Nathan Bransford, Author


Wednesday, October 14, 2009

What Makes a Good 1st Paragraph?

Now that we have a.... healthy sample size of first paragraphs (1,758 at the moment), it's possible to get a good glimpse inside an agent's inbox and to simulate the experience of reading lots and lots of different story ideas in one sitting.

So. What do you think makes for a good first paragraph? What types of openings draw you in and which kinds leave you cold? Have you spotted any favorites? What was it about them that piqued your interest?

I shall be withholding my thoughts as the contest is still ongoing, but I'd be curious to know what you think.






355 comments:

«Oldest   ‹Older   1 – 200 of 355   Newer›   Newest»
Bex and the Bookends said...

I think I do not envy agents and others in the publishing business.

Just sorting out the ones that obviously aren't on paragraph will take ages!

Anonymous said...

Dump me in in medias res and let me figure out where I am (and with whom).

AE Rought said...

when reading, I want an opening paragraph to grab me by the throat and thrust me into the middle of the action. Make me catch my breath, don't bore me with details, or set up--I will look elsewhere for something to read.

Mark Cecil said...

A feeling that the author is going to take care of you. To lead you along. That he is saying: here is what my story is going to be about. Here is how I'm going to tell it. Relax. You're in my hands now. We will have ups and downs, we will have surprises and dissapointments, but i will lead you through it all, like a guide in a strange land.

wendy kovitz said...

I want my mind to start whipping out questions, which will be answered in the author's own sweet time.

Lydia Sharp said...

Once again, glad I'm a writer and not an agent.

I don't like stories that start with dialogue or a direct thought in italics. I don't like stories that don't state the point-of-view character's name up front (what's the big secret?). I don't like stories that start with someone running away from something, or someone waking up from a nightmare, or someone discovering a dead person.

For me, it's not always about the content, though. Usually the style (or voice, or whatever you want to call it) will grab me and keep me reading. I mean, how much can really happen in ONE paragraph? Not much. So the writing itself has to hook me. And by the end of page one, the story better be good, too, or I won't continue.

Kim McDougall said...

I want to care about the character introduced.

Natalie Whipple said...

I don't think a first paragraph has to be flashy or shocking. I think the main goal of a first paragraph is to give a good preview of what the reader can expect from the MC and their story.

If you can capture that, then you're golden.

Ryan Ashley Scott said...

The very first comment in the contest made me want more. I want to know who it is, what they are doing, where they are going. More!

Deniselle said...

AE Rought, it's funny, I was going to say the opposite. With so many openings being about a character running, being chased, struggling to survive, or dying... The ones that catch my eye are the ones that describe the main character calmly and in a fairly normal everyday setting. One opinion, one quality of the character's, one memory. The action beginnings leave me exhausted.

I also like some humor in the beginning, even (or perhaps especially) if the subject matter is dark and grimy. If the text looks like it takes itself too seriously, I skip it.

PurpleClover said...

I don't envy you right now. haha.

I personally want to be dropped into something confusing or action-packed with very little to go on. Less is better. I want my curiosity piqued. I don't want all the answers or to feel like I'm being inundated with information.

It helps when the character's adrenaline is already running too. :)

frohock said...

I think a good first paragraph will introduce the main character and the tone (or "voice," if you will) of the novel. That's what immediately draws me into a novel, not fancy gimmicks or hooks.

I want to know the writer has a good command of grammar and language, and I want the paragraph to flow easily from one sentence to the next.

I think sometimes we try too hard to create a gimmicky hook rather than concentrate on the craft of good storytelling. Look at the opening of No Country for Old Men. Nothing dramatic going on there, it's just a sheriff doing his job, but Ed Tom's voice rings true from sentence number one. I can hear him talking to me and I want to know what he has to say.

So when I read opening paragraphs, I read for the main character's voice and watch for good writing.

Thanks for taking the time to do this, Nathan, it's been great fun!

Tina Spear said...

I want to instantly be drawn into the action. I need to see something exciting happing immediately, so that I won't stop reading. It needs to provoke me.

loriG said...

A first paragraph gives you a taste of the authors writing style. Is the writing pleasant, easy to read? It also should give you a glimpse of the character by putting them in a situation and allowing the reader to see how they handle/react to their current circumstance. There should be just a touch of foreshadowing...with the ultimate goal, of course, of making the reader want to read on to the second paragraph!

Ink said...

I'm with Mark, as I want a sense of authorial command in a first paragraph. There's a sense in quality writing, right from the start, that the writer knows exactly what they're doing. It's in the surety of their voice, it's precision and resonance.

And I like a bit of tension and a hook. It doesn't have to be huge - something interesting that makes me want to read onward. Sometimes the big openings, the bombs going off, come across as the writer trying too hard, and I feel they haven't earned that drama and excitement yet.

But just about anything can be done well, in the right hands. Like the ever-feared character waking up opening. Usually a no... but in Ian McEwan's Saturday it's suddenly brilliant as he weaves tension and foreshadowing out of it.

Authorial command.

Rachel said...

I really appreciate character development in a good book, and the first paragraph can be a real insight into a main character's character. It doesn't need to be deep and contrived, and it can happen in a book that's first person, third person, gripping and suspenseful, or a slower narrative.

Also, I agree with Lydia. The first paragraph is a giveaway in writing style and a bell-ringer for me on whether or not I'll enjoy that author.

Lydia Sharp said...

My all-time favorite first paragraph (even thought it starts with dialogue, and that is usually not done well) is from Joe Haldeman's "The Forever War." Check it out.

GLS said...

I have about 3 faves from the first 600 - still reading more!
These had a strong voice and gave me questions I wanted answering. The ones I didn’t like so much were the obvious ‘I’m trying to shock you’ – be it with action/death. They all were so similar, just with different MC names. I suppose a cliché becomes a cliché for a reason.

Mike said...

I like to identify with the character(s) even if they are not people whom I would sympathize with in real life. I also need some tension otherwise I will probably put the book down.

J. R. McLemore said...

I definitely enjoy a good hook. Something that makes me say, "Whaa?" and then have the author explain it through the rest of the story. Long lead ins are hard for me to endure. Usually, the best hook is something completely unexpected, something completely out of the norm.

MelissaPEA said...

I want to hear the narrator's voice in the first paragraph, and I want a hint of what's happening emotionally. I need something that says "this is going to be a little different, so come along for the ride." I get bored with too much description or sensory details early on.

dcamardo said...

Voice.

Selestial said...

I think the variety of opinions here is another great example of how subjective the business is.

For myself, I like an opening paragraph that asks more questions than it answers. It needs to make me say, "Ooo and then what?"

Scott said...

For me, I want to meet the main character immediately and I want the writing to be crisp and active. Too many, "Rising up from his bed and scratching his head, John Jones blah, blah..." and I'm out of there. I hate passive writing!

Maripat said...

I've read about maybe 400 entries over the last two days maybe...nothing compared to what you're in for. But I noticed my attention started waning after the first sentence or two. At first, I thought it was just I read too many but then I'd come across one that stood out. Why? Part cleverness on getting the feel of the story across. (A sense of what it'll be about) Another the voice. I think voice is what really did it for me. Because for me I found myself drawn to a variety of genres.

I hope this makes sense. And you know, I hadn't planned on entering this contest, but I'm thinking if you're real close to like 2,000 entries--I might have to do my part and push you over the top there. I wonder how many entries blogger let's you have. hmmm...

Good luck.

Deniselle said...

Are we going to be posting favorites? Does that get too spammy?

I also agree about the author voice. Give us a hint of your humor, your emotion or your way of telling things.

Another thing - I noticed I was returning to the ones that began with some kind of childhood memory or child's point of view. I don't really know why.

Madison L. Edgar said...

I don't like when 1st paragraphs begins with dialogue... I don't know why. I guess I want to get to know the character a bit first. Even a couple lines before dialogue will do.

I love this one: Bright sparks flared in front of her eyes as she sprinted from the dark depths of the cave, her panicked scream piercing the unnatural stillness of the Amazon. Fear consumed every part of her being as she clawed at her trekking pants and t-shirt in a desperate attempt to shed the terror that threatened to suffocate her. Finally breaking free of the darkness she ran head first into the dappled light of the fecund jungle, giant rubber leaves and thick vines smashed and whipped against her sensitive skin. As the events unfolded one thought consistently ran through her mind, it’s really hard to remain calm when undies are riding up my bum.

