Friday, February 18, 2011

What makes a good first paragraph?

Wednesday we talked about elements of a good first chapter, and we've talked on here before about what makes a good first line of a novel. Let's get more detailed and talk about your opening paragraph.

I can't stress enough how critical the opening paragraph is. It's important for a published book, of course, but it's especially important in a manuscript because the writing is everything. There's no cover, no fancy display, no endorsements. All you have is the text.

I can't speak for all agents and editors, but the ones I know aren't just sitting around dying to say no to every project that comes across their desk. They want to be swept off their feet by your words. They want to get carried away to story world. They want to fall in love with your project.

But they read a ridiculous amount of submissions, and they don't have time for a writer to meander his or her way to the story. (Nor do readers browsing at a bookstore.) That's why your first paragraph is critical. Because it might be all the time you get to hook your reader.

Here are a few elements of good opening paragraphs:

It's from the view of your main character

This is debatable, and there are great books out there that defy this, but I think it works best for your story to open from your main character's point of view (POV). That's the character you want us, your readers, attached to. Not your villain or your MC's best friend.

It raises questions in the reader's mind

You're not answering questions for your reader yet. You're making them curious about what's going on, about what will happen next.

Here's the opening paragraph from Me, Just Different:

I wanted to refuse Eli, but I couldn't after the night we'd had.

At the snap of the gas pump, he pulled back from the kiss and looked into my eyes, awaiting my reaction. If my giving in surprised him, it didn't show. He smiled, and instead of saying what I already knew - that getting together was a mistake - I forced myself to smile back. Just like that, I became Eli's girlfriend.

While it's nothing you'll study in your English class (or Communication Arts, whatever schools call it these days) there are some good questions raised in this paragraph. Like, why does she want to refuse Eli? What happened last night? Why would dating him be a mistake?

It establishes an attitude

Part of drawing your reader into the scene, into the story, is showing your narrator's feelings at this moment in time. In the example from Me, Just Different, Skylar doesn't sound very stable, does she? It sounds like something big just happened, and she's reeling from it. And that it's affecting her judgment.

It makes them want to read the next paragraph

If you do your job of creating questions in the readers' mind, this shouldn't be a problem.

This is the opening paragraph from So Over It:

My eyes, innocently grazing the new releases at Blockbuster, locked on Connor Ross.

I would've avoided him, especially since he stood there with Jodi, but we held eye contact too long to pretend we hadn't noticed each other.

We exchanged awkward smiles - what else could we do? - and moved closer.

The question that I'm hoping propels my reader forward is, "What do they say to each other?" You want to leave your reader asking some form of, "What happens next?"

Fortunately, first paragraphs are easy to study. Pull books off your shelves. Read the first paragraphs and see what works for you, what doesn't. Do they start with their main character or with someone else? Does it work, and why? What emotions and tones do you pick up on? What kind of questions does it make you ask? Do you feel compelled to read more?

And you know what you can also apply all this to is your writing prompt entries. Which need to be in by Monday. Click here to see this round's writing prompt.

Hope everyone has a great weekend!


  1. Reading first chapters would be a fun thing to do on kindle!! By just downloading samples. A great way to learn & ya know what?! I wonder I'd it'd help generate idea?
    Like if the firs paragraph arises questions- you could take a story from the questions you ask
    Does that make sense or it is weird?

  2. Thanks, Stephanie! This gives me a lot to think about with my WIP!

  3. Tonya, that makes sense :) Never know where those ideas will strike...

  4. All I remember thinking after reading the first chapter to So Over It was that I wanted to smack Connor upside the head!!!!!!! :)

    Loved that boy, even when he drove me crazy!

    1. Yes, and Connors parents were my favorite people in the book. =)

  5. Thanks, Nicole :) He definitely needed a good smacking...

  6. My story doesn't start with a paragraph - just a few lines. Here's up to the first true paragraph:

    “I think she's waking up!”

    Oooooooohhhh... What? Who – where?

    “Hey, guys, c'mon, she's waking up!”

    Ugh – who is that? What's going on? Maybe I had better see who is talking...
    I struggled to part my eyelids against the sleep that weighted them shut. A dim, fuzzy light greeted my first attempt, and I blinked. The light came into focus, a gentle strip arcing over me. I gazed at it for a moment, entranced. I blinked again, and a fuzzy smudge appeared on the light. I stared at the dark splotch that had entered my narrow world, but it only sat there, blocking the light I longed to see. So I reached up to try to move it.

