Annnnd the winner of the 6th Not-as-annual-as-it-used-to-be Stupendously Ultimate First Paragraph Challenge is……..
At the bottom of this post.
In the meantime, reading over a hundred first paragraphs in a row can really help clarify what works and what doesn’t in a first paragraph. I had four main takeaways on common threads.
Death and the macabre
As Tom Wambsgans joked announcing the winners, there was a lot of death in these opening paragraphs, as well as a healthy dose of non-death blood and guts.
While I do think these can work on occasion and Elizabeth Passarelli made the honorable mentions with a death-oriented opening, these can also be a bit of a turnoff for an agent because 1) it’s just so common and 2) it can feel like a cheap way to provoke a reader. It just doesn’t quite feel earned.
I’m not saying it can’t be done, but as with any common opening it raises the bar for what works.
Stops and starts can make it hard to engage
There’s a particular sing-song-y style that many of the first paragraphs employed, along the lines of “It wasn’t THIS, it was actually THAT. But it really wasn’t THAT after all, it was actually THIS.”
Your tastes may vary, but this tended not to work for me. It’s so hard to get your bearings when you’re reading an opening, and it requires so much mental jujitsu to piece together what’s happening based on what something isn’t, rather than just being told what something is.
Dialogue does not a first paragraph make
Guys… do we need have a talk about what paragraphs are??
But even if I didn’t automatically disqualify multiple-paragraph conversations, I’m not much of a fan of starting a novel off with unanchored dialogue. It’s hard to start investing before we know where we are, who the characters are, and how we should be contextualizing the conversation.
Precision, precision, precision
You probably already know from my page critiques that I’m a stickler for very precise description. This goes doubly for opening paragraphs, where a single word that’s out of place or isn’t as effective as it could be can immediately take us out of the novel.
Kindly purchase the 2nd Edition to my guide to writing a novel!
One last plug before we get to the winner. If you haven’t already, kindly purchase How to Write a Novel! On sale now:
- Barnes & Noble
- Available via Ingram: ISBN 978-1-7341494-0-1
And the winner is…
Okay for real this time…
THE! WINNER! IS!
Momma waved a hundred dollar bill before my eyes–the cash we got for Brown Betty, our station wagon that coughed us into Seattle. Brown Betty died in Washington after moving us from California to New Mexico to Wisconsin to Mississippi, then Alabama and several states in between. Now, if Momma wanted to move again, it’d be up to the rain to float us away.
Congratulations! Marci and finalists, please reach out to me at email@example.com
Thanks again to everyone who entered and voting, this was a ton of fun. Until next time!!
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JOHN T. SHEA says
Interesting, Nathan! Our mileages vary, of course. I have no strong likes or dislikes regarding first paragraphs, as in other matters. The author can write whatever he or she likes, providing it interests me enough to read on, which it usual does, as I rarely if ever stop reading after one paragraph. I do pause in reading novels, but always much further into the story and usually not forever. Hence my habit of reading half-a-dozen novels at a time! It’s the cover and blurb etc. that usually make or break a novel for me.
In any case, congratulations to Marci Whitehorse!
Neil Larkins says
Yes! My choice too, Nathan. Congrats, Marci!
As for first paragraphs… I kind of side with John T. Shea. An opening paragraph, important as it is, shouldn’t have all that weight attached to it. Dream sequence as a story gimmick: I agree that it shouldn’t be used, even though I used it in my first novel, “The Key and the Crest, The Unlikely Adventures of Frances Westerly.” But it wasn’t a story gimmick. In the closing chapter my heroine awakens and thinks she has had the most bizarre dream possible. That is, she thinks it was a dream until her mother notices at breakfast that she speaks with an accent! This is when she realizes that the “unlikely adventure” she’d just been on actually happened.
Nathan Bransford says
If it works it works, and I’m not trying to create hard and fast rules about what you can and can’t do with a first paragraph. But I also think it’s important to be aware of common openings and try to avoid them if at all possible, or at least try subvert them.
I think it’s human nature for anyone who reads a great deal of slush to start to feel their eyes glaze over when you see patterns repeat themselves. The hundredth time you see someone die in the first paragraph, you start to throw up your hands a bit.
That’s not to say that the 101st won’t blow your mind, but I would try to avoid these approaches unless it’s really necessary. There are a truly infinite ways of starting a novel, and it’s better to chart your own course.
Neil Larkins says
That’s right. Thanks.
Congrats, Marci. Love the image of an old car coughing and spluttering it’s way into town. And then after the dear departed succumbed to terminal car disease, the characters’ only possible option to leave again is by being swept away in a flood. Hilarious and charming!
Listening to the audio version of How To Write A Novel, Nathan.
Honestly, you sound incredibly professional. You could have a side hustle being a narrator for other audio books.
Nathan Bransford says
Wow, thank you! I had great help from John Marshall Media. More to come on the audio production.
Silvia Acevedo says
Great first paragraph, Marci. Congrats. 🙂