The Screaming Guppy said...

As long as something about it - voice, style, action, a question, a hint, a thought - is interesting, I'd read on for another few paragraphs or a page or two. I don't think every book has to open with the exact same formula to be compelling. For me, the first paragraph doesn't have to explode to be successful, not always. I don't have to open a book and be running full force to be interested. But sometimes that type of opening is awesome.

For me, everything doesn't have to hinge on the first paragraph alone. When I'm deciding if I want to buy a book off the shelf, I almost never stop "sampling" before the end of page 1.

DebraLSchubert said...

What makes a good first paragraph is a character that interests me. The situation can be familiar or unique. The key is do I feel connected to the character, and do I care about what he/she may experience.

I'm going to take some time today, in between writing, to read as many entries as I can. I love this contest!

Leahsandra Powell said...

I managed a book store for years, and our rare book appraiser always said that he could tell a quality book by the first sentence and paragraph.

The first sentence should be unforgettable, powerful, lyrical perhaps. The first paragraph should make the reader catch his breath, crave more... As a writer, I've always tried to keep that in mind.

Amy Cochran said...

I'm really open as long as my imagination is engaged along with the my curiosity. I like to wonder why on any level. What I can not stand is the over use of F-bombs. It is a sure way to get me to put the book down.

Anonymous said...

I have my opinions on a good first paragraph, but I'm too lazy to discuss, right now. I just wanted to say--and this is worth the effort-- that you seem like such a nice agent. You come across very kind on your blog, and it is so generous of you to do a contest like this. If I needed an agent, I'd query you first on grounds of niceness..

Sarah Scotti-Einstein said...

I do, in spite of how often I have heard this said, want an opening paragraph that "grabs me by the throat." In fact, I don't want anything to grab me by the throat, thank you.

Instead,I want that opening graph to orient me... to give me, primarily through tone... some idea if I should begin reading turned toward Quirky or Dramatic or Fantastical. I want it to give me some idea of whether I'm headed out on an epic journey or just going down the block to peer in at the lives of my neighbors.

Anonymous said...

I want a healthy combination of things. A little scenary, some introduction of the direction of the story. I find that only thoughts or dialogue bore me.

Lady Glamis said...

Great question, Nathan. I posted about this over on my blog. The post is here , but to put it in a nutshell - have a clear point and show me what your story is really about and where it's headed.

CKHB said...

So far, my favorite paragraphs are only 1-3 sentences long. Coincidentally (cough cough), my novel also starts with a one-sentence paragraph. And I hope it tempts people to read the whole first page. And then, naturally, the whole book...

But could my one-sentence win a contest like this one? I doubt it. Trying to decide if I should enter anyway...

Amanda Morgan said...

I like the entries from Coffee, Please and Suzanne Young. :)

Scott said...

God is walking through Shibboleth, rummaging through the pockets of his memory, the distant past and the near future. The people of Shibboleth are sleeping, unaware of his presence or that he is considering them and their present circumstancs. (The Messenger of Magnolia Street - River Jordan - Page 1)

This first paragraph (okay, the second one helped as well) sealed the deal when I bought the book.

I really can't tell you what made this paragraph such a pull for me, other than . . . well, it was intriguing. As a note, the first paragraph was only two sentences, and that was enough for me.

I don't need to be thrust right into the action. I do, perhaps, need to be thrust into the writer's style, their voice.

I hated the prologue of one of my absolutely favorite books. Heck, I love Wicked by Gregory Maguire, but the first few chapters didn't totally win me over. So, maybe I'm not the best person to talk about first paragraphs . . .

S

Lynn said...

It doesn't have to take my breath away with over the top antics or situations, and I'm in agreement with those who don't like immediate dialogue, leaving the reader confused as to who is talking before we've even been introduced to the characters. I prefer to be quietly, subtly seduced by an opening paragraph that makes me what to find out more.
I quickly perused a few entries, and I want to read more about the beach house and the dead sister. It was haunting and had the power to stay with me for two days(No, it wasn't mine, but I wish I'd wrote it).
Like porn, I may not be able to describe it, but I know it when I seen it.

Anonymous said...

I don't care if the writer starts with internal thoughts, dialogue or narrative. As long as it's written well and active. I dislike passive writing, and purple prose especially. I think it's about tone and voice, and no matter what the writer has written, if it's an engaging voice then it will grab my attention.

I am confused though about this contest, I thought it was one paragraph? Some of the entries should be 3 or more paragraphs. I found a few that were engaging, but on the whole, my eyes wandered when I read a lot of them.

Especially the overly long ones. Sorry.

D. G. Hudson said...

I like the first paragraph to pique my interest, but I don't like stories that start with running action. I prefer to get a glimpse of the main characters or the setting first.

Perhaps the trend to people wanting to have action grab them by the throat right away is the result of the types of games that are on the market (for a few years now). Fuelling this trend of non-stop action are the terrorist, FBI agent and military blasting and explosion movies. Pyrotechnics seem to satisfy a lot of people, but they can be overdone.

Good Luck to those entering the contest!

Laurel said...

It's like the difference between artistic nudity and porn: I know it when I see it, but I couldn't necessarily define it.

Kathy L. Grant said...

I don't expect a first paragraph to be an absolute sell, but I do expect it to be stumble-free and slip me effortlessly and willingly into the next.

Good luck on sorting through that list!

JenniferWriter said...

I agree with Mark Cecil that the first paragraph should make the reader trust the author's voice. I want to feel confident that there is a story here and that the author knows exactly how to tell it.

I also agree with Natalie Whipple: I don't like gimmicks for the sake of grabbing my attention. Then I start to feel like I'm just watching a cop show--the kind that always start with a dead body. Yawn. That makes me distrust the author, as if he had to trick me into reading instead of guiding me into the story.

Dara said...

It has to draw me into the story and make me ask questions about what's happening.

For me, first paragraphs are important, but the author has to keep that gripping and enthralling voice throughout the entire book. So many books I've read (or attempted to read) start off with a strong first paragraph and chapter, then fall flat as the story continues.

Kristin Laughtin said...

I won't abandon a story if the first paragraph isn't especially gripping, but I like it when they drop me in in media res, start off seemingly "normal" but then tell me something unexpected about the character or situation in the last sentence of the paragraph, or have a really compelling voice. I'm not a huge fan of opening with dialogue or a thought, but it won't leave me completely cold. I just want some tension, really.

Liesl said...

Brevity.

Karla said...

The first paragraph is like foreplay, it has to get you in the mood for the rest of the story.

For me, it's in the voice. If there's an info dump I'm outta there!

Tere Kirkland said...

The ones I like the best so far start with some kind of action. There seem to be a lot where the first words are a character's name, sometimes their full name. That doesn't bother me, per se, but I think that to stand out from the crowd, it might not be the best approach.

It's been a most enlightening experience, and I don't envy your job.

Kimber An said...

The first paragraph should define the main character, theme, and conflict while simultaneously sucking the reader into her heart and mind.

Very hard to do.

I must rewrite mine a bazillion times and I can't confidently say the one I submitted to his contest will be final version.

Martin said...

I think there's a tendency to over-write and "try too hard" in first paragraphs, especially in first paragraphs for a contest such as this. Most entries seem to say "hey, look at me! I'm writing!" instead of serving the story.

Harrison Ford tells a story where a producer tells him he will never make it in the movies, citing a performance by Tony Curtis: "Curtis was on screen for a few seconds playing a delivery boy, but immediately you looked at him and said 'there's a star!'."

Harrison's response was "that's funny, I thought you were supposed to look at him and say 'there's a delivery boy'."

I think the same logic applies here.

ryan field said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
min said...

I like a simple first paragraph. When I read through some of the many in the contest, I found it hard to stick with the looooong and overdetailed ones. Maybe that's because there was so much to read and constant new subjects starting.

And I find it virtually impossible to do your job with just one you. Surely you have assistants? How do you even read these comments? The only thing I figure is that you have to love your job in order to stay motivated to keep ahead of the piles and piles of stuff to do. Hats off to you, dude.

