Finding the Perfect First Sentence… and Benjamin Franklin

Books, and all stories, must begin somewhere – a first sentence that transports the reader to the story world. Yet there is no full proof recipe for constructing a perfect opening line. Techniques vary on whether to include dialogue or rely solely on exposition, introduce the point of view character now, or wait until the next paragraph – or the next chapter.

My SCBWI group will be discussing opening lines at our Schmooze in February. We’re asked to bring published examples of our favorite first lines with us to share and talk about. That assignment got me thinking, not just about favorite openings I’d read, but also about opening lines I’ve written. In particular, the opening line of my last completed manuscript, PHOEBE FOGG AND THE LOST LIBRARY. It’s an adventure story for young readers with a bit of science fiction thrown in – Indiana Jones meets Jules Verne.

At our last all-day critique session, one of my fellow writers was adamant that the hook in my opening chapter was the mention of Benjamin Franklin (which I had somewhere around the end of page 2.) Moving that up would mean missing out on all those things I’d told the reader about my character and setting, but we don’t argue at critique (especially with the hostess) so I smiled and nodded and we went on.

About six months have gone by and I’ve been sending out my manuscript, but I’ve continued to have this nagging sensation that something just wasn’t right. Then this morning, I saw this in my Twitter feed:


BEN FRANKLIN! Of course! Patti Bennett had been absolutely right all those months ago, but I wasn’t ready to hear it. 
Now, whenever I think of Ben Franklin, Tom Wilkinson in the HBO Miniseries, JOHN ADAMS, is what comes to mind first. 

tom wilkinson

Though I wish I saw him more often on these

Franklin was truly a remarkable individual – statesman, businessman, Postmaster, scientist. Phobe Fogg admires Franklin most for his inventions. From bifocals to lightning rods and odometers, he applied scientific principles to test his theories and produce practical solutions to problems. Throughout his life, he remained curious about the world around him and how it worked. Franklin also organized the first lending library in the United States.

So, yes! Benjamin Franklin fits perfectly with my story of an inventive girl who stows away on her father’s airship searching for the Lost Library of Alexandria.

If you’d like to read more of Franklin’s original works, many of his papers are now available online at the Packard Humanities Institute, a site sponsored by Yale University and the American Philosophical Society. The Biography Channel also has a documentary on Franklin. When we were in Philadelphia a few years ago, we visited Franklin’s final resting place.

 ben franklin

And, if you’re wondering, here is my new opening line: “Phoebe sucked in her breath at the words scribbled on the fly leaf: Personal Journal of Benjamin Franklin.”

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