Friday, February 20, 2015

First Paragraphs : Punch It!

Image by Jason Rogers, via Flickr
When it comes to attracting readers in a book shop, there are four factors in play. The first three are external: your title, the cover art, and the blurb on the back. In conventional book publishing, command decisions concerning these external aspects of the book are generally dictated by people in the marketing department of the publishing firm.1

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.


  1. These are really good examples of how to start. Though I admit I had to reread examples 1 and 2 several times before I caught on. They were confusing. Maybe I just need caffeine.

  2. I agree with Diana, 1 and 2 were a little confusing to me. Number 5 definitely pulls you in.

  3. I find that some beginnings try to hard. When that happens, I lose interest almost immediately.

  4. I find that when I'm writing, if I obsess about my opening paragraph I won't move past page 1. So, I tell myself that's something to fix in edits, and move on. And much as I enjoy Hillerman's books, opening with descriptions like the example rarely does it for me. I tend to skip over descriptive passages when I'm reading. Give me an exploding grandmother over that any day.

  5. I was going to lead off by next tome with, "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times ..." but wife pointed out that had been taken already.

  6. In a long-running thread over on LinkedIn, the advisability of opening with dialogue was dissected. It seems that top selling works by top writers almost never open with dialogue (statistically speaking, that is). The argument is that, until the reader know something about the speaker and the setting, dialogue is meaningless. I am not sure I completely agree, but, persuaded by a writing coach, I backed off and rewrote the opening paragraph of my novella Avalanche Warning. The context-setting opening paragraph was my "solution." I think it still works but with decidedly less punch.

    I think what might make opening dialogue sometimes work with readers is its very rarity. Editors, on the other hand, seem prone to flag it as less-than-stellar writing.

    One of my favorites for an opening hook was from Camus: "Mother died today. Or maybe yesterday; I can't be sure." Wow!

    1. Love that example from Camus. And I agree that sometimes opening with dialogue works. I don't do that with every book but did with Play It Again Sam: Sam’s breath caught in her throat and her voice broke, “John, you can’t be serious.”

      Granted, it's not as good as the one from Camus, but it does introduce the central character who has been put in a difficult situation.

    2. I think short dialogue can work as an opener in some cases, but it has to draw the reader in rather than raise a lot of questions and leave the reader in a daze of confusion. If I get lost in the beginning of a book, it's unlikely I'll continue to read.

    3. I tend to agree that starting with dialogue is risky. At the very least, you want to let the reader know who is doing the talking otherwise you have a faceless voice in a void. I always visualise it as a stage - it works well to open with a character and a little bit of scenery in which to ground the action and dialogue.

  7. Not only should we work on a great opening for a story, we need to work just as hard to sustain that throughout. Authors query me daily for reviews, and I will go to a sample to see if the writing is engaging before I commit to doing a review. All too often, those sample pages shine, then I get the book and the shine wears off.

    Those of us who have been in this writing game for some time know that it takes a lot of hard work to make an entire book the best that it can be. With the new era of quick digital publishing, too many new writers are dashing off stories without taking that time or care.

    1. I agree with Maryann. A powerful hook that pulls me into a story had better deliver a killer book. Otherwise, the author will not be among those from whom I will seek another read.

  8. I read a great post recently by Karen Woodward who i admire as a writing guru, and she said, sure, the opening hook is important, but you have to continue with the hooks to keep the pages turning all the way through your novel. Great advice. No good if you have a killer opening paragraph for it to lose its punch from thereon in.


The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.


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