Katrina said...

Hello, Nathan! I was wondering: if I'm studying English and creative writing at a university in the UK, should I mention this is my query? Or does that not even matter?

Thanks and good luck with the contest!

anotheranon said...

For me, it's mostly voice. Do I get a sense of it? Is it a tone and texture I'd want to spend 300 pages with? Do I know who the MC is or am I left guessing.

As I've said before (Hi Mira!) I don't like chatty openings because they aren't the type of "voice" I like as reader.

Also, some that start with a dead body and gore or blood mean absolutely nothing to me. I don't need to be jarred into action. A little foreplay never hurt anyone.

Stephen Duncan said...

I tend to gravitate toward the first paragraphs that don't underestimate me as a reader. That's broad I know, but typically, these all share a commonality: they take me directly into a moment of action. Nothing frivilous. Very little, if any description and character developement, and absolutely not a line of exposition. The author trusts me to let the scene unfold in my own way while allowing the narrative to thrive.

Derek Osborne said...

I want a clean, simple first sentence, not a "grabber" per se, but something suggesting a larger view. Then a peek at the opening conflict, also suggesting the main conflict, and always building the tension. At least one of the principle characters has to be introduced. The last sentence must wrap up the main idea of the paragraph in order to gain the reader’s trust. What some call an emotional payoff. It’s a lot like a first kiss.

Jared Stein said...

I know it's important to hook your reader in the first paragraph, but far more important to me is meaningfulness. When I begin a novel, I expect the first paragraph to set up not only the narrative, but the tone, and, to some extent, the theme. When I'm done with a novel, I go back to the first paragraph and try to observe signals, foretellings, and a sense of unity that I discovered throughout the rest of the book.

Oh, and it HAS to be smoothly written. I can handle re-reading sentences, but not in the first paragraph (rare exceptions where awkwardness constitutes part of narrative exist, I suppose).

Cara Powers said...

I think Nancy Kress puts it best in Beginnings, Middles & Ends: character, conflict, specificity, and credibility.

Lisa R said...

It's probably too broad to say a good first paragraph is one that draws you in--LOL but that is how I feel and it has to do with the author's voice for me. My absolute favorite of the ones I read was by Cindy and it was the one about the mother who kept stacks and stacks of magazines in her basement and the father who would secretly throw out stacks of 8-10 magazines--I loved that one because that one short paragraph was jam-packed with information and issues which I would expect to be explored in the rest of the book. It amazed me how much the author was able to convey in that short amount of space. I really, really want to read the rest of that work! Not to mention it was well-written (the jenga referene was great). I also agree with many of the other commenters who said no passive voice!

Anonymous said...

Katrina @9:35-- please use the Frequently asked Questions on the side of Nathan's blog. There is tons of info there on query letters.

The short answer is, sure, why not? Just don't go on and on about it, keep it simple

Sheila said...

What Ink said. The skill of the author. Could be a surprising metaphor, an interesting story question or conflict, unique voice or characterization. Openings that entice me to read more always have something that shows the author's skill.

Amanda said...

I like getting into the action, but I don't really like being thrust into the middle of a chase scene or something like that. I don't mind if something just happened and we find ourselves in the aftermath, but I don't really care for media res. I like to identify with the character a bit before having to care whether or not they make it out of the chase alive. Of course, it really depends on the way the author presents it -- I could be persuaded to think differently.

I like many different types of openings, depending on the type of novel I'm reading. I don't really like when stories start out with me asking 'what the heck is going on here?'. I really don't mind wondering, ooh, I wonder what this is all about, but I don't like being confused. Does that make sense?

Some of my favorite entries were actually ones that start of with a single sentence or few single sentences and then launch into a paragraph. I like the immediacy the short sentences leading into more gives to the beginning.

What I don't like is looooooooooooooooooooooooong paragraphs, and I saw some extremely lengthy ones! I just skim over those because my eyes can't take the lack of white space! Maybe that's why I prefer the short liners...

Rhonda said...

A good opening paragraph should make me want to read the next paragraph at the same time that it makes me wish I could just jump to the end to see what happens. That anxious feeling of wanting to read more but at the same time wanting to be finished is what I want. I don't know if anyone is naming specific favorites here, but I will. The paragraph that jumped out at me the most while scanning through the ones in the contest was by Stephanie and begins with the line, "She is beautiful."

Can I make a request here not about this contest please? There are so many wonderful writers reading this blog that I would like to ask, "Who will write for my son?" Maybe this could be a topic some other time, but we really need books for kids whose reading level is way above their maturity level. My son is in 4th grade and was just tested at a 12th grade reading level. He's not a world class genius, so there must be others with this problem...

Jenni Bailey said...

I don't like running, jumping, evading, bleeding. I mean, I do like it. Even in the first paragraph. But, more specifically, not in the first sentence. I want to be engaged but not confused and really hard-hitting action usually makes me take a step backwards.

I like an opening that gives me a sense of the character and of what kind of book I'm looking at. I want to know right away if it's a genre I'm interested in (or one that I'm definitely NOT).

Chad said...

The prime thing I've learned from reading a ton of entries in this contest is that dead bodies, screams, burning flesh and blood pooling in thoroughly described patterns are not inherently interesting. Violence is not a hook on its own -- in fact, for me (though I know others will differ on this) it often has the opposite effect. There has to be something there in the writing or the character (or both, hopefully) to draw me in.

Mercy Loomis said...

All I want is for the first paragraph to be interesting enough that I will continue reading into the second paragraph.

That said, my favorite opening for a book is from PN Elrod's BLOODLIST. Great use of voice, and a really interesting action hook. But it's really the first three paragraphs that hook me there, and of those the second is actually the one that really sucks you in. (You can read the opening page at Amazon here.)

GhostFolk.com said...

Short, clean, sweet. I like the character in the very first sentence. Moreso than the setting.

I prefer active past-tense with very few adjectives/adverbs. I think, as a writer, I am better off using any bit of flowery art in my descriptions later on in the text. Like maybe Chapter 10.

In the first paragraph I don't really care what town or state the character is in or what the weather is, or, even if they are dead or alive. And, yes, I know the Great Gatsby opens with fatherly advice. But I want the character, not her/his parents in the opening.

Hey, I really enjoyed the number of entries on boats and ships! I didn't realize this setting drew so many writers. Cool!

Wow, and so many funerals. Interesting.

There are at least 5 or 6 I want to read the rest of IMMEDIATELY. Many, many others are fine and dandy if the story that follows is rich and enticing.

Hey, Nathan, reading these is a graduate seminar in writing. No joke. Better, believe me. And I've taken a few.

Joe B said...

Any work that can be judged on its first paragraph alone isn't worth reading.

Any first paragraph that has enough themes and characters stuffed into it to enable you to judge the whole work is a first paragraph that should be deleted.

P. Grier said...

The very best opening line I have ever read was the one Kafka wrote for The Metamorphosis. No matter how many times I read it, it still cracks me up. The juxtaposition of the truly bizarre next to the truly mundane makes me want to find out how that otherwise ordinary person found themselves in the mess they are in. Or how they will get out. I like character novels, so I want real people that I care about who has a unique problem.

Monica Garay said...

What makes a good 1st paragraph?
...a good writer!
Evoking thought, emotion, and giving the reader clear visuals, allowing them to step into the story - be a part of, get lost in.
When I write, I want people to FEEL it.

Ted said...

Put me in an interesting place and let me know who to focus on. Let the scene unfold. Hint at a coming confrontation.

If the first paragraph starts with blood on the floor or an injured protagonist, it makes me think that I'm reading the climax, which means I'll soon be getting a boatload of backstory to support it.

I'm also not wild about opening lines where the character's full name, rank and serial number are provided, just so the author can get that out of the way.

Amber said...

I want to know where I am, and at least have an inkling as to the character. I need to have at least one question I need answered by the end of the first paragraph, or at the very least, some intelligent wit, or I won't go to the second paragraph.

But, the first paragraph shouldn't be too eventful, or else the ones following seem dry and soulless.

Calli said...

frohock: "I think sometimes we try too hard to create a gimmicky hook rather than concentrate on the craft of good storytelling."

