Today’s post is excerpted from the book The Linchpin Writer: Crafting Your Novel’s Key Moments by John Matthew Fox (@bookfox).
The first paragraph of a book is quite possibly not only the most important impression a reader will get of your book, it’s also the gateway for you to figure out where to start telling your story. And if you can identify the right place to start, you’re far ahead of the curve.
I went through my bookshelves and read the first paragraph of over a thousand books. This actually takes less time than you would think, and I would highly encourage you to do it with your own bookshelf. After all, most books have three paragraphs per page, so if you read a 333-page novel, you have read about 1,000 paragraphs. I mean, if you really want to become an expert at something (and first paragraphs are an excellent thing to excel at), then why not study a wheelbarrow’s worth of the best examples?
I wanted to do several things:
- Find similarities between books. Did a number of books employ a similar strategy for the first paragraph?
- See whether there are any ways you shouldn’t start a book.
- Learn powerful strategies for book openings.
I don’t like studying first sentences of books—a sentence really doesn’t give the reader enough information or the writer enough room. And besides, you’ve probably seen a thousand articles about famous first lines, and they all quote the same twenty, and you think, Yeah, yeah, I know I’m not Fitzgerald or Hemingway, and this doesn’t help me write my book.
But a paragraph! Oh, a paragraph will give you enough direction to write your book, and your reader enough of a first impression to know whether they are excited to read more.
So to learn how to pull off the linchpin moment of a first paragraph, we’re going to dive into the four critical components of first paragraphs:
- Emotional bedrock
If you’ve got those four, there is a near bulletproof chance you have a splendid first paragraph, one that will make your readers yearn for more.
Remember Jonathan Safran Foer? He burst onto the scene as a 23-year-old wunderkind, publishing his first book to breathless praise and a lucrative advance. But what stuck with me was the way he talked about how he found his first paragraph. He was describing his process for writing Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, his second novel, and every day before he started writing, he’d read everything he had written up to that point. As he progressed further and further into the novel, this became more difficult. Sometimes he spent over an hour or two or three reading and editing previous writing before he got to the point where he wrote new material.
And he discovered that when he read the beginning of his book, the prose didn’t pop. He didn’t find the energy until he got to this paragraph, ten pages in:
What about a teakettle? What if the spout opened and closed when the steam came out, so it would become a mouth, and it could whistle pretty melodies, or do Shakespeare, or just crack up with me? I could invent a teakettle that reads in Dad’s voice, so I could fall asleep, or maybe a set of kettles that sings the chorus of “Yellow Submarine,” which is a song by the Beatles, who I love, because entomology is one of my raisons d’être, which is a French expression that I know. Another good thing is that I could train my anus to talk when I farted. If I wanted to be extremely hilarious, I’d train it to say, “Wasn’t me!” every time I made an incredibly bad fart. And if I ever made an incredibly bad fart in the Hall of Mirrors, which is in Versailles, which is outside of Paris, which is in France, obviously, my anus would say, “Ce n’étais pas moi!”
So what did Foer do? He deleted the first ten pages of his manuscript. They were all just flotsam and jetsam, and they prepared Foer to write the actual first paragraph of his book, but they weren’t the first paragraph itself. Foer’s actual first paragraph was pretty deep into the book, but he was ruthless with his writing and killed his precious early words.
What does a first paragraph like this do well? First of all, it reveals the essential human relationship at the heart of the book. Oskar misses his father, who died on 9/11 in the Twin Towers, which is why Oskar wants to invent a teakettle that reads in his father’s voice. If you haven’t read the book, you don’t realize that connection, but Foer is already preparing you emotionally for the heartsickness this boy harbors for his dead father. This is the emotional bedrock of the book.
Also, the paragraph sets the tone and energy for this book. This paragraph zings! It’s got all the high-wire tension of an electrical line, just sizzling and crackling with voltage. Try reading it out loud. It fairly begs to be read quickly and after nine cups of coffee (which might be how Foer wrote it!).
