Annnnd the winner of the 6th Not-as-annual-as-it-used-to-be Stupendously Ultimate First Paragraph Challenge is……..
At the bottom of this post.
In the meantime, reading over a hundred first paragraphs in a row can really help clarify what works and what doesn’t in a first paragraph. I had four main takeaways on common threads.
Death and the macabre
As Tom Wambsgans joked announcing the winners, there was a lot of death in these opening paragraphs, as well as a healthy dose of non-death blood and guts.
While I do think these can work on occasion and Elizabeth Passarelli made the honorable mentions with a death-oriented opening, these can also be a bit of a turnoff for an agent because 1) it’s just so common and 2) it can feel like a cheap way to provoke a reader. It just doesn’t quite feel earned.
I’m not saying it can’t be done, but as with any common opening it raises the bar for what works.
Stops and starts can make it hard to engage
There’s a particular sing-song-y style that many of the first paragraphs employed, along the lines of “It wasn’t THIS, it was actually THAT. But it really wasn’t THAT after all, it was actually THIS.”
Your tastes may vary, but this tended not to work for me. It’s so hard to get your bearings when you’re reading an opening, and it requires so much mental jujitsu to piece together what’s happening based on what something isn’t, rather than just being told what something is.
Dialogue does not a first paragraph make
Guys… do we need have a talk about what paragraphs are??
But even if I didn’t automatically disqualify multiple-paragraph conversations, I’m not much of a fan of starting a novel off with unanchored dialogue. It’s hard to start investing before we know where we are, who the characters are, and how we should be contextualizing the conversation.
Precision, precision, precision
You probably already know from my page critiques that I’m a stickler for very precise description. This goes doubly for opening paragraphs, where a single word that’s out of place or isn’t as effective as it could be can immediately take us out of the novel.
Kindly purchase the 2nd Edition to my guide to writing a novel!
One last plug before we get to the winner. If you haven’t already, kindly purchase How to Write a Novel! On sale now:
And the winner is…
Okay for real this time…
THE! WINNER! IS!
Momma waved a hundred dollar bill before my eyes–the cash we got for Brown Betty, our station wagon that coughed us into Seattle. Brown Betty died in Washington after moving us from California to New Mexico to Wisconsin to Mississippi, then Alabama and several states in between. Now, if Momma wanted to move again, it’d be up to the rain to float us away.
Congratulations! Marci and finalists, please reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Thanks again to everyone who entered and voting, this was a ton of fun. Until next time!!
• Need help with your book? I’m available for manuscript edits, query critiques, and coaching!
• For my best advice, check out my guide to writing a novel (now available in audio) and my guide to publishing a book.
• And if you like this post: subscribe to my newsletter!