I concur. My kneejerk reaction to 'action!' openings and protagonists who snark in the first paragraph is "Ergh, no thank you." Throw words at me, and I will throw the book aside. Action openings don't thrill me - they're tiring.

If the prose looks like it's been run through a Mad Libs script (complete with optional participial or gerundive phrase beginning the first sentence), I might not put the book down immediately but it's not promising. This seems to happen a lot in fantasy (my preferred genre). Sometimes it's just a weak start; sometimes it's a red flag.

If it's first person narration and the narrator makes me want to claw my way out of a stuck elevator, with no elevator present -- back it goes. Many 'smart-ass' protagonists fall here. (Also, a disproportionate number only satisfy the second half of that description.)

It really is easier to say what puts me off a first paragraph than what gets me to keep reading. If I have an incentive to keep reading, I will. Those incentives can be character, voice, setting, even (if less often) plot - something that hooks my attention and makes me want to continue.

I guess I can sum it up like this: Give me a reason to keep reading. Don't try to force one on me - it won't work.

GhostFolk.com said...

A feeling that the author is going to take care of you.

Mark Cecil, perfectly put. I shouldn't have said a thing until I read the other comments, sorry.

Cameron said...

The first paragraph should throw me into at least one of the following, and should make me think: Throw me into... a question; a poignant moment; someone's head; a mindset; a mood; a sense of character and setting; a protagonist's vanity or insecurity; any (or all) of the above. Just throw me in and make me react by stirring up my desire to continue reading!

thoughtful1 said...

I agree with LoriD mostly. What I like is a sense of pleasure I get from reading. Nothing that makes my skin crawl: by which I mean poor grammar, over used metaphors, shock value only gore. Then I have to like the topic. If I don't like dragons I don't find the paragraph gripping. Etc. There was one paragraph about a man watching a girl leave her school that when the book is published, I want to buy it. Chilling and subtle. Hmmm. Nathan, I did not follow your blog when the first first paragraph contests happened, so I don't know how you choose your finalist. I agree with all who wrote before me about wanting your criteria. In fact, that would be a great reward to get for those who don't get chosen.

Matilda McCloud said...

I've been reading or skimming most of the paragraphs, and I'd agree that character and voice draw me in. I don't like big surprises, blood and gore, dead bodies, sex, airy-fairy descriptions of the weather or the sea, or any philosophizing or back story at all in the first paragraph. I would like a few key details to orient me about the character and where he or she is (but, please, no waking up in the morning). And I don't want flowery writing--NO adjective pile ons. I do want interesting comparisons etc. to help me visualize the details. I also don't want things to be too on-the-nose or predictable (the bad guy doing typical bad-guy stuff etc, the wallflower being shunned etc).

Ello said...

I think the first thing is the voice. Something I didn't realize until reading all the entries in your first first paragraphs contest. It was voice that helped distinguished the good from the bad.

Second - the skill of the writer in setting you up with a tight, well written paragraph that is effortless to read but is saying something really interesting.

Third - caring about what comes next to the character or setting we've been introduced to.

PurpleClover said...

I must add that I don't mind cliche's in the first paragraph. For some this is probably a big turnoff. But I find cliches help me to connect with the author, not the character. However, if you can avoid them, that would be just as well.

annerallen said...

I've scrolled through a lot of the entries, but nowhere near all. (Nathan, you're going to need superpowers.) The ones that draw me in are the ones that are calmer and leave a little mystery, and maybe because of the contrast, the shortest ones catch my eye.

I fear the "begin in media res" dictum confuses a lot of newbies. They think tension=action, so they plunge us into scenes of carnage involving people we don't know and care nothing about.

A book is a journey. As a reader, what I first want to know is: 1) who I'm traveling with and 2) where we're going. If the protag is whiny or heartless, no thanks, and if we're hurtling into a pointless violence-fest, I'm off the bus.

But that's just me. Obviously a whole lot of folks love them some carnage.

Courtney Price said...

You have a lot of crap to wade through! Maybe one of my biggest peeves is foul language merely for shock value. Especially when it doesn't match the tone of the piece. It's so amateur.

LauraT said...

I haven't read them all yet, but I already have a favorite one. I have no idea how this author gave me a setting, a strong voice, and a really entertaining description in about 2 sentences. This is one of those times if I picked up a book in the store I would probably buy it from the first page... Can we post our favorites out loud? I am sure to find more as I read along. I just need a few hours or a day... haha.

jjdebenedictis said...

1. Humanity. To draw me into action, there has to be something I can empathize with in regard the characters. A mess of action or an abrupt dead body leaves me cold.

Good example: The drunk who wakes and finds his wife dangling from the ceiling fan. What he does next is so blackly humorous it made me want to know more, even though the character is obviously a horrible person.

2. Lack of balance. If the paragraph sets me up with questions, that's what coaxes me into wanting to read onward.

Bad examples: Those paragraphs which start with an introduction to the character or setting the stage show me a world in balance. And that doesn't provoke my curiosity.

3. Brevity. I'm just dipping my toes into the novel; a huge block of text is daunting unless there's something wonderful in the first few sentences. So why not put a paragraph break after those first few sentences?

4. Skill and voice. When the writer is obviously talented, that gives me confidence that reading on is a good investment of my time. I will read things where that isn't the case, but I cut more slack where it is.

Finally, I have to say it's heart-breaking to read this. There are so many paragraphs that do NOTHING wrong, but which don't capture my attention. No wonder it's so hard to grab an agent's interest.

Robert McGuire said...

One reason this is hard to figure out is that we probably misunderstand how readers are receiving the first grafs. Presumably, the first graf is the first impression, but it almost never actually is. Readers open the book with some background knowledge -- probably they've heard somewhere what the book is about and they've just finished reading the flap copy that teases the plot and even introduces the characters. So if we're judging the first grafs outside of that actual experience, we might think, "Oh, it has to have xyz critera." Introducing the characters, for example. But in reality readers probably just want to be reminded of or reassured about something they've heard second-hand. That said, I kind of think establishing tone/voice is probably the most important thing for a first graf. In theory, that also has been tipped off by the flap copy and cover design and the title, etc., but probably less specifically so. The tone/voice is probably the quality that readers are experiencing for the first time in the first graf.

Simon C. Larter said...

For me, the first paragraph, and indeed the first line of any work should have the kernel of the story embedded in it somewhere. If not a kernel of story, at least something illustrating the type of character we'll be dealing with. Turn offs are: deliberately shocking or graphic scenes, anything to do with vampires, and disembodied dialogue.

I'm picky, though.

Leis said...

Different readers will be attracted to different styles of writing, as we can see from the comments. I suspect it has much to do with the genre of preference. There is an apt way to start a story in every genre, that will make the story and writing appealing to that target audience. There are successful dialogue starts, successful action starts, narrative starts, etc. Words are the molten metal and the author is the metallurgist -- when it cools, the sword either lives or it splinters.

I guess what wins me over is to see that the author has something to say, something to share, a story -- be it old or new -- but a story that the author can make sound new, seen through his eyes. A perspective, a shade I haven't encountered before.

Guess what I'm saying is, it's what's behind the writing: the voice, the angle, the author's experience transposed.

Terri said...

I read a variety of genres (romance, thriller, suspense--no literary or YA though, sorry) so I like an opening paragraph that grabs me so that I have to keep reading.
The opening to Cornelia Read's Bitch Goddess (released in 2006) was one of the best I've read as well as a majority of Lee Child's opening paragraphs.

Mr. Bransford, I do not envy you the task of reading through all these submissions. ;-)

Olivia Carter said...

I think sometimes people want to put a bunch of action and gore in the first paragraph to pull the reader in.

For me that's a turn off. If you have a pull a bunch of flashy stuff like that to pull me in then maybe I'm not going to like the rest

I mostly like simple paragraphs that make me want to keep reading. But I'm also a fan of simple stories.

Simon C. Larter said...

For me, the first paragraph, and indeed the first line of any work should have the kernel of the story embedded in it somewhere. If not a kernel of story, at least something illustrating the type of character we'll be dealing with. Turn offs are: deliberately shocking or graphic scenes, anything to do with vampires, and disembodied dialogue.

I'm picky, though.

Anaquana said...

Am I the only one that doesn't over-analyze first paragraphs?

