Thanks so much to everyone who entered the 5th Sort-of-annual Stupendously Ultimate First Paragraph Challenge coinciding with the release of Jacob Wonderbar and the Interstellar Time Warp! Please do check out the trilogy. It’s fun for you! Fun for you too! Fun for you, person in the fancy sweater in the back! Yeah. Especially you.
Jacob Wonderbar and the Cosmic Space Kapow
Jacob Wonderbar for President of the Universe
Jacob Wonderbar and the Interstellar Time Warp
Now then. The winner of the 5th Sort-of-annual Stupendously Ultimate First Paragraph Challenge is…
At the bottom of the post.
First up, as always, the reason I chose these finalists. As I’m sure you can tell by the length of the list of honorable mentions, I was extremely impressed by the entries, and not just the ones who were named. There were lots and lots of stellar entries and they were a pleasure to read.
My feelings about first paragraphs can basically be summed up by this tweet:
A first paragraph is like starting a dance with a reader who can’t hear the music. You have to guide them until they find the rhythm.
— Nathan Bransford (@NathanBransford) February 7, 2013
A first paragraph is a surprisingly important part of an entire novel, because it has to do so much. It eases the reader into the novel. But the reader literally has no idea where they are. The paragraph has to carefully guide the reader through the paragraph and into the world of the novel. Flow is important, crucial details are important, and voice is important.
As usually the finalists represented a wide range of styles and approaches, but I feel like they all accomplished this task extremely well. Here’s a bit more about each of them.
The Mazda hit ice. Carter cursed, fought for control, lost it in kaleidoscope swirls, and the vehicle hurtled down a steep bank, jamming Tori against seat and headrest. Terror strangled her heart, breath refused to come and let out her screams. Stillness as the car stopped, engine running, headlights shining on pristine snow. Relief caught laughter in Tori’s throat, until she realized where they’d ended up. The Coldwater River. Confirming her fears, ice cracked loud as a pistol shot. Carter undid his seatbelt. Tori depressed the button on hers. It refused to give despite her frantic efforts. Carter opened his door, got out the car, then bent to peer back in. “Goodbye, Tori,” he said.
As longtime readers know from my page critiques, I’m not always a fan of high concept openings and in media res action. But this paragraph really works. In addition to clever turns of phrase like “kaleidoscope swirls,” this paragraph stands out to me because it has just the right amount of detail and it builds through tension through the short sentences The crash is told through a collection of images, but it doesn’t feel disjointed and I never felt lost. And of course, the parting shot opens up thousands of questions.
One of the hoariest adages in booklore is that a tale should never commence with a description of the weather, but what is to be done if you wish to tell about a wraith found at your doorstep in the midst of an electrical snowstorm? Skip to the good, warm part in the middle? No. You must tell it as it was.
Peter had seen strangers in the road before, but there was something different about this man…something sinister. Most people passed on their way without a thought for what might lie on the opposite bank of the river that ran beside the road, but this man, in his tattered cloak that fluttered restlessly around him, stood bent and still. He seemed to be staring at a spot on the edge of the road, as if he knew that was where a bridge should begin.
I really admired this paragraph for its steady build-up and the tension that the author creates with the solitary man, capped off with perhaps my favorite turn of phrase in the entire competition: “as if he knew that was where a bridge should begin.” Such a fantastic evocation of mystery and possibility.
It was a good day until fire started falling out of the sky. The sun was just up, and the leading edge of the spring burn was behaving exactly as the kindlers had predicted, which was a relief, because this was Thus’s first year as an outrunner. Ahead, he could hear the high whistles of his herd of capas, and see their broad silver backs parting the grasses, leaving gleaming, vee-shaped wakes behind them. They moved toward the firebreak restively, but without panic. He supposed they must have grazed their way back across it in the night. It didn’t matter. This was the one day that Thus and the other stewards didn’t need to be responsible for their small allotments of the People’s larger herd. A capa could keep out of the way of fire more easily than the People, because capas weren’t responsible for putting it out. He still felt a wash of protectiveness, though. He’d delivered some of the young for the first time this year, turning their tapering heads and soft, wrinkled paws to lie correctly along the birth canal before drawing them, dark and shining, into the world, where the rhythm of their mothers’ hearts gave way to the susurration of the grasses.
It’s very difficult to ease readers into a foreign world, but this one works very well. I don’t know what a capa is, I don’t know what an outrunner is, and I don’t know what a kindler is, but I never felt lost because I knew enough to picture what was happening and felt grounded with the descriptions and the authority the author builds.
Delia walks over to the couch where I’m sitting, asks me, “Seriously, why’d you manslaughter your baby?” I tell her she already knows I don’t know. “Huh,” she considers as she crosses her arms. Her hair a tangle of grey curls. Maybe, maybe-not Delia has room to judge: she manslaughtered her mother, who was eighty-three.
I really liked how this paragraph kept me off balance while not feeling overly forced. This paragraph could be from many different types of novels, but I like the ordinary-feeling approach even as I came away feeling very curious about the rules of this world.
Time is a funny thing. People often discover this quite young. You can be in time, on time, buy time, waste time, but you can never trust time. Even though some folks will claim time’s on their side, or their ally is time, or they have time, time doesn’t know them from any other of the trillion souls that live and breathe upon the earth. Time is oblivious to us and likes it that way, thank you very much. “Time,” as most people know it, is purely a manmade manifestation of numbers on a watch or shadows on a sundial, even radioactive isotopes oscillating rain or shine, but Time itself is as elusive as the future to a dying man. We desperately seek to control it, manipulate it and force trains to run to it, but as we never understand from whence the universe came or where it’s going, we’re lost in contemplation of Time’s vagaries. For instance: the past can be as alive to a person as the present, seeming to exist as one within the eye of the observer, just as Einstein posited. To those who insist upon it, time – the present and the past – can be experienced simultaneously. Bartholomew Lewis was just such a man.
