If you haven’t already entered the 4th Annual Stupendously Ultimate First Paragraph Challenge, please do so in the official contest thread! Win partial consideration by Catherine Drayton and a signed ARC of JACOB WONDERBAR AND THE COSMIC SPACE KAPOW!
One of the things I love about the annual first paragraph contest is just seeing the sheer number of ways you can start a book. Violent, sedate, loud, quiet, profound, prosaic, rapturous, reserved…. every possibility is on display in just this one contest.
So what do you like to see in the opening pages of a book?
We’ve all picked up books in a bookstore or perused them online. What makes you decide to read on and decide to buy the book? Is there a common element that keeps you reading or something you look for in an opening? How do you know you’re in good hands?
I hate to say it, but more often than not I judge a book by its cover. The people who design these things are brilliant. They seem to know just how to pull me in and make me want more. If the cover grabs me and the blurb is good, it's mine.
(Needless to say I possess more books than I'll ever have time to read.)
If I'm iffy then I'll read the first page. Usually by the end of the first paragraph I've either set the book down or I'm on my way to checkout.
I'm occasionally disappointed but if I give the book a second chance I'm usually glad I did.
What grabs me in that first paragraph I guess is the style. I want the first line to come out and say "Read me, I'm fun."
One of my favorite opening lines is from Scott Westerfield's Uglies.
"The early summer sky was the color of cat vomit."
I couldn't get that book home fast enough.
As for the contest entries, I'm with Myra. I thought they were all great.
The ones that pulled me in the most were the ones with a bit of mystery and humor but I found myself intrigued by a few that weren't the sort of thing I'd usually read.
And there's a couple in particular that I'd buy based on their first paragraph alone- even if the cover sucked.
Falls Apart says
characters, characters, characters!
I don't know exactly what it is that I look for, but when I pick up a book and read the first sentence, I can automatically tell if I'm going to like it or not. I guess I look for how real the voice is and whether I can relate to it.
Also, something that catches my interest.
2) A character that seems flawed, yet still has a goodness about them.
3) Lovely writing.
Usually when I peruse the new book racks at the library, the following things must jive in order for me to read the book.
1) the inside jacket blurb grabs my attention.
2) when I open it to a random page and start reading it.
If what I start reading makes me read for another three or four minutes, then I take it home.
Lucinda Bilya says
Good strong dialogue, or at least introduce me to the characters. If I don’t know them, how can I care what happens to them?
Don’t blow me away with action in the first sentence.
One opening paragraph here by Leatherdykeuk introduces his character as a cop before letting us know he must go a murder scene. Although I don’t normally read cop stories, I would read that book because I already care about the character.
Some opening paragraphs are confusing because of the wordiness and prepositional phrases.
Simply “show” the first four of the five W’s…who, what, where, and why, and save the last one, how, for the rest of the book.
Thanks again, Nathan for all the instruction, guidance, links, and caring that you put into your blogs. In trying to set up a blog, I feel like I am looking at assembly instructions written in another language. I managed to my picture up and my website, but walked away with my hands up in the air. I enjoyed your blog about Twitter and plan to study it thoroughly. After this contest is over, how about a blog about how to set up and blog for us blogger newbies?
If that first paragraph or page can make me feel something, then I am interested. Whatever the feeling- excitement, sadness, envy, joy, love, it has to make me feel something.
I agree with Kevin, I must be drawn into a place where I would like to be, with people I want to know and will sympathize with. I want beautiful writing.
All the answers to Nathan's question are so different it makes me realize that the only way to satisfy myself as a writer is to write what I like to read. There are readers out there who feel the same, whatever that may be.
I used to stick to my favorite authors, but now that I'm studying writing, I push myself out of my comfort zone. I'll buy/borrow books that have won awards or are bestsellers, even if I don't love their openings, just to study the craft. I've learned a lot this way, but if I hate a book at the 1/3 point, I will put it down, since life isn't THAT long.
Roberta Walker says
Conflict, questions, tension. Not long descriptive narratives.
Great question, Nathan.
