Friday, February 4, 2011

First Paragraphs

Nathan Bransford ran his annual first paragraph contest, and naturally a great many people entered. What strikes me hardest each year when he does this is just how many writers out there are absolutely convinced that the first paragraph is of paramount importance and must grab the reader immediately.

Now, it certainly doesn't hurt to write such a paragraph, but many of my favorite books have paragraphs that, should they be entered into Nathan's contest, would have been ignored by almost everybody. I, for one, tended to skip right over any paragraph I read in the contest that tried too hard to 'grab' the reader. I prefer a simple paragraph that helps guide the reader properly into the flow of the story.

Meanwhile, I just started a new book of short stories by various famous authors, and it made me laugh to see just how badly the first paragraphs of these very famous authors would have done in Nathan's contest. It shows just why no one should be feeling upset that their paragraph didn't make the cut.

Here is one example:

"The wind blew off the mountains, filling the air with fine ice crystals."

There you go. First paragraph. Would you have even noticed this one if it were posted in there with all those other entries? I know I wouldn't have. Yet this is by the world famous Terry Pratchett.

Here's another:

"The way along the upper sea cliff had always been the secondary road into the Hold. Erosion had left only a narrow thread of a trail, laced with ice from the touch of stormdriven waves."

Not too bad, but nothing that would have grabbed Nathan's attention in my opinion. Yet that is the grandmistress of fantasy herself, Andre Norton.

So, I will keep entering Nathan's contest each year and not even getting honorable mention, but it won't bother me. I don't really believe in grabbing the reader by the throat in the first paragraph. I prefer to do it my way.

I will add one more note: I dislike most first paragraphs that feel like beginnings. Life is generally not like that. Any particular moment in life that you choose to start describing had moments prior to it. Every moment is but a continuation of previous moments. Thus, I like to begin my story with the feel that whatever is happening is but a continuation of something that was already going on. Too many of the first paragraphs that I read were blatant about telling us that this is the beginning.


  1. I agree, Ted. I've been paying more attention to first paragraphs (and first lines) lately. Honestly, very few are of the truly attention-grabbing sort. Yet the rest of the work is usually very much worth reading.

  2. excellent point. I entered, but I never expected to make it into the top whatever. I did like the winning entry, however.

  3. I know my first paragraphs aren't huge grabbers.

  4. I agree. First paragraphs that try too hard can feel abrupt.

  5. I agree not all first paragraphs should instantly grab you. But I think I disagree with you on disliking paragraphs that feel like beginnings. I like those kinds when it's in the right story :)

  6. Book Owl, thanks for visiting. But, that's why I said 'most' in that sentence. I don't hate them all, but if done that way it needs to be pretty spectacular for me to like it.

  7. My first paragraph in the book that is with my editor:



    I thought a couple of his winners had those 'try too hard' paragraphs, myself, though a couple were really good. I entered too, with my Kahlotus novel... Gotta say I really sorta hoped I'd make it, but alas...

  8. I've been trying to get better. Some stories lend themselves to more exciting beginnings than others.

  9. i don't know. i don't think anything should feel forced, but lots of different kinds of paragraphs work for me. i'm pretty easily pleased. if i were a lit agent i'd sign every third querier! :)

  10. When a first paragraph grabs me and screams to be read, I think I expect too much of the rest of the novel. When it starts to slow a little I start to lose interest. Weird?

    For me, a well written first paragraph sets the tone of the novel, and introduces the main character. I like to be eased into a story.

    I haven't read any of the first paragraphs at Nathan's. I might stop by and see what your's and Hart's look like though :)


  11. I agree Ted. A lot of my favorite books have fairly unremarkable first paragraphs. I just don't know how anyone can tell what a book is going to be like from so little information.

  12. Melissa, I have been paying specific attention to first paragraphs in all of the books and stories I have been reading for the past year or so. I have to say that I believe agents are exaggerating the importance of first paragraphs. So many great authors have relatively tame openings.

  13. Have to agree here. First paragraphs are not the be-all-end-all for me, as a reader or a writer. I especially concur on the 'beginning' bit, but also the opposite: stories that start in battle/with action also seem to disregard the maxim 'start where the story begins'.

  14. Funny you should bring this up because I was just thinking about this. I like the opening of my WIP, but taken alone it's pretty mundane, but to change it around so it stands well alone seems crazy.