Lots of people tried the very difficult “let me muse about the world for a sec” approach to the first paragraph, whose degree of difficulty is approximately 11.5 on a scale of 1 to 10. Cheryl W. accomplished this with some very skillful writing and some genuinely interesting observations. It doesn’t feel like it’s trying too hard, and yet I came away intrigued.
I would have given Mom a good-bye hug, but StepThad’s arm rested across
her shoulder. Like the two of them were glued together. Double hug or
It’s amazing how much Chris Bailey is able to accomplish here with just three short sentences. Such a believable voice, a lot of backstory told through detail alone, and “StepThad!”
She was a striking girl, all shadow and stillness. Judith watched her carefully. Twenty years teaching middle school had taught her the subtler ways to approach them, the ones who wore solitude like a shell. If you look away, they disappear. But if you look too close, they withdraw. You have to learn to look sideways.
Whew! And that’s a wrap, folks. Thank you so much to everyone who entered, you are all rather awesome and this was a whole lot of fun.
Until next year! Or, uh, at least until the next time I get the courage to read hundreds of paragraphs.
My paragraph didn't make the finals (or HM) but at least I managed to vote for the winner! Congrats to Elizabeth.
Scott Springer says
I'm sure you're aware the common thread among finalists is 'clever turn of phrase.'
thanks for the insight, Nathan
Maya Prasad says
Congrats Elizabeth! I was definitely intrigued.
Kim Batchelor says
Fantastic opening, Elizabeth.
Lauren B. says
Congratulations to the winner, well deserved!
But Nathan, no critique for the last finalist, the one I voted for, Chris Bailey ?
Amy Saia says
These are fantastic. Big congrats to Elizabeth!
Istvan Szabo, Ifj. says
Nathan Bransford says
Thanks, added! Not sure what happened there.
Cathrine Bock says
Great critiques! I definitely learned a lot about first paragraphs from participating in this contest, which is an invaluable prize on its own. Congrats to Elizabeth!
Bryan Russell says
And tomorrow the First Annual Second Paragraph Contest!
J. M. Strother says
Good choice. Congrats, Elizabeth.
Congratulations to Elizabeth and all the finalists, and thanks Nathan for the great opportunity.
Aww, your favorite phrase of the entire competition? That makes me smile.
To be honest, I entered on a whim, was shocked to make finals, and am really glad I didn't win. Congrats to Elizabeth. (My mother even said yours was her favorite.)
…now I'm off to teach some kids about the Industrial Revolution…
Thanks, everyone 🙂
Anna Roberts Moore says
I like it, Bryan!
MaryAnn Pope says
Loved the paragraph. All the finalists were really amazing.
Thanks for hosting this, Nathan.
Congratulations, Elizabeth. Good luck and may the rest of the novel meet this high bar!
All the finalists are great; best wishes to them as well.
I really su*k at the captcha, you know. I may never comment again.
Magdalena Munro says
Congratulations Elizabeth and to all of the finalists!
NOW GO BUY NATHAN'S NEW BOOK AND ENJOY A GREAT READ. IT'S THE LEAST WE CAN DO AFTER ALL OF THE WONDERFUL HELP HE HAS AFFORDED US ASPIRING WRITERS OVER THE YEARS. OK…all caps is really annoying. Sorry.
Neil Larkins says
"…the next time I have the courage to read hundreds of paragraphs." Or the next time it coincides with a major snow storm. Made for a great way to pass the hours, huh?
It was all great stuff, guys — and you, Nathan. Congrats to Elizabeth. Makes me want to keep working.
Congratulations, Elizabeth! 🙂
And to all the finalists, and honorable mentions – heck to all the writers brave enough to enter and put their work out there – kudos! 🙂
Thanks for the contest, Nathan – really fun.
Susie Lindau says
Found you through Stumbleupon and your hilarious GIF post!
Love these paragraphs. The winner is fantastic. I went back to check my own afterward. See, you made me look!
Susie Lindau says
Just a suggestion. It would be great if you linked the authors to their blogs so we could check out them too!
Congratulations to Elizabeth, and thank you so much for all those who voted for me! (Sue Curnow). I missed the result because gosh dammit, I am in Hawaii. Thanks to everyone. I can be found at http://email@example.com
Elaine Smith says
Congratulations to Elizabeth, I really enjoyed that opening paragraph.
Yes, great work to all the finalists! Elizabeth, I was really intrigued by your paragraph, really insightful and I would love to read your book when its published 🙂
Nathan! How do you do it?? That comp. must be a huge thing to get through – so helpful to read your critiques but jeesh…you must have super hero vision.
Eva Natiello says
Congrats to you Elizabeth!
I was so honored to be on the honorable mention list. Thank you.
Nathan, you are clearly an officer and a gentleman… no, a gentleman and a scholar, yes! that's it. Thanks for spreading kindrid spirit and showcasing all of those first paragraph jewels! I especially appreciated the explanations as to why you liked the ones you liked – super important bonus. Like a free lipstick with the purchase of a moisturizer. Sort of.
Anyway, I agree with Magdalena, for all your continued support of aspiring writers, it's the least we can do. A little Support Reciprocity!