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?


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