That 1st Paragraph – An Author’s Make or Break Moment


#1

Original Article: That 1st Paragraph


How many times have you read the first paragraph of an eBook before closing the preview and never thinking about it again? How about just the first line?

As readers, we can all be a little harsh on authors when we expect an intriguing story right out of the gate. As authors, we have to be aware of these expectations and do our absolute best to hook readers from the first line.

One-Liners

An optimistic reader may give you an entire page or paragraph to lure them in and convince them to keep reading. But for many, the fate of your book will be set the second they read the very first line. Will they keep going or close the book right then and there? This is why it’s so important to understand what a great first line reads like.

How about Go Set a Watchman’s opening line from author Harper Lee? It reads: “Since Atlanta, she had looked out the dining-car window with a delight almost physical.”

In only one line, Lee has us sitting in a train car on our way to Georgia. We’re wondering what she’s delighted about, and maybe even what the dining car is serving.

Great one-liners take you straight into the story and put you smack dab in the middle of the scene that’s starting to unfold. By avoiding the classic “Once upon a time”, fairy tales could be made more interesting by skipping the overly explanatory backstory and getting right on with it.

Your first paragraph should not be used to explain where we’re going, when it’s happening, or who was there. Ideally, it will drop us right into the action, showing what the characters are doing right now. That’s how a great book locks in readers.

What Does a Great First Paragraph Tell?

Preferably, not very much. Your first paragraph shouldn’t be focused on giving the reader extensive background info. Hopefully, you really care about your characters and know them inside and out, but your readers don’t need all of that information right off the bat. Let it unfold naturally, through their words and actions. Revealing too much too soon is a habit many writers have, and it can be hard to overcome.

Rather than reading each character’s biography, readers should be learning about them in a more human way as they become engulfed in the storyline. Think of it like meeting a new friend. It would be off-putting to learn the mundane details of their lives right away. At that point, you simply don’t care. The first paragraph should take the reader right into it, telling them just enough to interest them without flooding them with “fun facts” about your protagonist. That’s what really makes a first paragraph great.


#2

The first paragraph really is an authors make or break moment. This is why I’d say never rush to publish a finished story. All of my attempts at writing have been rush-published and I deeply regret this. (Kind of.) Also, it’s easy to do. As an author, you have a sense of elation when a story is finished. Then you spend days, possibly weeks transforming your work into a real book or ebook.

Sadly, after a lengthy resting period (at least 6-months) it is not uncommon for a writer to pick up one of their own books and think: "My God. This makes NO sense! Who wrote this?"

Were you body-snatched by an alien? Did a DARPA computer virus infiltrate Amazon and rewrite your book when you weren’t looking? - Nope.

When you write, you simply build the whole world which a story takes place in inside your imagination. I’d compare this to how a computer might store the virtual world of a computer game as RAM while the game is being played.

Writers immerse themselves in these worlds and can often forget that they are writing from a completely different perspective to that of an eventual reader. You had your story start with Felicity doing the dishes in the kitchen when suddenly, an alien spaceship landed in the yard outside. However, when you read your own work back 6-months later (and after your imagination RAM has been cleared), you realize that your story is stale.

You forgot to add all the small details like how beautiful the view of the fields and old dilapidated farm outside the window is. You forget to mention how Felicity is counting the minutes her husband Greg has been on the phone to ‘that’ woman from work again. In short, you didn’t paint the picture you had in your head as completely as you thought you had in words because at the time, you were still looking at it.

The resting period is essential for any length of creative writing. More importantly, it will be the first paragraph and possibly the entire first chapter, which writers realize they need to fix six months later. This, after all, is where you were still building and discovering the imaginary world your story takes place in.