He Hated Every First Paragraph


Hi Bookfoxers,

I once had a creative writing professor who would read out loud the first paragraph of any story submitted to the workshop.

Reading it out loud was a way not only to test it, but a way to slow down and really focus on the beginning. To see whether it sounded boring, or weird, or just plain dumb.

I’m afraid that nearly all of the stories did not pass muster.

He would growl through the first paragraph, and sometimes he would ask whether we thought someone would want to:

  • Have a drink or read this story?
  • Play a boardgame or read this story?
  • Watch a movie or read this story?

It was difficult to put our stories up against … well, any other activity. But in reality, that’s the competition, isn’t it?

We’re competing against video games and Netflix for attention. We’re not just competing against other authors.

I’ll tell you more about that teacher at the end of the email, but first, here’s a first paragraph that grabbed my attention recently.

It's from Michael Faber’s “The Courage Consort” (his “Under the Skin” got made into a movie with Scarlett Johansson):

“On the day the good news arrived, Catherine spent her first few waking hours toying with the idea of jumping out the window of her apartment. Toying was perhaps too mild a word; she actually opened the window and sat on the sill, wondering if four storeys was enough to make death certain. She didn’t fancy the prospect of quadriplegia, as she hated hospitals, with their peculiar synthesis of fuss and boredom. Straight to the grave was best. If she could only drop from a height of a thousand storeys into soft, spongy ground, maybe her body would even bury itself on impact.”

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Okay, what can we learn from this first paragraph?

1. This paragraph starts with a mystery.

What is the "good news"? The rest of the paragraph doesn’t explain this.

In fact, we don’t learn about the good news for quite some time. This is the hook, and it happens in the first seven words of the book.

2. This paragraph starts with the unexpected.

Why, if it is good news, would she want to kill herself?

This is actually a second mystery, of sorts, because it’s so counterintuitive. How could it be good news if it makes her want to jump?

So we have two mysteries and we’re not even on to the second sentence. That’s quite a lot of compression right there.

3. This paragraph sets out high stakes.

We know right away that if things don’t go well, this character might die in this story, by her own hand. Introducing the possibility of death is one of the highest stakes you can have in a story.

In Sci-Fi it’s often the survival of the human race. In Romance, it would be losing or finding true love.

Whatever your stakes are, if you can find a way to shoehorn them into the first paragraph, your book will start with a bang.

4. This paragraph escalates.

At first she’s only thinking about jumping out of a window.

The reader thinks: oh, that’s just a phrase you say. And then … she moves from mere thought to forming a definite plan.

We know the amount of stories (or storeys, if you’re British). We know she’s thinking about burial. And now we’re worried.

It’s a great idea to have a movement inside your first paragraph. Physical movement is one option, but so is any kind of progression. That starts the plot, in many ways, moving the reader’s knowledge forward.

Otherwise, without escalation/progression, your first paragraph will seem static.

5. This paragraph offers personality.

This character is a strange bird. The notion of wanting to embed oneself in the ground is a curious one.

And "she didn't fancy the prospect of quadriplegia" is actually quite a funny line -- who does fancy it?

If you give the reader a sense of your character's personality, they will want to keep reading to get to know them better.

6. This paragraph gains our trust. I absolutely love the description of hospitals as a “synthesis of fuss and boredom.”

Once again, this is a kind of contradiction. Fuss seems to be the opposite of boredom – but he’s right, hospitals somehow do combine those two contradictions.

In every beginning you’re trying to convince the reader that you’re the right author for the job, and that they should trust you to tell this story the right way.

You can do that in any number of ways, but one essential way is that you can craft a smart turn of phrase (one that makes the reader perk up and say: aha! I never thought of it that way!).

The language of this paragraph is exceedingly simple. It’s not flowery or overwritten. Out of the five sentences, only the third sentence contains high school level words (like quadriplegic). But the phrasing of the third sentence soothes me, calms, and reassures me. It lets me know that I’m in capable hands.

It makes me want to keep reading.

#

Okay, back to that crotchety old professor of mine.

He growled his way through my first paragraph as well, saying that there was nothing interesting about it (I would have been hurt but he said this about 99% of our stories).

I do remember his sessions were so brutal that at least one writer had to excuse herself from the room, because she was crying so hard.

But even though I don’t consider him one of my best teachers, I will say that he helped me have a critical eye toward every first paragraph I’ve written since him.

So in the end, I have him to thank for forcing me to squint side-eye at every first paragraph I’ve written, read it out loud, and think what he would say.

Best, John

PS. I have a new Youtube video up about 3 stories of authors getting their novel stolen, and how you can avoid falling prey to thieves and scammers.

Bookfox

John Matthew Fox helps authors write better fiction. He is the founder of Bookfox, where he creates online courses for writers, provides editing and offers publishing assistance. He is the author of "The Linchpin Writer: Crafting Your Novel's Key Moments" and “I Will Shout Your Name,” a collection of short stories.

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