Grab them by the throat and never let go (writing a great first paragraph!)

16 05 2008

I get this terrific e-zine by a writer named Randy Ingermanson.  Here is a section from this week’s newsletter that I thought might interest people, on your novel’s first paragraph.

Creating: Your Novel’s First Paragraph

A few weeks ago, readers on my Advanced Fiction Writing Blog suggested that I critique the first chapters of their novels.

I thought that sounded like fun, so I invited them to post a first paragraph. More than 80 of them did, and I began critiquing one or two of them every day.  If you want to read some of those first paragraphs and the critiques that I made, check out this blog entry and those that follow:

It turned out to be more than just fun. In critiquing them, I was forced to think hard about what works and what doesn’t in a first paragraph.

Now let’s be clear on one thing: There aren’t any rules in a first paragraph. For just about every rule you can invent, I can find an outstanding opening paragraph in a published novel that violates your rule.

So there aren’t any rules except one — your first paragraph needs to compel the reader to read the next paragraph.

What makes a compelling first paragraph? Here is the one principle that came up again and again:

Principle #1: Bring your lead character for the scene on stage in action and in character.

A number of the paragraphs that I critiqued began with a description of the setting. That worked fine in nineteenth-century fiction, when readers were more tolerant of a page of description to set the stage.

The only problem is that those tolerant and patient nineteenth-century readers are all very tragically … dead.

Their pesky great-grandchildren are impatient devils who get bored by description.

The modern reader generally wants to meet your lead character NOW. In action and in character.

What do I mean by “in action?” I mean that the character needs to be doing something.

Far too many of the first paragraphs I read began with the lead character enmeshed in backstory — some long explanation of who the character is and how he got there.

That’s all very interesting, eventually. Great writers invariably create detailed backstories for their best characters. If you are going to write good fiction, you need to know your characters’ life histories.

But you don’t need to lay it all on the reader in the first paragraph. For that matter, the reader almost certainly doesn’t need to know any backstory on the first page. Probably, the reader doesn’t need much backstory at all in the first chapter.

Have you ever met somebody and in the first two minutes, they were launched on a long explanation of their life stories? Was it interesting? Did you care?

You have. It wasn’t. You didn’t.

The brutal fact is that you don’t care about Scarlett’s life history until you know Scarlett. Once you know Scarlett, then you MAY be interested in hearing about her backstory. (Or you may just want to jab her in the eyes.) But you don’t know until you’ve spent a little time with Scarlett — right now, in the present tense.

So bring your character on in action. But bring her on in character, also.

What do I mean by “in character?”

I mean that in that critical first paragraph, you need to show us something essential about your character.

If your lead character is a dull accountant who spends her evenings alphabetizing her coupons, then it’s misleading and unfair to the reader to bring her onstage in the middle of a helicopter chase. Or flirting with her married boss. Or breaking up an attempted mugging.

So what do you do with that accountant? Well, that’s up to you, but if you’re writing a novel about her, there must be something interesting about her. Normally, that “something” is tied in to what she wants.

Everybody wants something. Being perverse, most people want something that they can’t have.

Once you know what your lead character wants and can’t have, you have a story. The purpose of your first chapter is to key into that frustrated desire, whatever it is. By the end of the first chapter, your reader should know whether she wants to read this particular book about this particular character with this particular desire and this particular obstacle.

The purpose of your first page is to get the reader to read the whole first chapter. The purpose of the first paragraph is to get the reader to read the first page.

Let’s look at a nice example of this in the first Harry Potter book. The first chapter introduces us to the infant Harry Potter, who has somehow survived a murder attempt by the evil Lord Voldemort. Harry is “the Boy Who Lived” and Chapter One ends with an enormous question — why did Harry live?

It’s an extremely successful first chapter. How did J.K. Rowling get us to read that first chapter about this magical child? By introducing us first to Harry’s very ordinary Uncle Vernon and Aunt Petunia and Cousin Dudley, the wretched Dursleys.

By the end of page one, we know that the Dursleys have a terrible secret — there is something peculiar about Aunt Petunia’s sister, who married a man named Potter.  We don’t know what that secret is, but we care about that secret and want to find out what it is. We care enough that we MUST read the entire first chapter.

So page one is enormously successful also. By what magic did J.K. Rowling get us to read the first page? She did it with a great first paragraph. In that paragraph, we meet the Dursleys in character (although not in action):

“Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much. They were the last people you’d expect to be involved in anything strange or mysterious, because they just didn’t hold with such nonsense.”

Now the Dursleys are as dull a family as you could ever want. Not only are they dull, but they like it that way. Their main desire in life is to remain dull, to avoid anything strange or mysterious.

The reason paragraph one works is that it makes it immediately clear that the Dursleys are NOT going to get their wish. Something strange and mysterious is about to enter their life, and they don’t know it yet.

But the reader does. The first paragraph compels the reader to read the rest of the page, which reveals the lurking family secret with the Potter cousins. The first page compels the reader to finish the chapter, which introduces the mystery of “the Boy Who Lived.”

As I noted above, the first paragraph brings the Dursleys on in character, but not in action. The entire first page is narrative summary. Is that wrong?

No, because it works. For most writers, it wouldn’t work, but for J.K. Rowling, it did. If it works, use it, even if it doesn’t perfectly follow Randy’s Handy Dandy Rules of Writing. Don’t mess with what works.

If your first paragraph works, then run with it. If it doesn’t (and you know when it stinks like a dead muskrat), that’s when you go back to first principles. And the first principle is, in my opinion, this:

Bring your lead character on stage in character and in action.


Award-winning novelist Randy Ingermanson, “the Snowflake Guy,” publishes the Advanced Fiction Writing E-zine, with more than 11,000 readers, every month. If you want to learn the craft and marketing of fiction, AND make your writing more valuable to editors, AND have FUN doing it, visit

Download your free Special Report on Tiger Marketing and get a free 5-Day Course in How To Publish a Novel.




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