I like to see that the technical side is working with great word choice that enables me to form a vivid picture and feeling for what the author is describing; also, I love a fantasy element to be present. But most important of all, I desire beauty and sweetness to be there in a way that uplifts and inspires me to be a better person. A bonus is if the author has worked something completely original into the story he or she is presenting, something I hadn't thought of before in regard to philosophical insights, or in the way they present the story on the stylistic side of things.
J. T. Shea says
Matthew, your wish is granted, but with apologies to Amanda:-
It was a dark and stormy night. I awoke from a dream just in time to see the lusty barmaids leap over the bar, swords in hand, to attack the space monkeys who had just rushed in.
'You brought swords to a ray gun fight?' the Head Space Monkey laughed as he and his hirsute comrades pointed their massive ray guns at the nubile young (maybe?)maidens. 'Take off your clothes!'
'What clothes? the Chief Lusty Barmaid asked.
'Oh,' said the Head Space Monkey. 'That's your skin? No fur except on the head? Our knowledge of human anatomy is limited. But we intend to greatly expand it within the next few minutes.'
I leaped to my feet, which were still stuck to the ceiling where I'd left them, slapped them on and lay into the space monkeys with a flurry of Kung Fu blows so fast and intricate they were a blur to all, including me. My hands were lethal weapons! Also my tongue, nose and left earlobe.
Soon the space monkeys all lay comatose on the beer-soaked sawdust of the stone-flagged floor. And the lusty young nubile (probably not)maiden barmaids stood unmolested. Which did not seem to please them.
'It is the Warrior Of Questionable Virtue!' the Chief Lusty Barmaid said, leering at me. 'Oh great WOQV! Answer but one question and we are all yours for the night!'
'As long as it's not about sports,' I said.
'What is the a priori purpose or raison d'etre for primate existence in this 23rd century?' she asked.
I pondered her query. For about 2.5 seconds. 'Whatever!' I shrugged.
'Close enough!' the Naked Nubile Lusty Young Chief Barmaid said. 'Let's dance!'
'I hope you mean 'dance' as a metaphor for sexual intercourse,' I told her. 'And not literally. Because I have two left feet. Literally. Oh wait. One's just on backwards.' I rearranged my right foot. 'And I'll probably need a little chi manipulation after.'
Laurie Boris says
Grab my empathy and the rest of me will follow.
The premise is a big draw. If I'm interested in the premise, I can fight through a few pages of less than sparkling prose until things start getting juicy. But a really snappy first page can keep me reading a book that I might not have been so interested in to start with.
Sharon K. Mayhew says
I want to feel an emotional connection to the mc….
Mary Jo says
An intriguing voice – a hook that snags any of my emotions (love, fear, humor, curiosity, etc.) and a lyrical flow of words.
Ebony Johanna says
I love to hear about people's stories, whether fiction or nonfiction, and when I see that in the first few pages, I am hooked!
"All the answers to Nathan's question are so different it makes me realize that the only way to satisfy myself as a writer is to write what I like to read."
I like the first line to be short and seemingly impossible.
R.D. Allen says
The idea of interesting secondary characters. I am the sort that VERY VERY VERY rarely enjoys the main character. I pick a character to vouch for and read on because I want to see what happens to them and what they do.
A promising premise can grab me too. Like, the idea that a child can write into a book and effect life in a nearby town. Or that a government "reaps" teenagers and makes them battle to the death. Or a secret submarine way before its time. The premise of a novel usually wraps up the pull.
I am a huge fan of book openings. I can spend hours just reading the first few lines of books at the store, however, for me what type of beginning begs to be read thoroughly? I don’t much like a jarring entry into a world I know little about with dialogue. I like to be rooted in my surroundings, presented with a titillating question that can only be revealed by reading the pages ahead. Don’t give me a grocery list of names or start off with confusing data though, I want to be submersed in the story before being thrown information that would otherwise put me into overload is I weren’t so involved in the characters yet.
Ted Cross says
Some want to grab the reader immediately in the first paragraph, while others (like myself) prefer to use the whole first chapter for that and are content to start a bit more sedately. I think the latter folks are at a disadvantage in contests like this, naturally.
