|Image by Jason Rogers, via Flickr|
The remaining fourth factor is the book’s opening paragraph. Here is where you-the-author come into your own. Your first paragraph of your first chapter is what gives a prospective reader the first real taste of what the book is about. It’s important to be aware of this, and not squander the opportunity to captivate the prospective book-buyer and clinch a sale.
Anybody can come up with a prosaic first paragraph. There’s no great effort of thought involved, and the results are often about as interesting as reading an office memo. It takes imagination to rise above the purely functional. The dedicated fiction writer looks for an attention-getting device to kick the story off in style.
Below is a list of suggested opening gambits, with examples.
1. Lead off with a direct quotation.
“Lymond is back.”
It was known soon after the Sea-Catte reached Scotland from Campvere with an illicit cargo and a man she should not have carried.
“Lymond is in Scotland.”
Dorothy Dunnet, The Game of Kings
2. Lead off with a target description of a person, place, or thing:
Hosteen Joseph Joe…[had] noticed the green car just as he came out of the Shiprock Economy Wash-O-Mat. The red light of sundown reflected from its windshield. Above the line of yellow cottonwoods along the San Juan River the shape of Shiprock was blue-black and ragged against the glow. The car looked brand new and it was rolling slowly across the gravel, the driver leaning out the window just a little. The driver had yelled at Joseph Joe.
Tony Hillerman, The Ghost Way
3. Confront the reader with a mysterious or frightening occurrence.
Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again. It seemed to me I stood by the iron gate leading to the drive, and for a while I could not enter, for the way was barred to me. There was a padlock and chain upon the gate. I called in my dream to the lodge-keeper, and had no answer, and peering closer through the rusted spokes of the gate I saw that the lodge was uninhabited.
Daphne DuMaurier: Rebecca
4. Present the reader with a piece of action already in progress.
Lyra and her daemon moved through the darkening Hall, taking care to keep to one side, out of sight of the kitchen. The three great tables that ran the length of the Hall were laid already, the silver and the glass catching what little light there was, and the long benches were pulled out ready for the guests. Portraits of former Masters hung high up in the gloom along the walls….
Philip Pullman, Northern Lights
5. Lead off with a provocative statement, observation, or revelation.
It was the day my grandmother exploded.2 I sat in the crematorium, listening to my Uncle Hamish quietly snoring in harmony to Bach’s Mass in B minor, and I reflected that it always seemed to be death that drew me back to Gallanach.
Iain Banks: The Crow Road
Each of these sample opening paragraphs is tightly focused on one conspicuous point of reference: a character (Lymond, Lyra), an object (a car), a place (Manderley) or a singular incident (grandmother exploding).
Each features concrete sensory and/or descriptive details: the name of a ship; specific landscape features; the layout of a particular room/estate; a particular piece of music. Details like this bring the story to life from the outset.
1 Unless you are in the same sales category as Stephen King and J.K. Rowling, you will have very little influence in these areas.
2 Maybe it’s just my warped sense of humor, but this counts as one of the most striking opening lines I’ve come across in recent years!
Debby Harris is an independent editor living in Scotland. Please visit her website for more information about her editing services and fees.