Now that we have a…. healthy sample size of first paragraphs (1,758 at the moment), it’s possible to get a good glimpse inside an agent’s inbox and to simulate the experience of reading lots and lots of different story ideas in one sitting.
So. What do you think makes for a good first paragraph? What types of openings draw you in and which kinds leave you cold? Have you spotted any favorites? What was it about them that piqued your interest?
I shall be withholding my thoughts as the contest is still ongoing, but I’d be curious to know what you think.
I like a begining paragraph to start out in a conflict, so that you don't completely understand what is going on. After that you tell the backstory and the first paragraph would seem extra great.
I think that a first paragraph should start in the past, giving some backstory that will back the book up all the way through
The skill of the author has to come first, because I want to learn while I read. Beautiful, elegant sentences with word choice that is so finely tuned to the meaning that you can not only see but feel what the author is describing. The reader needs to feel confident that he/she is in good hands. Secondly, I hope for fantasy and beauty or an introduction that hints at the splendour that is to follow.
The first paragraph has to be something that intrigues me. Something that draws me in and I want to know more.
Ellen Painter Dollar says
When I read, I want to have a clear picture in my head of who is doing something, what they're doing, and where they are. So I like opening paragraphs that leave enough unanswered questions to make me want to read more, but that also provide enough specific details that I can develop my mental "picture" fairly quickly. I am frustrated by an opening paragraph that, for example, has a character with an androgynous name and doesn't make clear whether it is a male or female, or doesn't make clear if the character is a child or adult, or tells me the character is outdoors but gives me no clues whether he/she is in the desert or the rainforest.
Rick Daley says
A good opening paragraph needs to be the beginning of a good story, not an overly-eloquent plateful of your most elaborate prose. Don't over-write.
I have to give Nathan oodles of credit for being one of the most talented readers on the planet. The winners from Contest 2 last year are NOT ones I liked the best. And they turned out to be truly wonderful books. Nathan, how do you do that?
Matilda McCloud says
I made a list of my favorite entries and each one broke one of the criteria I listed in my comment yesterday about a good first paragraph (no weather, no back story, no sex, blah blah). So I guess the moral, for me, is that the writer can start with anything as long as it's well written.
Paul Neuhardt says
A good first paragraph should, for me, have the following characteristics:
1. It shouldn't suck. I'm not reading anything beyond, "it was a dark and stormy night."
2. It should introduce either a main character or a significant situation. It can't tell you a lot, but it should be the literary equivalent of, "Hi, my name is (fill in the blank)".
3. It should be a bit of a tease. Give me one good detail I want to know more about (and then tell me more about it later on, or else I'm gonna be hacked off).
4. Please, please, please make the first paragraph flow smoothly in to the second. If you don't, I'm going to feel like I've just been pitched by an unscrupulous salesman, hooking me in with fantastic promises and then selling me plastic junk.
Beyond that, I don't think any formula works. It's the first few pages that either hooks or loses the reader, not just the first paragraph.
You mileage my vary.
I've seen first paragraphs that break all the "what a first paragraph shouldn't be" rules but they've worked. For me there is only one thing a first paragraph should do and that's … make me want to read the next paragraph.
I think I figured out what my gut reacts to in responding to first paragraphs. I like the details to be integral to the direction the story is taking, not to be observations of minutiae. I like the movement of the paragraph to be smooth: if contrasts between what is and what seems to be are made, I don't like them to shock me, I just want to be put in the position to feel a question formulating. Sometimes an otherwise awesome paragraph ends with a line that doesn't fit with the subtle and controlled emotions that the rest of the paragraph elicited. That's a hard one, because I wonder if an editor could clean that up nicely, making the paragraph perfect. But I guess these paragraphs are supposed to be as they are, not as they might become. Sigh. Lots and lots and lots of nice writing here. Awesome project, Nathan, if I am repeating myself. No angst, but I sure am learning. And it is humbling.
Okay, I said I much prefer front story in the opening paragraph over backstory. And then I read this entry and realized good writing, really good writing, can do whatever it wants. Who can't like this one?
