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Here’s the Wind-Up and the Pitch: Perfecting the Opening Paragraph

It was a dark and stormy night… Oh. I’m sorry. Have you heard that one before? The opening sentence and lead paragraph in a story or novel is, as they say, your only chance to make a first impression.  Like the cover of your book, that first paragraph might be the difference between a polite browse and a bonafide sale.

Picture this. You are standing in the book store (be it physical or virtual) and you pick a book off the shelf. The cover enticed but it is time to see if the inside meshes up with the outside. You flip (or click) to the first page and start reading. Maybe you think: “Not bad, but it doesn’t really grab me” and back on the shelf it goes.  Or maybe you strike gold and liking what you have read so far you flip to an inner page to read another sample.  Maybe you flip back to the beginning and start reading the first chapter and finally tuck the book under your arm and head for the proverbial checkout counter.

A couple of weeks ago I used the opening paragraph of a short story that I am currently writing as an example of how to pare it down to a tight and effective lead. Last night I had one of those long nights where the whole story began to take a different shape. I spent quite a few hours of sleeplessness retooling the lead paragraph in my head.

Here is the improved opening paragraph that I thought I was finished with and had presented to you several weeks ago:

There is a boy living in the Winn’s attic undetected. When the house is still and empty in the settling wake of the morning bustle, he gently slips downstairs to raid their kitchen pantry. He might even take a shower or hand launder his clothes when he’s sure the Winns are out of town, always careful to leave no trace of his occasional sojourns. The desperate 12-year-old child took refuge looking for shelter on a cold night. Lawrence Sprocket is now 15 and still there.

I still like it but last night I had an epiphany on how to tell my tale in a more engaging way. Here is the new re-re-written lead:

Death, or more accurately someone who had stared Death in the face, had come to the Winn’s attic undetected. Whenever the house was still and empty in the settling wake of the morning bustle, the boy would gently slip downstairs to raid the kitchen pantry. But on this night strobing lights stabbed among the blackened, smoking bones of the house on Hollister Street that had provided him with a secret sanctuary at a crucial time. He had been a desperate 12-year-old child looking for shelter for just a night. Three years later Lawrence Sprocket was sorry he had stayed.

One of the most dramatic changes to my opening paragraph is the telegraphing of the end of the story in the first paragraph—the smoldering house. My new approach will be to flashback to the beginning and work my way up to the burned down home. The reference to a brush with death is also going to be a central theme in the story and I hope will be something else that piques the interest of the reader—that causes them to tuck it under their arm and head for the checkout counter.

Here’s a few Do’s and Don’ts:

Drama. Action. Humor. Emotion. These are what stories are made of and one or more of these should be at home in your first paragraph.  You should lead with something that is going to reel the reader in. You should pay special attention to getting it right. Make it irresistible.

Don’t fall victim to “false advertising.”  Your opening pitch should be consistent with, and relate to, the rest of your story. You shouldn’t open with an action sequence if the rest of the story is steeped in romance.  Do not “bait and switch” your reader.  You want to win them over not leave them feeling cheated.

Edit. Edit. Edit. The example above is not just the third iteration of my opening paragraph it has gone through four, five or more lives.  That can be the curse of the writer, knowing when to stop but you want to make sure that the first sentence and opening paragraph offer the power to engage.  A bland opening or one dotted with errors is not going to serve you well.

Similarly, avoid too much detail or too many characters. Use a scalpel to judiciously but carefully exorcise what is not necessary. Refine. Hone. Adjust. Streamline. Perfect.

Don’t introduce an insignificant character or detail in the opening paragraph.  Readers will imprint onto the first things they come to.  If it’s not important, leave it out or you will risk confusing your reader who will keep digging to find the significance of what happened at the start.

These are just a few suggestions. For me, getting to this point was a little like roaming around an unfamiliar house in the dark. I had to do a lot of feeling my way around and stubbing a few toes. But after navigating my way a few times, I have grown more confident, and I am excited about the new direction of this current short story. I hope you are too.

Question: I’m not the only one with ideas on how to grab the reader from the start.  What do you do to ensure your audience makes it beyond paragraph one and hopefully all the way to “the end?”

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6 comments on “Here’s the Wind-Up and the Pitch: Perfecting the Opening Paragraph

  1. Like that improved intro. I’ve been thinking about the first paragraph of the story I’m writing for NaNo and nothing is coming to me yet. I’ll have to write down a few options and see what would be a good fit. I have a habit of reading the first paragraph of books I’ve bought and trying to model mine after. Starting is the hardest part.

  2. One tip that I have heard is to go ahead and write. Just write. Get that first paragraph down and keep on going. Then later come back and delete that first paragraph. Good luck on NaNoMo! I wish I had the will power to try. Maybe next year…

  3. The new version has a lot of clout…The ending at the beginning..how interesting!

  4. Interesting and a concept that I definitely agree with. It is amazing how important the opening can be – be it a book, a short story, a comic or even a movie or tv serial. That opening moment of a story (no matter how good or bad) can play such a pivotal role in the kind and size of audience it finds.

    I like the re-re-write, but I have to admit that while the darker tone has been worked into it nicely and it is indeed very engaging, the extreme change is a jarring movement of direction and also the exclusion of something like the laundry/shower bit took out something that could have added a bit of lightness to an otherwise dark/creepy opening. I guess I’m a little confused about whats good/better so feel free to ignore me here! :)

  5. [...] read Andy’s post on the perfect first paragraph and it brought back the reminder that NaNo starts tomorrow and I’m not sure how to start this [...]

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