As long as it isn't more than a hundred words or so and isn't denser than LA smog, I generally couldn't care less about first paragraphs.

It's the first page as a whole that I'm interested in.

Anonymous said...

Again, this exercise too, is kinda pointless.

"What makes a good first paragraph?" is like asking, "what makes a good first stroke in a painting?"

There are no rules and this talk of preferences for this that or the other is so silly.

Like the painting, one can't predetermine a preference for a particular "first brush stroke", when its good you'll know it when you see it. It can be anything, there are really no practical limitations. If it works, it works, and you'll know it when you see/read it.

Its that simple (and complex).

Sarah said...

Like Lady Glamis, I also recently posted about this: http://bigglasscases.blogspot.com/2009/10/playing-favorites.html - I think great 1st paragraphs are ones that establish who is speaking and what the reader is in for, all the while making the reader want to keep going.

Schmucks with Underwoods said...

I read lit fiction so the paragraphs that really grabbed me were ones that, for me at least, had that transcendant quality particular to great literature. There were very few of these but there were a number of paragraphs that were punchy, attention grabbing or funny (a few made me laugh out loud) and certainly made me want to read more so, I would say, in those cases, they delivered the goods.

James said...

I like to meet one of the main characters in the midst of a moment that will have repurcussions to the overall story. I don't care for explosions and gore right away. I need to get my bearings. Often it's better to be understated. Having said that, I think the 1st paragraph just needs to work in the context of a story. Some stories seem to require certain types of beginnings. This is not in any way scientific.

Anonymous said...

As a genre reader, I want to get an immediate sense of the situation and the character. As Wendy Kovitz commented, I want my mind to start asking questions.

Also - thanks for the education. Reading all these first paragraphs is giving me a stronger sense of what's good and why.

fatcaster said...

Look at the first paragraphs of, say, For Whom the Bell Tolls/Wanderer/Gatsby/The Night of The Gun/Great Plains/The Grapes of Wrath/On the Road/The Prince of Frog Town/Huckleberry Finn/A Tale of Two Cities/Peyton Place/Dispatches/1984. Those paragraphs are all good, some are darn long (a page or more--so what?), and they’re all DIFFERENT.

Objective criteria for a good first paragraph? There are none. Many keys fit the lock. Good is in the mind of the reader. Kierkegaard was right.

One of my (subjective) criteria is ORIGINAL writing right from the start. Ditto the absence of clichés.

When you’ve heard about a book, looked at the cover, and scanned the blurbs thinking about a purchase, a first paragraph may be more moving than in the isolation of a contest (no disrespect, Nathan); there’s a context.

Rowenna said...

I'm probably in the minority, but plot matters less to me than style here. I want language, and I want it to be delicious--it's like an appetizer at a restaurant. It needn't be substantial, but it should make me look forward to the main dish that the chef will be creating, giving me a sense of his or her style and special ingredients.

loriG said...

I have only had time so far to read the first 13 comments, but I think they reflect an interesting point. The first paragraph needs to appeal to your target reader. A thriller or mystery would certainly have a different opening than a romance for example. The first paragraph reflects the tone of your story.

GD Wright said...

I will NOT buy a book unless there is sex in the first paragraph.

Anonymous said...

Anon 10:22 said, "...Again, this exercise too, is kinda pointless."


What's the point of posting a "what's the point?" comment for that matter?

Drew said...

A good first paragraph does what a great bass-player should do - you shouldn't know he's there, but you groove the groove anyway.

Holly Bodger said...

I like books that set the scene from the beginning. I want to know the where and the what before the who. This is my favourite first line so far:

"The general store smelled of chocolate."

I don't like openers that start by naming the MC by full name or that start with an opinion. I can't digest the opinion of a MC if I don't know anything about them.

Allison Brennan said...

As a published author, I can tell you that the first sentence and the first 2-3 paragraphs are hard. I probably spend more time writing and rewriting the opening page than the entire first chapter, and that first chapter is no cakewalk either.

Rebecca Knight said...

"The first sentence should be unforgettable, powerful, lyrical perhaps. The first paragraph should make the reader catch his breath, crave more... As a writer, I've always tried to keep that in mind." --commenter Leahsandra.

I totally agree with this and think about it whenever I pick up a new book. I want either tension, beauty, or beautiful tension right from the start, along with a clean writing style :).

It's been awesome to read through a few hundred of these to see what's out there, and to get a taste of Nathan's job for a day.

Jennifer . . . . said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Nathan Bransford said...

That was a ridiculous comment, person whose comment I just deleted, and anything similar is going to be deleted. I'm extremely thankful we have published authors around here to lend their expertise. If you don't think you have anything to learn from them, well, you most definitely do. We all do.

Michael said...

I think it's pretty hard to establish plot in a first paragraph. I'm more interested in character - if you're going to ask me to dedicate time to your character, then that person better be interesting from the beginning.

Christy Pinheiro, EA ABA said...

I think that the first paragraph is not a big deal. But the first 14-15 pages have to be good, otherwide I usually put the book down.

I don't envy your job-- I went through about 300 of the posted paragraphs before I gave up-- it made me want to stab myself in the eye!

Jennifer . . . said...

Nathan, it was not a ridiculous comment. My point is that the first sentence, paragraph and page is hard regardless of whether one is published or not.

Thank you.

Nathan Bransford said...

It would have been easy to have said that without being extremely rude.

Brian Crawford said...

A great 1st paragraph should tell you everything without you knowing it. Like the start of A River Runs Through It: "In our family, there was no clear line between religion and fly fishing..."

Speaking of favorites, Nathan, I am astounded by the response to your contest. It shows what readers of your blog (writers) want most is to be recognized.

You should capitalize on this: have your readers rank their favorite paragraphs to help you narrow it down to ten, and you decide the winner. Just think of how many times each writer will check your blog to see how his/her paragraph is ranking. You might just blow up the Google server.

Anja said...

+ I like to get a sense of the character and the place as soon as possible. I need to be able to picture the scene and the person before I can begin to care. It doesn't matter whether the story starts with a naval battle or slave auction or the mailman bringing a letter, but it should feel like something is happening or about to happen that sets a whole chain of events into motion.

- What I don't like are first paragraphs that move too fast. Where am I supposed to look first? Hey, this looks like a movie my uncle filmed with his hand camera! Who was that blurry someone who just flashed past?

- Big turn-off: gratuitous violence in the first chapter. (Gratuitous violence is always a turn-off, but when it happens this early, I'm not yet involved in the story or the characters, so in the trash goes the book.)

Style/tone/language -- of course that's important. If I don't like the prose, I don't pick up the book. But it's impossible NOT to have these things in all your paragraphs. It takes me about a page to decide if I like the writing (sometimes first paragraph, sometimes 2-3 pages). Rule of thumb: If there isn't a thought, description, observation, small surprise, or unusual detail on the first page that makes me think: wow, that's nicely put / I wouldn't have thought of that myself, then chances are, I won't turn the page.

Wayne said...

Have you spotted any favorites? What was it about them that piqued your interest?

Yes I have. What piqued my interest is that it's mine :D

Laurel said...

I disagree with the notion that this is a pointless exercise. Maybe I am aware of how important the first paragraph is because I absolutely suck at first paragraphs. But if you can write a good first paragraph, that skill would translate well to a query letter.

And if someone is in a bookstore browsing, they will have seen the cover and read the back. Online, maybe they just go the sample offered by Amazon or whatever ebook retailer. You have only the first paragraph or perhaps the first chapter to convince someone to purchase. That "I have to know what happens next/get to know this character better" feeling needs to be thoroughly in place.

Deniselle said...

My own entry was pretty long, but it was actually twice as long before I edited and posted it. I think I need to work on being more brief, because I seem to skim past the long entries myself. D'oh!

Some of my favorites are long ones though - I loved the one where the kid eats the urinal cake, even if it was so gross. It captured my interest.

I really liked the one that just said:
"What do I feel about my mother?"

It was so powerful. The story could go to any direction from there, but it already made me think.

Jennifer . . . said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Blair said...

The type of opening I like is one with a smooth voice and interesting statement, or action, or character. One that shows a little of what shapes the character, what shapes the story, or that gives voice.