G Euge said…
I can’t remember when I first wanted to save everyone. It was in the third grade, I think. I’d sit at my desk and daydream about saving all the girls in my classroom, well, that and getting to the kickball before anyone else when the bell rang at recess. I didn’t care much about learning my times tables or anything like that. What I cared about was the classroom catching fire so I could get everyone out, one by one. Or a tornado touching down on the playground. Sometimes I’d imagine something simple like me giving a boy or a girl a drink of water or a bite of my peanut butter and jelly sandwich right before they were about to starve to death. But none of those things ever happened. So one day I decided to take things into my own hands.
All these comments about what readers demand in a first paragraph, and yet James Patterson is on the NYT best-seller every time out.
Something is fishy about this. I just want something I can ease into a little and not be masacred by. No offense to the list-makers, but it IS only a paragraph for pete's sake. If I listed all the criteria for what I expected (some of you are demanding it) and woulldn't by a book otherwise, I'd never have anything to read and I'd have missed out on some truly great books.
The first paragraph should compel someone to read the second paragraph, ad infinitum, until the last paragraph is reached.
I noticed two things from the first contest:
1) There were less than 500 entries.
2) People actually posted reasonably-sized paragraphs.
Ahh, the old times….
I am in awe of this event.
I have learned a great deal more about the paragraph this week from this conversation.
It has motivated me to go into my library and reread a variety of first paragraphs over again with new eyes.
It has motivated me to go back into a number of my own stories and reread the first paragraphs over again –also with new eyes.
I also think so many of the entered paragraphs are very good. I salute the variety.
On a personal preference, I want the first line (just like the first paragraph) to take me away in the story. I don't want too much too fast or too complicated. Just take my hand and let me feel that I have begun an interesting journey with you.
A good 1st paragraph is like a good country song title: an interesting choice of words that catches the attention, an almost-familiar idea or concept that causes you to stop & think it through. Oh, and in medias res.
"Once upon a time…" is my favorite opening.
"in a far away kingdom…"
I find that "rules" for what to do and what not to do are a so so idea. It just reminds me of a music class I was in. The teacher laid out the rules for a good musical composition and then proceeded to tell us how Mozart failed to follow the rules. Basic point is that sometimes what turns us all on our butts and wows us all breaks all the rules.
Malia Sutton says
This is a hard one. And after reading all the comments, I'm just not sure.
Does that sound lame? Maybe. But I've loved books with strong dramatic opening paragraphs, and I've loved books with quiet, simple paragraphs.
I just don't have a personal rule here. For me it's all about the first chapter…or the first thirty pages of a book.
Wow, lots of variation on the "What makes a good 1st paragraph" question. It's been fun reading some of these comments.
I love novels that start out with mega action. It grabs my attention bigtime. Dialogue is good for me. I'd rather hear from people versus read narrative.
But hey, to each his own, right? LOL.
Did anyone else notice that sometimes you found 2 or 3 entries one after the other that really grabbed you, but for different reasons? These two really interested me, and they were posted at almost the same time:
Ryan K Linday said:
He kicked my ass good and I knew I was wrong so I pretty much let it happen. All things considered, I got off pretty easy. I was sleeping with a colleague’s daughter, his eighteen year old daughter, and all I got was a few bruises, a wickedly awkward day at work looming ahead, and a bleeding lip. I would taste the blood in my bourbon later that night. It wouldn’t be too bad.
She is like a splendid hallucination, shrink-wrapped in that slinky white and gold dress of hers, her eyes lit with a luminous wickedness, her beautiful mouth curling back as she cries out in pure rage and reaches for the nearest available household item to hurl at me. If I were a better man, a less perverse individual, I probably wouldn't feel so turned on right now; I probably wouldn't be so fascinated, so dazzled by the purity of her fury. As it is, I'm so mesmerised by her reaction to the words I've just spoken that I almost forget to duck when she lobs the stinkingly hot coffeepot at my head. Almost.
And finally Tony Owens said:
Aurora performed her first public miracle at the age of nine, in the schoolyard of St. Magnus the Martyr. She cured Jane Hampton’s stuttering by spitting in the dirt and rubbing the paste on her friend’s tongue. Needless to say this impressed her peers. Not the nuns, however. Sister Luisa locked her in the office stationery cupboard and called for the priest to perform an exorcism.