  7. My first paragraph is dialogue, is that a bad thing? Also, i know a lot of writers have this problem but... does anyone have any advice on how to get yourself to finish a book? I tried numerous times before, with great ideas in my own opinion, but never got past the first few chapters... I'm doing one right now, that I got my mom to let me do instead of writing class (I'm homeschooled) but, I started it recently and am still not past the first few chapters...

    P.S. I also need help about chapters, i know you just make as long as you want and what feels right and stuff but... Should i plan out chapters? Should i right the whole thing then seperate it into chapters?

  8. Hi, Chris!

    I know you're asking someone who actually is a writer, so you can disregard this if you like, but as a young teenage amateur author who is also working on a LONG novel (300+ handwritten pages) I hope I might be able to help a little, too.


    Yes, I most definitely 100% have the problem about book-finishing. I do these things I call "writing-strikes". They last anywhere from a few days to a few weeks. During the strike I'll spend the entire day writing, I mean, besides school-work (which I normally put off during the strike), chores (which I can never escape), and eating (which I can't escape either). It helps me finish my short pieces pretty easily. (And I am homeschooled too.) For longer pieces, I look for what I call "milestones". They are basically significant events in my story, ones that sort of break my story into sections. For example, my first milestone is when Master Arland is reunited with his boys and servant in Prushka (my own imaginary land). The next milestone will be when Master Arland has the leave for war. And then the third is when Daniel goes after him. And then the fourth when he finds the master. And so on and so forth. So instead of working towards the END of the book, I find it easier to work to a MILESTONE. Is your heroine preparing to embark on a journey? Maybe the beginning of her journey makes a first milestone. Will your heroine's first challenge be navigating the dark, winding tunnels of Desagond? Maybe that could be another milestone.

    Distance between milestones varies greatly. I am on page 300 and... 20, maybe? Well, not until about thirty pages back did I decide instead of working to the END of the book, I'd work to a milestone. And it has helped me TONS. Between milestones I'll take about a one-week break before continuing, to help my mind refresh and relax. I learned the hard way the writing-strikes do NOT work for long pieces of writing. They just exhaust you and leave you wanting to cry. Plus you'll probably get that I-told-you-so look from a lot of your family. Particularly your mum.

    Milestones are also very helpful when deciding whether you want to finish your book after all. I know, it hurts to think that so much effort you put into writing what you felt would be a success will go down the drain, up in smoke. But I suppose we're all learning and practicing as we're working. If you feel no urge whatsoever to work to the next milestone, and cannot rekindle that spirit of writing by listening to story-appropriate music (sad music for a sad story, for example), then you just might want to stop that novel. It hurts, but sometimes it is the best choice.

    A third point--sometimes, I find, all I need to do to finish a novel is let it rest a week or so. Just do not THINK of it even. And then go back to it afresh. Sometimes seeing your work with fresh eyes makes all the difference.

    And lastly, I would say make sure that you have the ENTIRE or very nearly the entire story idea/plot under your belt, as well as some funny scenes, some sad scenes, and some peaceful scenes that you have already mentally worded. It helps me tons. Although it drives my mum near-mad. Because while I am thinking I have a tendency to pace endlessly up and down the living room carpet.

    1. Hey, I really like your milestone idea. I think it'd help me a lot. I have trouble sometimes trying to get between important things, milestones. Plus, I have trouble sometimes remembering the mentally worded scenes (which happens a lot). I like the story music though, I actually got inspired to write a scene from listening to Paradise by Coldplay.

    2. Yippee, I am glad I was of help! And yes, music can be great inspiration, and for me often is.

  9. Hi again, Chris!


    What I find most appealing when it comes to breaking a story into chapters is writing the WHOLE story, all the while having a vague sense of where each chapter ends. I will mark where each chapter supposedly ends or begins, but later I will go back and rearrange the chapter beginning/endings. I am probably speaking like I've written three novels or something, but in full honesty, I am still working on my first one. But believe me, I have learned heaps and heaps from it! And I have written "novellas" or "seminovels" as I like to call them, and those are very much like novels, except on a much smaller scale, so you can still learn things from writing them without actually delving into writing a REALLY BIG THING.

    I know everyone is different, but it just might help you to know that when I planned out my chapters for one novel, I ended up ditching that novel because I found it did not give me enough freedom to let my creativity flow where it wanted to. All I do in way of planning chapters is a vague mental sense of each episode that might fit into a chapter.

    I hope this helps! Please tell me if it does! I am really excited to have found this site, because now I have discovered a lot of teens that have the same passion as I do! Now if only MY mum would let me write my novel instead of doing English class...

    Dancing quills,
    Hanan A.