I don't like openings that start with superficial things that will change. For example, I dislike first paragraphs that tend to follow this general formula:

"It was a cold winter day with a blue sky and marshmallow clouds. John Doe tucked his collar in to avoid the breeze, and watched cars twinkle with morning dew as they drove down the road...."

I can get description anywhere. When I first start reading, I want something that will have relevance throughout the entire work, even if it just shows what the character is like.

*Note: that paragraph up there is a mock up I did, not one that was posted.*

Ian said...

Hears an idea. Have a playoff among our peers. A field of 64 if you will. Everybody votes on your favorites in a head to head competition. Let's see if we can narrow it down to overlapping any one of your top three. Think Tiger Woods versus the field.

Paul Greci said...

In the first paragraph I want to feel the mc's voice.

Anonymous said...

Nathan, I saw Jennifer's comment and have to agree, you can be a bit heavy handed here. You have control issues or something? Let loose a bit, no need to sit and catch and approve each and every post. I'd assume you have more on your plate to do.

Just an honest opinion.

Anonymous said...

There is meaning, if not points - a very Western conceit, the point - in everything.

Anonymous said...

I don't think he was being heavyhanded at all.

Nathan Bransford said...

anon-

I probably should have counted to ten before responding and was overly heavy-handed in how I handled that. But all the same, I've been around the Internet enough to know that personal attacks can derail a really good discussion. I may have a heavier moderation hand than other sites, but I think it's important to maintain a tone that doesn't devolve into needless attacks.

Anyway, we had this discussion a few weeks back, and I don't see any reason to change course.

Anonymous said...

It's Nathan's house and his yard. In my opinion, if anyone doesn't like it, he can take his ball and his glove and go home.

Nathan Bransford said...

(that was to anon@11:06)

Derrick said...

Um... wasn't there a rule about angst?

Anonymous said...

I don't think you're being overly anything, Nathan; there are a couple of folks who are pushing at the envelope's boundaries and purposefully, I think. Looking to get a rise. It reminds me of a couple of instances in the past, where things, as you intimate, begin to become incendiary. It would be unfortunate for that kind of stuff to take over what is a great thread and exchange of ideas. So, I'm with you.

Lucy said...

Sarah Scotti-Einstein said...

"I do [not?], in spite of how often I have heard this said, want an opening paragraph that 'grabs me by the throat.' In fact, I don't want anything to grab me by the throat, thank you."

Thank you, Sarah!!! I won't repeat, add or elaborate, but your comment states my opinion. :-)

Anonymous said...

Personally, whenever someone starts to accuse you of being a control-freak, which has happened before, I think you should delete those comments. They have nothing to do with the thread/argument at hand, it steps beyond being passionate and even a little rowdy about, say, first paragraphs, and becomes more personally-oriented.

If the threat was 'Do you think I'm a control-freak?' it would be viable stuff; here, it is not.

Nathan Bransford said...

OK, thanks everyone - let's move on now. I'm going to delete references the earlier incident henceforth in the interest of keeping the very good discussion about paragraphs going.

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Dave G said...

Nathan, what do you think makes a good opening paragraph? We can all discuss it all afternoon (or morning for you kids out West), but in the end an agent like yourself is the person who will be deciding whether an opening paragraph is good. So simply put, what do you like?

Nathan Bransford said...

dave g-

All will be revealed.

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Derrick said...

That's good question Dave. If you look up the last First Paragraph challenge, you can find some of Nathan's thoughts. I did and found it very enlightening.

Blank said...

I haven't read all of them. But there are some good ones in there. The most recent I will choose is this one by Samir:

Zooey was in two minds about proffering her purple, polka-dotted piggybank to the altar of sacrifice. But when she saw her brother wearing a snazzy turban, which conjured up images of Prince Aladdin, her curiosity was piqued. Making a split-second decision, she pressed the porcelain porcine into the palm of his outstretched hand.

It sounds like a middle-grade novel. And I want to know more. I think that's what makes a good paragraph. You want to keep reading. Because when I'm flipping through books a the bookstore (or on Amazon, love that Look Inside feature!) I go to the first paragraph. If I want more, I'll get it.

One of the best first paragraphs I've read recently is from Dogs of Babel. Amazon it. Check it out. Awesome.

Coffee Wench said...

I can definitely tell what doesn't work for me in a paragraph. What does is harder to figure out. I don't like being coy with character names. I don't like the backstory opening, where we get a condensed history of the character, their personality, or some childhood incident. All of the adrenaline and panting breath and hammering hearts puts me off right away--I don't know what the danger is or who is in danger, so I don't really care.

All of those things, of course, can work in the right hands.

I admit to being a very impatient reader. I read 2-5 books a week, and my to-read pile just keeps growing. A book has the first paragraph to hook me if I don't know anything about it. Recommendation from friends usually gets it 10-30 pages, but the opening really is essential. I'll put up with a lot of murky middle if the beginning wows.

Dave G said...

Awesome, thanks Derrick. And Nathan, you sure know how to drum up interest.

Jenny said...

What struck me after a while was the sheer amount of adjectives. (See? even there 'sheer') We writers love words and lots of 'em! But I think we must kill all those beautiful, striking, and so on adjectives.

Christian White said...

What makes a good pick-up line?
"Come here often?" is going to sound very different coming across the lips of Hugh Jackman than say, Paul Giamatti. Style and tone is everything.

I would think, can I fall in love with this guy? He might not be the most imaginative or creative guy in the place but if I like the sound of his voice I might give him a shot.

I want to fall in love with a book I'm starting and for me it's not what is said on the first page thats important but "how they say it".

Does that make me shallow? Ugh...

Maya / מיה said...

I like first paragraphs that clearly place me somewhere and clearly give me PEOPLE-- I want to see someone that I can possibly like or relate to right off the bat. I get annoyed by books that initially focus on a character other than the protagonists. I look for an approachable voice and, as others have said, that sense of authorial control.

Marilyn Peake said...

I think a good first paragraph indicates that the writer is skilled enough to keep control over wording, to make every word count, and there’s something intriguing in the subject matter itself. In regard to cases where first paragraphs fail, sometimes the first sentence or two are good, but then the writer appears to grope around for ways to put sentences together – an indication that the rest of the book might not hold together very well. I definitely found some favorites in this contest.

StrugglingSerpent said...

Something that is different. Something with a little magic.
Something that flows.
Something that makes me want to spend time with the characters.

Maya / מיה said...

Oh, here's something that has bothered me: a lot of jargon in a first paragraph. Maybe this is just because I don't read much fantasy, but I'm bothered by hearing about the Others and the Chifiese (my word verification word) and the Underlings and the Orcs and whatever else have you in the first paragraph. I don't even want to know about Vampires or Zombies in the first paragraph. When I do get drawn into a fantasy, I'm captured because the world in the first paragraph sounds like my own-- then I know I can relate even to characters who live in a world very different.

This could just be me, though.

Anonymous said...

Maya -

No, that's not just you, a lot of jargon can be jarring in a first para. I agree with that.

cjtrapp said...

I like first paragraphs that spark simple questions. Ooh, she's on an airplane... but to where? And someone has died, but who and how? Why does she refuse her airline meal?

If skillfully written, it serves as the aroma coming from the kitchen,awakening the appetite.

Terri said...

Hi Allison! Great feedback as always. ;-)

I posted earlier about what I like in a first paragraph, but to be honest, if the blurb on the back of the book doesn't grab me (for authors I haven't read before) then I'm not going to care how the book starts. I have books on my shelves whose opening page weren't worth turning to the next for, but because the author has delivered in the past, I read on.

But, as we've heard many times, in many posts of this nature: some people see paragraphs as they are and say why [would I read on]? I see paragraphs [that have potential] and say why not? heh

It's all subjective people. No offense should be taken or given.

now, back to the drawing board. ;-P

Ray said...

If I were an agent, I would be looking for the following in the first paragraph:

a) the writer can, indeed, write

b) does it intrigue/interest me enough to read on. Most often I find myself stop reading within a sentence of two.

c) tone/voice and whatever you call it that tells me what I can expect of the story

I don't think first paragraph is the ALL-important part of the story (nor is the first sentence). I think the most important aspect of a good beginning is very simple: Does it make me read the rest, until THE END. If it does, then it's a good book. Period.