Three completely different paras, all interesting, all make me want to read more, and all are presumably different genres. This contest is cool. – Chimmers
I want someone, something, some idea, some event, some place to care about. I want to be coaxed into the now moment of a story and never be let go. I want an inspirational and enlightening and meaningul experience different from a day to day wade through the marshes of everday indifference.
When i entered i thought mine was good enough to win.
Now i see it isn't.
And by god i thank each and everyone of you for showing me that!
I think what I found was interesting (and I have read all of them, so I'm ahead of you, Nathan), is how many had a "sameness" to them. As if someone had written a "how to" book that said the last line in the first paragraph always had to have a twist, or an ironic statement, or something that acted as an exclamation point. The ones I liked avoided that totally; they definitely stood out.
Btw, where can we find the URLs for the first and second contest winners and finalists? I'm curious now as to what Nathan thought was a winning approach.
The first paragraph should mirror the overall tone of the book. If it's a dark book the first paragraph should be dark, etc. I also prefer visual first paragraphs. I want to get a feeling of the setup with my mind's eye…dialogue as an opening doesn't really excite me. Long opening paragraphs also leave me a bit cold. Make it a quick, visual setup for the tone of the story to be told…then take me away from there.
Anon 8:45 you're right. I like all three of those. I got tired of reading after the first 200.
Danielle Monson says
I want an opening that shows the writer is skilled. I can trust the writer to tell an interesting story. I doesn't matter how the story opens – with action, an interesting and evocative description, an intriguing character, a spirited dialogue that shows what's going on — any of those and more that just work.
It is the quality of the writing that draws me in.
Sigh. I seem to have eliminated my own paragraph because the first letter "T" didn't get across even though I checked with the preview. It should have started with "The" but became "he."
Mechelle Fogelsong says
What makes a good first paragraph? Wit.
I love how Janet Evanovich's books begin. Here's the opening of SEVEN UP for example: "For the better part of my childhood, my professional aspirations were simple–I wanted to be an intergalactic princess. I didn't care much about ruling hordes of people. Mostly I wanted to wear the cape and the sexy boots and carry a cool weapon."
Robin Cain says
I don't think there is a definition for a 'good first paragraph' because it's different for everyone. Just reading the already posted comments supports this point. Some hate when it starts with dialogue, others like that. Some want action, some want back story. I'm sure agents' preferences run the same gamut. I think a good first paragraph is all about the talent of a writer and his/her method of weaving words. It's an ethereal means of measurement, at best.
Kay Farish says
How generous of you, Mr. Bransford, to read our paragraphs! Wow! 2000+! It was fun to post mine with the others!
A first paragraph should give "voice" to the story. A mood should be set. There should be implicit questions I MUST have answered. Not crazy about too much plot presented, as it makes the paragraph a plot summary. Want my curiosity whetted, not slaked. The reader should have a sense of place and time, not confused by unexplained action and overdrawn wordiness. The writer should take the reader by the hand and draw him or her deeply into the story.
A good first paragraph leaves the reader ineffably intrigued and ready to dive in. Above all, the creator must eschew hackneyed phrases. And said author's use of language and grammar will be impeccable.
The first paragraph should be a paragraph that leaves you wanting more. It should make you inquire about the character, what happens next, is just cooly written, ex. It should give you a little about the setting and a little about the character but, don't go over board! Just a little!
I prefer openings that begin with action, emotion, or mystery. It doesn't have to be over the top, but it should set the mood and grip the reader – make them want to read on. By the end of the first page, the reader should feel that they MUST turn to the next page. That's a good starting point. Then apply that to ever page in the book. It's not about every page being intense, but everything in the story should push the story forward. like traveling down a river. There will be rapids and nearly still waters, but you are always moving along. Don't veer off pointlessly in another direction. Everything should come back into the same flow.
I don't want to read a paragraph on the weather.
i don't want a paragraph on what the setting/scenery looks like. (I don't care what the main characters bedroom looks like if I don't care about the main character.)
or "hey look, this is the main character" (ie: first paragraph is about every last detail of their appearance. I do like to have a name and visual early on, but don't smother me with it in the first paragraph, as if the sole purpose of the paragraph is to share your character profile with the reader.
