it like monkey tails. And the coconuts made you giddy—they were that delightful. Still, for all the spectacular sights, one thing put Amber in her darkest mood. There were few hut-like houses near hers—less friends, more tears.”

Some students will return to a previously written piece and revise their beginnings to add a description of setting that also creates mood. This strategy of using the author’s syntax is described in detail in Your Turn Lesson 1 at the end of Chapter 9.

Often authors begin a book with a description of the main character. Sometimes, they include a physical description as Judith Schachner does in The Grannyman:
“Simon was a very old cat. With the exception of his nose, most of his parts had stopped working long ago. He was blind and deaf, and his bones creaked as he climbed up and down the stairs.”

Sometimes they talk about the characters’ likes, dislikes, or traits. In Amazing Grace, Mary Hoffman opens with a description of what her main character loves:
“Grace was a girl who loved stories. She didn’t mind if they were read to her or told to her or made up in her own head. She didn’t care if they were in books or movies or out of Nana’s long memory. Grace just loved stories.”

In The Recess Queen by Alexis O’Neill, the main character is described through a trait:
“Mean Jean was Recess Queen and nobody said any different. Nobody swung until Mean Jean swung. Nobody kicked until Mean Jean kicked. Nobody bounced until Mean Jean bounced.”

Sometimes an author even begins with what other people say about the characters as Jerry Spinelli does in Maniac Magee:
“They say Maniac Magee was born in a dump. They say his stomach was a cereal box and his heart a sofa spring. They say he kept an eight-inch cockroach on a leash and that rats stood guard over him while he slept. They say if you knew he was coming and you sprinkled salt on the ground and he ran over it, within two or three blocks he would be as slow as everybody else. They say.”

Entry Filed under: Quick Tip Tuesday,Writing

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