The thing about first paragraph isn't whether IT is grabbing, but the opposite: whether I would stop reading after the first few sentences. I'd say 8 out of 10 times I would STOP before I got to the end of the paragraph. I think that's what separates the pros from the novices for me.

The Editors said...

Rhonda,
I also could read at way above my grade level as a kid, by the time I was 12 I was reading college textbooks and had been reading adult books for a couple of years before that. There are a few things you can do to help your kid read books at their level without changing the books being written. First, think about things that you personally don’t want them to read about (sex, violence, curse words, etc.) Then, find books that are less likely to have those things in them at their reading level. For example, my mother didn’t want me reading books with sex in them, so I could read all the adult non-fiction that I wanted to except Biographies. Classic lit. is also a good as you can easily find out if there is things you think are not age appropriate in them. Also, there is nothing wrong with reading books below your reading level either. You two could find a few books (or more) a year that are more challenging to read and then let them read books written for their age most of the time, as they will most likely want to read the books that are popular with their friends anyway.
I hope this helps some.

Josin L. McQuein said...

I prefer having a first paragraph that gets overturned as soon as the "inciting incident" happens. The MC is going about his/her day, then BANG! "it" happens and sends the MC spiraling off into an interesting story.

Rachel said...

I think I better stop reading comments. I'm feeling a little anxiety coming on. I liked my first paragraph when I wrote it (though I tweaked it after just a bit) because it felt smooth and part of the story.

If I get anxious and start over-analyzing what felt comfortable, couldn't my paragraph start to sound forced? How do you know when to keep editing and when to just let it go?

Matilda McCloud said...

I agree. A little mystery or an unanswered question is good. For example, what are the messages in those bottles hanging from the tree in the jungle? (If I'm remembering correctly--one of the entries).

Clive Martyn said...

All I'm thinking as I'm reading this is - Bugger! Maybe I shouldn't have opened with a piece of dialogue.

The first paragraph is very hard and I agree with one of the earlier comments that you spend a overly long time revising and editing them. (Mine's very much a first draft - honest!)

It is (rightly or wrongly) constantly drummed into us by contests like this, books and by anecdotal osmosis that you need a hook. I just hope that most people at least give you a couple of paragraphs... and forgive a little bit of dialogue in the first sentence.

Lisa Yarde said...

For me a good first paragraph is something that sets the scene and makes me want to know more about the characters. Scenes that open without a sense of place and time, or that don't identify the main character in some way confuse me.

Rhonda said...

Without going too much into my own challenges in life, I wanted to say thank you to "The Editors" for addressing my plea. : )

the Lola Letters said...

I (respectfully) disagree with the anonymous comment that said the quality of the first paragraph is irrelevant. Yes, a novel can have a weak first paragraph and go on to be a great novel throughout, but a first paragraph can have a big (and positive) impact on how invested the reader becomes in the story.

I'm a stay at home mom, and my spare (alone) time is super precious, and I despise wasting it on anything that isn't worth it.

I've often found that if the first paragraph (and even the first page) don't draw me in, I usually just find more of the same in the pages to come and quit before the first 10 pages are up.

It's a pretty decent indicator. True, it doesn't have to be flashy/violent/crazy/intense/what have you, to be good, but it has to have a little somethin' somethin' to peak my interest.

I also agree with the needless profanity comment. So true! It's fine if it's well done and speaks to the character's personality, but it's so obvious when it's just for shock value.

abrokenlaptop said...

I like to get a general feel for the language of the story. But then, I'm also a bit of a prosist. Of course the story is important, but so is the style.

-Mercedes

Marsha Sigman said...

I think what makes a good first paragraph is what pulls you in to read more. A little glimpse of what is to come. But now I am going back to previous contests to see what Nathan had to say then. I wish I had done that before I posted my entry.

Verification Word: exaggri
Definition: Secret society of exaggerators.

houndrat said...

I think first and foremost, I look for voice. If the voice is flat, then I'm not going to be drawn into the first paragraph, much less the rest of the book.

Everything else can differ. I do like to at least start with something intriguing, but it doesn't have to be action-packed. Intrigue can be quiet, too.

Stephanie said...

I don't seem to expect as much from a first paragraph as many of you. Maybe that means I need to learn from you. I haven't decided yet. Some of you seem to want everything in the first paragraph, including setting, character development, plot points. I don't think I can get all that into one paragraph. Who knows, maybe I just can't get it into one paragraph YET.

I like a first paragraph to give me a sense of the tone of the book, to raise one or more questions that interest me and to have lyricism.

I don't envy Nathan, either, and I very much appreciate your willingness to do this.

Ulysses said...

I like a first paragraph that grabs me by the throat, rams my head into the pages, draws blood with a sharp voice, and then feeds me a chocolate cupcake.

I don't like my reading rough, but I'll put up with a lot to be fed a chocolate cupcake.

Um...

I'd say, "I know it when I read it," but I think that's a great way to avoid answering the question. So here's what I like: I like having time and place set right away. I like to see a character doing something interesting.

My favorite first paragraph is from "Three Cheers for Me" by Donald Jack. I read the book decades ago, but the one-sentence opening remains with me: "On my way to the front, I ran over a general." It's matter-of-fact absurdity carries through the whole book, while it provides sufficient information about time (WWI), place (near the front), character (I) and action (a career-limiting move... but not in this case).

DG said...

If someone asks you whether you want red or white wine with dinner, wouldn't your reply be: "What are we having?

So too, an opening paragraph is likely to match the genre. If I select a literary fiction title to read, I'd expect the opening to ease out of the gate with scene setting and narration, although it could grab and shock me. If it's a thriller, I expect to be shocked very early.

The days of Lonesome Dove type writing, where you get to take you time setting things up, are over.

Maryann Miller said...

When it comes to effective beginnings, I always think of the first Terminator movie. I was working with a director in NY on a new script and he rented the movie so I could see how a story can just start w/o a lot of set up or back story. I remember being totally confused, yet so interested in this character. The ability to create that audience/reader interest is vital for whatever kind of writing one is doing.

Anonymous said...

When the comments are deleted by the admin is makes me want to read them so much!

Maybe start a Deleted Comments from Literary Blogs blog, where all agents an anonymously submit their deleted comments? YEah that would make for some serious entertainment!

~Anonypus

Anonymous said...

"If it's a thriller, I expect to be shocked very early."

Most thrillers deliver the "shock at the end of chapter 1 but not in the first para. Too soon. First para. should be establishing a situation, getting the read to ask quesitons.

The ones that start off with stuff like, "I knew it was going to be a long night as I wiped the blood from my eyes," kinda thing are amateur starts.

J.J. Bennett said...

Eeek...

It has to paint a picture for me in some way. Many I found boring or I lost interest completely because they didn't do that for me. A few were cheesey... and I instantly stopped reading. I got to one I liked and by the end of the paragraph I wanted more...until I saw a word that was out of place and I was disappointed.

Samir said...

Blank@11:25 AM

Thanks for your comment about the paragraph with Zooey. That really made my day. If you ever want to read further, I can send some links your way.

Amanda said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Amanda said...

I am garnering a better understanding of, and a new respect for the well known comment, 'it's all subjective'. And it REALLY is!

None of these comments are right or wrong, and all of them are right and wrong. It's all opinion based on preferences. It's fascinating to see how differently we all judge what is good and what isn't. Truly fascinating. I love it!

Lampe said...

I just love reading review blogs like dear author. They know so much. Many of their reviews focus on first paragraphs, and I always learn so much about good writing there.

Anonymous said...

Without knowing the genre of the book, the opening paragraphs are difficult to assess. Some of the entrants indicated their genre outright, which I think is smart, while others you can tell the genre because of their blogger icon pic, which shows another book or whatever, but just to have an opening 'graph without any other identifying info is unrealistic. Even bookstore browsers have the benefit of seeing the title, cover, what seciton of the store it's in...all that is framing the 1st paragraph.

Anonysaurus

Sherry Way said...