What is happening to the character, what they are feeling: these are things will make me want to read on. The rest can come after, now that you have my attention. Or, include the details within the action.
I don't like openings with direct dialogue. Who is talking? what are they doing?
Sometimes there are stories where these things are done, and it works. I think its important when you write something though, to know why you are writing it that way. There is a difference between those who do these things because they know their story demands it, and those who do it "just because"
In the end what makes a good first paragraph is a paragraph that…
start with something that tells me what your story is about, but without giving it all away up front.
Consider the following scenes (making something up on the fly here to illustrate a point). They are all opening options for the same hypothetical story, though some smaller details are changed – let's say the main plot is a woman with a package that can save a man's life.)
1)Storm clouds loomed over the savanna, their gray cotton blocking the small amount of moonlight that could have illuminated her path. The winds increased, bending the trees at their will. The path winded between two hills, swathed with stalks of cotton plants, each bud absorbing the rain as it started to pelt down over the valley, washing the dirt away from the concrete walkway that led back to the park entrance. ( really – who cares? Its raining in a park. An opening should make you ask yourself some questions – but not “what is the story about”)
2)Jennifer hated rain, or more so being caught in it. She had spent all morning styling her brunette locks to frame her face and the soft curves of her shoulders, and now it fell in strings, clinging to her neck. Having left her umbrella at home, her shirt was now soaked and anyone coming down the path would be able to clearly see her bra and ample cleavage through the now sheer material. (and? Some chick is stuck in the rain and people might see her cleavage. Damn, I wish I had some decent cleavage, and I have no idea why she is in the rain, so this doesn't appeal to me. Might get a rise out of some men though.)
3)If she didn't get the package downtown in the next twenty minutes the man was going to die. Jennifer inhaled a deep breath, tucked the envelope under her jacket, and darted from beneath the overhang. Her heart pounded more from fear then exertion. The rain pelted down and washed away the sweat that had beaded on her forehead. Her auburn hair clung to her face and neck as she ran, her legs burning nearly as much as her lungs as she forced herself forward through the park. It was the closest thing to a shower she'd had in days.
I'm not saying any of these openings are perfect, but as a reader, I'd get more from the third opening then the first two.
This was heavy..!!!!wow the first paragraph task..I thoroughly enjoyed it though..I was introduced to it just yesterday..I am glad i submitted and I have to keep fingers and toes crossed because i have read some pretty good firsts..Ahhh Nathan I cannot envy you…lol..
For me a good first paragraph depends on the genre in question — thrillers open differently than historical romance, etc. What works for one doesn't necessarily work for another. Good writing, however, works for every genre. I tend to put more emphasis on the backflap or inside blurb that gives more of a hook or story question than the first paragraph. As long as the writing is good and the voice is inviting, I'm happy if the jacket blurb intrigues me.
I like first paragraphs that give me some idea about the character and the conflict that's about to come and makes me curious about it.
I dislike being bored by pointless description ("The weather was really nice today."). I am put off by artificially overblown prose that makes me wonder whether the author cares more about telling me an entertaining story or winning the next nobel literature prize. And I don't like cliche – dead bodies in the first line or persons waking up with amnesia? Thanks, but no thanks.
It is a middle-grade book — the first in a series (although by some quirk, I seem to have finished book 3 before books 1 and 2). I can send some links to your email address if you like.
I’ve read some of the entries but there’s so many now that most of the ones that I liked have become lost in the shuffle. I did enjoy the ones by Dara, Chris Pasley, Alix and Zakiriya. I actually think it would be a thrill if some of the ones you liked turned out to be Nathan’s picks.
Liberal Cowgirl says
For me, the first paragraph of "Cannery Row" by Steinbeck is untouchable. It is perfection.
Cornelia Read says
While I would love to take credit for the opening of BITCH GODDESS (THE BITCH POSSE in the US), the book was actually written by Martha O'Connor-who's a very cool woman and a tremendously talented writer.
A minor correction to Ulysses' comment:
"My favorite first paragraph is from "Three Cheers for Me" by Donald Jack. I read the book decades ago, but the one-sentence opening remains with me: "On my way to the front, I ran over a general."
That line is actually the opening of the third book in the series, "It's Me Again", rather than the first book, "Three Cheers for Me".