It’s easy to see when an opening paragraph doesn’t work. We’ve had several examples on our blog of first paragraphs that didn’t quite hit the mark—not that they were bad, just that they could have been better with a little bit of tweaking. (You can see our past posts on Pimping Your Paragraph #1, #2, and #3).
But today, I want to talk about GREAT opening paragraphs and what made them stand out. Hopefully by reading a few of these, it will spark your imagination and give you some fresh ideas on reworking your own first paragraph.
The first example is from a novel called “The Girls” by Lori Lansens. Here is the opening paragraph:
I have never looked into my sister’s eyes. I have never bathed alone. I have never stood in the grass at night and raised my arms to a beguiling moon. I’ve never used an airplane bathroom. Or worn a hat. Or been kissed like that. I’ve never driven a car. Or slept through the night. Never a private talk. Or solo walk. I’ve never climbed a tree. Or faded into a crowd. So many things I’ve never done, but oh, how I’ve been loved. And, if such things were to be, I’d live a thousand lives as me, to be loved so exponentially.
When you read this, what does it make you think? Who could this person be—a person who has never worn a hat? Does that little detail even make a difference? Should it? To never bathe alone, how is that even possible?
Is this paragraph perfect? I don’t know. But it does leave me with a curiosity, and desire to read the next paragraph to find out more about this person. (This just so happens to be a story about conjoined twins, connected at the head).
Here is another example from “The Lovely Bones” by Alice Seabold:
My name was Salmon, like the fish; first name, Susie. I was fourteen when I was murdered on December 6, 1973. In newspaper photos of missing girls from the seventies, most looked like me: white girls with mousy brown hair. This was before kids of all races and genders started appearing on milk cartons or in the daily mail. It was still back when people believed things like that didn’t happen.
Wow. For me, that is a humdinger of an opening paragraph. The character is introduced; the setting and time understood; the problem clearly defined. I’m hooked.
A third example, “Skinny Dip” by Carl Hiaasen:
At the stroke of eleven on a cool April night, a woman named Joey Perone went overboard from a luxury deck of a cruise liner M.V. Sun Duchess. Plunging toward the dark Atlantic, Joey was too dumbfounded to panic. I married an asshole, she thought, knifing headfirst into the waves.
Hello! That is good stuff. Again, is it written perfectly? I don’t know. It’s a bit telling, but it works. BOOM! You’ve got a woman falling overboard, and you know her husband had something to do with it. I read this book quite a while ago, but I found myself reading the first page again, refreshing my memory, and LOVING it! I couldn’t help it. The paragraphs that follow this opening one are fantastic as well. I bit on that hook, and now I must read on.
My last example is from “The Long Walk: The True Story of a Trek to Freedon” by Slavomir Rawicz:
It was nine o’clock one bleak November day that the key rattled in the heavy lock of my cell in the Lubyanka Prison and the two broad-shouldered guards marched purposefully in. I had been walking slowly round, left hand in the now characteristic prisoner’s attitude of supporting the top of the issue trousers, which Russian ingenuity supplied without buttons or even string on the quite reasonable assumption that a man preoccupied with keeping up his pants would be severely handicapped in attempting to escape. I had stopped pacing at the sound of the door opening and was standing against the far wall as they came in. One stood near the door, the other took two or three strides in. “Come,” he said. “Get moving.”
Again, the setting is clearly defined. The situation apparent. And when the guards say, Come. Get moving. I want to know where they’re going. I figure it can’t be good.
As you look over your first paragraph, ask yourself this question: If I read only this tiny little bit, would I want to read on?
Make sure your first paragraph pulls the reader in. Give them a taste of what they can expect.
If your opening is boring or jumbled, that is what your reader will figure the rest of the book will be—and it just might keep them from reading on.