1. blandmanblind
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    blandmanblind Member

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    The First Paragraph

    Discussion in 'General Writing' started by blandmanblind, Jul 3, 2012.

    I find the first paragraph (let's settle on Chapter 1, not Prologue) of a novel to be ridiculously hard to write. In many ways it is the flagship of the piece as anyone who cracks open the book is going to read those first couple of lines and if it doesn't grab them they are going to just put the thing back on the shelf.

    What is a list of things you believe are crucial to be included in the first paragraph? Let us assume that it is already written to the best of one's abilities, but what story "meat" should it include, if any? Should it be all tone/emotion setting? What about scope? Should it start from the biggest picture or something tiny? Do you think you need some kind of environmental information included, the name of your main character, a description of them? And if you believe it depends on what kind of story you are trying to tell, then please give an example of one and what you expect to learn in these first few lines.

    Let's limit this to opening paragraphs of novels/novellas, as short stories are an entire other animal.


    P.S. This is not a "How it needs to be done." kind of thread, but a "What are your personal preferences?" kind of thread.
     
  2. lasm
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    lasm Member

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    This is an interesting question!

    I like the idea of starting with a sort of synecdoche: a small event or piece of information that sets tone and gives an idea of the big picture, though not necessarily trying to show exactly what that big picture is. Obviously the event or information has to be interesting on its own, though.

    I definitely don't think description or setting is necessary in the first paragraph.
     
  3. Show
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    Show Contributing Member Contributor

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    I find that starting where it feels most natural is best. You want it to be interesting, but if it feels forced, I'd argue it'll work out worse than if you start with something pedestrian. Make it as interesting and as natural as possible. That's my goals. Sometimes that means action. Sometimes it means a brief setting setup. Others it's something in-between. I go with what works best for the story I am writing without letting myself conform to general rules set up by people who've never read a word of fiction I've written.
     
  4. Link the Writer
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    Link the Writer Flipping Out For A Good Story. Contributor

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    I like to go with what feels natural to me, be it a scene or a dialogue. One of my stories has a real-life historical character spouting something from the radio to set the mood of the book. We'll never meet this historical character, but I think he helps to shape the world the reader is about to enter.
     
  5. Subology
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    Subology New Member

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    I quite like novels which give the game away from the get go, with the rest of the book explaining how everything came to pass. Rather than a story that builds, I like stories which start with a bang and have me glued trying to find out how everything will eventually be resolved. So the first paragraph would be: Z happened. The rest of the novel would be A happened, then B happened, then C ... then, finally, Z.

    "I was twelve years old the first time I walked on water" is, for me, the perfect example.
     
  6. peachalulu
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    peachalulu Contributing Member Reviewer Contributor

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    Good question!
    Most of my stories are rather unsual and I can never decide how to convey this in the opening paragraphs. If I start with a conversation it has to have an element of intrigue - a problem to be solved. But almost as if the reader turned a corner and interrupted the action. He has to read on to figure out what , exactly is going on. I try not to play it too safe.
     
  7. chicagoliz
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    chicagoliz Contributing Member Contributor

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    I have been seriously grappling with this issue for a while now. In another arena I have received feedback on my opening scene, which I had thought was okay. The comments I received showed me how wrong I was. The often contradictory, although very solid, advice I received has been difficult to implement and in trying several times to change my opening, I've ended up making a complete shambles of my opening scene. I now feel like banging my head against a wall and feel as if I have no idea what I'm doing. I need to recount a conversation where my MC finds out his wife is unhappy and is temporarily moving away. But in trying to show that this conversation was unexpected and starting it out slowly, I seem to have made it boring at the beginning. I've also run into the no-no of having an almost immediate flashback. And then on top of it all, everyone thought my male MC was a lesbian, so I had some serious fixing to do.

    My current thinking is to have my MC give a piece of 'wisdom' which is going to be so intriguing to the reader that they can't wait to read the rest. Then I may have to move a scene where he doesn't want to discuss what has happened at a family event, and then recount the conversation to the reader. (Whereas previously, the conversation is replayed, then he goes to his family party. Stay tuned for how that plays...
     
  8. KRHolbrook
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    KRHolbrook Member

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    For me, the first paragraph would need to have either a strong motivation for the character to react to, or a strong motivation to make me want to find out what happens next. I like the first paragraph also proposing a certain problem to the main character. Or maybe a snippy comment that makes me laugh.

    I suppose it depends on the character of the book, the mood of it, or what's initially happening that would fulfill my appetite for a first sentence/paragraph.

    Sometimes, though, it's the way the writer writes. Like the atmosphere of the writing itself.
     
  9. EstherAnn
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    EstherAnn New Member

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    I like to meet the main character on the first page, but not necessarily in the first paragraph. A striking contrast usually interests me, how he/she enjoys life until that obstacle comes with a bang, so the first paragraph I write usually takes some form of showing what they do or where they live. Who do they know?
     
