First Paragraphs as Storytellers
We are at the library roaming through the stacks or browsing the new releases in the local bookstore and we come across a book with an interesting title or cover and we pick it up. Opening the book to the first page, we read the opening paragraph and decide whether we want to read it or not.
As writers, we need to consider our books from a marketing standpoint. What are we selling? Why should the consumer care?
When someone reads our first paragraph, what are we telling them? What have we promised? What hints have we given them? Are we being honest with them? Is what we are promising going to continue throughout the book?
If our first paragraph, page and chapter is funny, violent, thoughtful, deep or whimsical, do we carry that throughout the novel? Or, are we guilty of false advertising? Are we consistent in our approach and tone in the novel?
Examine your first sentence, paragraph, page and chapter as a promotional brochure or advertisement. Have we captured the reader’s eye and imagination? Will they invest time and money in our story?
We hope so and if we do our jobs, we have a better chance of being accepted.
Here is one of the most powerful first paragraphs I have ever read. It is from the classic novel, The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson. It is arguably the best of its genre ever written. Read this opening paragraph and write down what you learn from it.
“No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.”
What did you find? What does Ms. Jackson promise the reader? How does she lure the reader into her web so they will buy her slim and powerful novel? What have you learned from her beginning?
Go back and examine your first paragraph and apply these points to your own work.
Of course, as writers, we must retain the integrity of our story and the craft of writing and avoid the lure of gimmickry at all times. However, this attention to detail will help us accomplish that goal.