I want to get a sense of the voice and the genre as soon as possible. The first paragraph doesn't need to be clever, but if it offers some kind of theme then the reader can identify if that will grab them fairly quickly. Some stories are just that: stories. Others are stories with purpose (e.g. to bridge a gap between —, to explore —-, to invite—-) If that is the writer's intent then I would want a hint of this very early on so I can read metaphors, time changes, flashbacks etc within that context. Who knows, some work and some don't, some writers have it instinctively and some learn it. Still learning!!
This is, of course, very difficult to define. But if I get the feeling that the author is thinking "I am an author telling a story (and aren't I clever!)", I immediately pass. I want the paragraph to read "I am this character, telling my story." So the author needs to believe in what s/he is writing and really feel the characters. It doesn't have to be a first person narrator, mind you, as long as the characters' personality comes through.
I clearly see this in many of the entries, and it is always captivating. In others, the author may have focused too much on jamming a lot into the first paragraph, or grabbing the reader at the expense of the characters.
I also think the character needs to be introduced subtly, through little touches. "I, Catherine Elizabeth Smith, a 16-year-old member of the Littlewood High School Glee Club"-type openings tend to put me off. Instead, give me something like "The Glee Club rehearsal was beginning, and I felt the usual trepidation…" Setting+feeling works better than full name, age, and town the character lives in.
I know this is a cultural difference (I'm Finnish), but the American style of introducing all characters with their full name irks me. It makes me feel more distant to them. I'd rather know someone as Catherine than Catherine Smith. I don't even think every character needs to be named right off the bat. This seems to be a difference between Finnish and American literatures.
Writing that is vivid, yet has missing details which kindle questions in your mind.
Ishta Mercurio says
I like unique, specific language. It all comes down to the voice.
Pen and Ink says
I usually read on for funny or a voice that resonates in my head. It's the reason I post new first lines/paragraphs. I've gotten some amazing reads from that. Places I wouldn't ordinarily go. I just finished Runaway Storm by D Knobbe and can't wait for the second one. I am thing about posting my ten favorite books from last year culled from those first line/paragraphs but it would be a difficult choice.
Debbie Ouellet says
Great question Nathan.
I like a good opening hook that makes me go "hmmmm, what's going to happen next?" I don't have the patience with books that want to spend a lot of time setting up a story before they get into the meat of it. I want to dive right in.
I also love a strong character that takes me by the hand and walks me alongside them.
Margo Berendsen says
I need two things to keep reading: emotional involvment and a sense of something happening.
This entry really jumped out at me as case in point:
I was six and nowhere to be found. My mother organized a search party – herself and a bottle of tequila – and wafted around the house, warbling my name in a tone more lonely than worried.
Defintely emotion here and something happening – a little kid hiding from a drunken mother.
Very impressed! I tried for the same two things in my first pargraph, but the result was not nearly as succinct, subtle and yet powerful.
Hart Johnson says
If I've decided to read based on cover blurb or recommendation, i will usually plow on unless it is annoying or the language is cumbersome.
Norma Beishir says
A story that immediately plunges the reader into the action.
For me, it's the promise of an emotional experience. This can be through immediate action, lyrical prose, a vicious hook that won't let go. Whatever. I just want to know I am in the hands of someone who can deliver words that make me want to turn off my alarm clock and burrow under the covers for a few days. Someone who understands what the six most powerful words in the English language are.
"Let me tell you a story."
Kathryn Tuccelli says
I am another "jacket reader", I must confess. I have rarely been disappointed with a book I've taken home or picked up to read, after being impressed with the jacket synopsis. If the synopsis grabs me, I'll read the book. Two books I picked up recently were "The Book Thief" (Markus Zusak) and "We Never Talk About My Brother" (Peter S. Beagle). Love 'em!
sex scenes at starbucks, says
The opening paragraph means little to me. I realize I'm in the minority. When I peruse books in the store, I turn to the middle. Sometimes, gasp!, the end.
I tend to give stories and writers the benefit of the doubt. But if a short story hasn't introduced itself and its problem in the first 250 words or if a novel doesn't give me a direction to tread in the first chapter, I rarely read on.