First off, thank you for this contest Nathan, it’s opened my eyes to what agents go through on a daily basis. I’ve read several of the postings, and I have one of my own, and I think for me, as a person that loves to read, I want to hear the story, and like so many have said, it really is voice. But what is voice exactly? When I’m writing, I have to really listen to that character in my head, and what they sound like, see their world through their eyes, not my own. Which is extremely hard to do. One thing I learned from reading so many entries, that I never understood before, is why agents often complain about names in query letters. I noticed how using names in the first paragraph seemed to weight down the writing, instead of moving it forward. I also noticed how grocery listening—too many details about an object can also weight down the writing. Thanks again Nathan, and good luck everyone.

Blank said...

Samir -

You are welcome! I'm glad I made your day! I know I get so excited if anyone says anything nice about my writing, it just magically washes away the stench of rejection, at least for a minute or two.

I wished more people would give specifics on what their favs were, but I understand that not everyone is going to read them. I didn't read all, so I'm sure I missed some good ones. I wonder if any I liked will be Nathan's picks! That would make my day, isn't that sad?

I'd be happy to read more. Is it a middle-grade book?

Terry said...

Voice, and something that intrigues me. It can be simple but it makes me want to find out what's going to happen.

There are so many good entries and I haven't read them all. Besides, I'd rather not say which ones are favs so far. I'll leave that to the expert - you.

Jacque said...

It's hard to read a first paragraph cold, especially since they could be coming from so many different genres and age groups. I know which ones I liked, but I don't know if there was any good method behind it. So much of it was more taste than style which wouldn't be really constructive to share....

However, after reading the paragraphs and comments, it's made me rethink a few things in my own paragraph and have been helpful in that way. :)

Anonymous said...

"I noticed how using names in the first paragraph seemed to weight down the writing..."

Opening line from The Da Vinci Code:

"Robert Langdon awoke slowly."

So much for that!

~Anonypus

Mary Danielson said...

I'll be the 100th one to say it: voice. A strong voice and clear writing is all the hook some of these paragraphs need.

I can't wait to see if some of my favorites make it to the top! There are quite a few that stand out already and entries will no doubt skyrocket more before tomorrow.

Other Lisa said...

I'm going with "skill of the author" and "voice." Everything else is negotiable.

Sam Hranac said...

What Lydia Sharp said. Deniselle too.

Vijaya said...

Books I love all have opening paragraphs that intrigue me, that promise me a story.

Ash. Elizabeth said...

Well, I read lots of YA because that's what I write, but I like first paragraphs where the voice is strong and there's no purple prose. I don't like novels that start with sunsets and things like that. I've seen sunsets and snow and stuff I don't need a paragraph to explain to me what it looks like. I want conflict in the first page of a novel, or at least a humorous MC.

That's just me though.

susiej said...

Its interesting to read these w/out any hint of what's to come- no title, cover, or even the section of the bookstore/library there in.

I never realized how much all that helped me prepare for the voice.

RainSplats said...

voice. Brevity. A puzzle/foreshadowing (that often breaks the PoV rules), AND proof that the author KNOWS WHERE TO START THE STORY without being cliche or boring.

jmartinlibrarian said...

Voice. Story.

MeganRebekah said...

I have never focused much on first paragraphs (or even first pages) when I read.
There is only one book I can recall that ever turned me off that quickly, and that was because of repeated use of double adjcetives (ie, the tall muscular man stepped out of the sleek cherry-colored car, his long khaki-clad legs carrying him to the rotten mahogany steps)

On a side note --
After reading all these opinions, is anyone else resisting the urge to race back back and delete their entry? I feel protective of my little paragraph.
No? That's just me?

Deniselle said...

MeganRebekah, I feel the same. But I didn't enter to win and my work is VERY IP, so I'm just trying to learn as much as I can. Most people will probably skip it because it's long, and I spotted a typo, but I'm keeping it there.

Blank said...

Megan -

YES! But I know the odds are stacked against me anyhow to be chosen from this stack. I'm just gonna leave it. I'm curious to see the ones he picks though. All a learning experience.

Danyelle said...

For me it's the voice. The words the author chooses to use, as well as the tone. I also like humor. :)

Arabella said...

I don't expect too much from first paragraph. I'll usually read further to see if I like the book. The first few pages are a better indicator of the book.

I'm not much for the en medias res approach, though. Too much action at the start jars me. I like good character development first, but I do have a long attention span--not everybody does.

Adam said...

I admit, my eyes glazed over, and I haven't read all of them... not even a good sample. I sit there thinking, "I don't care about this character's emotional angst. Its just the same as the last one..."

One that did stand out was somewhere around #1600 (I think, like I said... all a blur. My eyes hurt...) About her teaching being killed by a taco truck. That voice (colleges like if you can create a clay bowl, right?), and the unexpected nature of the event (I think she somehow willed it to happen... I am thinking speculative fiction and she has supernatural powers...) made this actually entertaining to read. In other words, I want to see what is next!

Anonymous said...

i LOVE first paragraphs where I read along and think it's interesting/ funny and then the last sentence is BAM! I love a good BAM at the end of a first paragraph.

Anonymous said...

I can say what I don't like and that will leave what I like.

I don't like the first sentence to be narrative summary, internal monologue, or dialogue.

I prefer for the first sentence to be the main character physically doing something in a dangerous situation.

Eden Glenn said...

Okay, wearing my consumer hat and being a bottom line kinda gal.

At the book shelf in the store, I look first for favorite authors. That aside, next the cover pulls me over to actually pick the book up.

The cover interest is a combination of font, color, graphics/photo the whole balance of the presentation. Not that a bad cover turns me off. Yet, a good cover does contain some pick-the-book-up factor in the equation.

Then the back jacket gets a 30 second speed read scan. If the book gets my interest with the back cover, I open the front page and read. By the first couple of paragraphs, the story either has me putting it into the basket or back on the shelf.

What it takes to get me doesn't have to be a pow sensational opening. Though that kind of opening doesn't bother me if it is in tone with the author's voice and subgenre' i.e. action, suspense, thriller. Power openings are becoming the iconic standard in some genre's.

In those first precious paragraphs, I need to see the beginning of a journey unfolding that I desire to make with the author. One that I am willing to invest my measly but hard earned $$ on.

The story has to touch some resonance in me, emotion, interest, curiosity. A character, a setting, a line, a problem to solve, a question my easily fatigued mind pauses to consider.

Dare I say a hook designed to snare me in the guise of an attractive lure? I may not want it to scream HOOK HOOK, look a HOOK! It must be invisible and seamless within the context of a well crafted story.

MeganRebekah said...

Deniselle and Blank, glad to know I'm not the only one!

I wouldn't actually delete my entry (I'm quite proud of it), but it would be so nice to shield it from the critical eyes that are scoping it out and finding flaws in it.

I guess this is a tiny glimpse into what published authors experience by sending their work out into the world.

Laura D said...

Of course I want to be drawn in and engaged by the author's voice, but I can really tell a good opening after I've finished reading a story. I like looking back to the start and realizing the story began exactly where it should have. Like the opening of Memento (the movie) even though the story is told backwards.

Merc said...

I agree with The Screaming Guppy's comment--I don't have a set of specific criteria (other than don't bore me and don't tick me off ;)) for openings, as a reader.

A variety of things can grab my attention. Anything from action to dialogue to a bit of backstory, etc. Voice and style and content are definitely factors, but there's no "formula" about this. I'll know what I like and what draws me in when I read it--but also, if a book's premise or something else intrigues me, I may read on past the first paragraph even if it doesn't hook me.

~Merc

JEM said...

I read through about the first 400 and that alone made my head spin. I did realize one thing about me as a reader that I hadn't paid attention to before - I like a first paragraph, especially in this context, that tells a good story. Many of the paragraphs focused in on descriptions of things, which is fine, but I noticed myself glossing over those after awhile. The ones that really piqued my interest were those that hinted at a full, rich story. The only one I can truly remember out of all of those was the one about leaving a home town as a black boy and returning as a black man. My head is still trying to wrap around that one, and I'd love to know what happens in that story.

Anonymous said...

A good complment to this exercise would be to take 10 current NYT bestsellers (say 2 from YA, 2 from thriller/suspense, 2 from sci-fi, 2from romance, 2 from and literary)and post the opening paragraphs.

Then compare those to the winners nathan picked, and to the non-picked entries.

MarianneHarden said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
«Oldest ‹Older   1 – 200 of 355   Newer› Newest»
Related Posts with Thumbnails