  10. vVvRapture
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    vVvRapture Member

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    Hm, interesting. I've really never had a problem with writing the first paragraph of anything.

    Usually, I create a scene in my head, then I can figure out what the best approach is to open up with. For example, if the scene is supposed to set an ominous tone, I create a mix of background information and scenery description, possibly sprinkling in dialogue but very little of it, if need be. Rather, if the first paragraph is opening an action scene...well, that can be tricky.

    If the action hasn't happened yet, but is about to, I'd want to create a sense of firmness, yet uncertainty - let the reader know exactly where they are, but not exactly what is about to happen. And if the action is just about to happen or is already in motion, depending on the kind of action, I try to reflect what kind of action it is. If it's chaotic, then I make the page scramble with dialogue and description, but if the action isn't as chaotic, then the words don't have to be, either.
     
  11. cobaltblue
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    cobaltblue Member

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    This is an interesting thread. I recently completed my first novel, and after going through lots of edits and rewrites I like my story very much. I sent it out to some friends to read so they could give me their feedback and got some good advice and some confidence boosting compliments, so I was still pretty happy with the whole thing.
    BUT (yeah you knew there was gonna be a but, right?)... now I'm rethinking the entire first chapter because I spent a lot of time setting the scene, getting all the people in place... I'm worried that it's boring. It's too much, this is this and that is over there and not enough Kaaapowww! Look at what's happening!!

    I've read lots of advice, people say start with action or conflict to hook your reader right from the start, but many of my favourite books spend time setting the scene first.
    I'm torn between leaving it that way it is and changing the whole beginning to throw the reader further into the story right from the get go.

    Blue
     
  12. Cassiopeia Phoenix
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    Cassiopeia Phoenix Contributing Member

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    I usually start with a mental ramble of a character about certain event that takes place or will take place in the chapter -- because I'm all for starting with action already -- and I think it's good enough to tell about the character and the action. Though I'm sort of what float my boat kind of writer, so I might change that, depends on the story.
     
  13. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    Don't agonize over it until the entire first draft has been completed. You may very well end up tossing the beginning anyway. The4 beginning of your novel or story should be the very last thing you polish to a fine luster, except for the title.
     
  14. killbill
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    killbill Contributing Member

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    I like subtle resonance between the first paragraph and the last paragraph of a novel, the kind which will make me want to re-read the fist chapter after just reading the last paragraph. It doesn't matter if it is descriptive or action oriented (as in the character is doing something and not the "kaboom!" kinna action) or both. But excessive dialogues (well written two/three lines of dialogue is fine), back stories, detail physical descriptions, and mundane daily routine (this is action oriented but still don't like it) are a no no.
     
  15. Mckk
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    Mckk Moderator Staff Supporter Contributor

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    My advice to you, Blue, is to write what you enjoy to read. When the writer believes in his own writing, it shows, the inspiration shows, and it comes alive. If you've managed to set your scene in an interesting way - it's all in the way you write - then keep it. It's damn hard to make such a scene-setting-intro interesting to your readers, which is probably why few go down this route, but if you've pulled it off, then stick to it :) No need to worry.

    For myself, I've written my opening 3 times and about to write it a 4th time. The first time, I started very philosophically but it doesn't really set the story at all. The second time I did a lot of infodump. The third time I started with a dialogue. The dialogue one is by far the best I have it right now!

    I like my little one-liners. One line as its own paragraph and it should be short and snappy and memorable and leave the reader wondering what the heck has happened, or what on earth does this mean, or why does the narrator/MC say this?

    One book hooked me with the line that was something on the lines of "My mother always said that Freud should've been strangled at birth" - it made me laugh and I bought the book. - This made me ask, "Why?"

    The line a previous user on this thread gave was good too: "I was twelve the first time I walked on water". This made me ask, "But how?"

    My own original opening - the first line was: "He remembers darkness". This makes me wonder "What's happened?" - But my own line is not great - there's a reason why I rewrote this! I open it differently now.

    For me, snappy first line and then straight into some kind of action or suspense I think :)

    And definitely ditto what Cog said!
     
  16. noodlepower
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    noodlepower Member

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    It's not really the first paragraph that captures my attention. It's the first sentence in the paragraph. But for the most part, even if the first paragraph is not that great, if the rest of the story is strongly written and the plot is captivating, people will continue to read it.

    I know I've done it with several books!

    Anyway, on a personal note, I like paragraphs that start off with stuff like, 'When I woke to find myself not only without memory of the previous night, but also naked in bed with my best friend's girlfriend, and the aforementioned best friend standing in the doorway of my bedroom with a shocked expression similar to that of a fish, I knew that God hated me and was probably sitting on His cosmic throne laughing His ass off.'

    But of course that has to do with my personal preference of fiction. Opening sentences/paragraphs like the one above don't always work for every type of novel. So long as its interesting and makes the reader wonder, 'well, what happened next?' it'll be fine.
     

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