Pay attention to the punctuation. The abundance of question marks fuels the energy—the first two sentences are questions, which accelerate the reader toward the answer.
And there are also two exclamation marks toward the end. What’s more, when Foer does calm down enough to end a sentence with a mundane period, that sentence is more winding than an Alpine road.
Lastly, the paragraph accomplishes a tremendous amount of characterization. We can tell this is a precocious child. Precocious because he’s cracking jokes in French and musing about sentient teakettles, and a child because he’s making fart jokes. So we have a wonderful mix of high and low culture, which is a fair approximation of Oskar’s personality. Just on the basis of this paragraph alone, I could talk to a lineup of kids and pick Oskar out.
In a very different vein, let’s look at Anne Enright’s opening to The Gathering:
I would like to write down what happened in my grandmother’s house the summer I was eight or nine, but I am not sure if it really did happen. I need to bear witness to an uncertain event. I feel it roaring inside me—this thing that may not have taken place. I don’t even know what name to put on it. I think you might call it a crime of the flesh, but the flesh is long fallen away and I am not sure what hurt may linger in the bones.
Now, many writers start their books with a mystery. But Enright starts with two mysteries!
First, the mystery of what happened in her grandmother’s house long ago, and, second, the mystery about whether it did or did not happen. The narrator seems confused. In fact, she states her uncertainty twice, just to make sure the reader gets it.
Also, right from the beginning, Enright starts to give away the mystery. Enright calls this event a “crime of the flesh,” which both withholds information (we don’t know exactly what happened), but also gives us good guesses about its sexual nature. Beginning writers often believe that creating mystery means withholding 90% of the information and giving the reader 10%; while the opposite is true: you should give away 90% and only withhold 10%.
Don’t underestimate the amount of characterization happening in this first paragraph. This is an exceptionally careful narrator. She’s worried about the hurt in the bones that this story might cause others. She wants to write it down, but hasn’t actually done so out of worry. She believes this event has happened, but also worries that it didn’t. This is not an impulsive character but an exceptionally thoughtful, slow-to-act character who moves methodically and prudently.
For a third example, let’s put Raymond Chandler under a microscope by checking out the first paragraph of The Big Sleep:
It was about eleven o’clock in the morning, mid October, with the sun not shining and a look of hard wet rain in the clearness of the foothills. I was wearing my powder-blue suit, with dark blue shirt, tie and display handkerchief, black brogues, black wool socks with dark blue clocks on them. I was neat, clean, shaved and sober, and I didn’t care who knew it. I was everything the well-dressed private detective ought to be. I was calling on four million dollars.
What’s the most important word in this paragraph? The word that does more to convey this narrator’s personality than anything else? I would argue it’s “sober.” As if being sober at eleven o’clock in the morning is an accomplishment.
Also, because he describes his clothing in such great detail, we know he’s proud to be well dressed. But why is he proud? Because just like the “sober” line, he’s excited that he’s not in rags or naked. He has a low bar for success.
In the hands of a lesser writer, the book would go into Philip Marlowe’s backstory to establish a point in time when he was in rags and drunk. But Chandler wisely starts the story at a point right when he’s put together, and his amazement and pride at being halfway presentable communicates Marlowe’s typical status. This is compression at its finest—always look for ways to accomplish more in a shorter space.
Now if I would buttonhole this first paragraph into a category, it would be “Description.” I usually tell writers to avoid descriptive openings, especially when they’re describing the natural environment. But this description succeeds for two reasons. First, it’s the description of a person, not the weather or a place. Second, and more importantly, the last sentence opens up the main action of the book: “I was calling on four million dollars.”
He’s making a house call for a rich client. This is the action of the first chapter, and it’s going to start the mystery of the book. Essentially, a good description paragraph that opens a book will always use the last sentence to launch the reader into the action. A good rule of thumb is look squint eyed at any paragraph that is 100 percent description. Use the last sentence as a bridge to get away from mere description and tease the reader with impending action.
Think about it: the last sentence of your first paragraph is the springboard from which you launch into the rest of your book. It’s the very first break in the book, and thus the first chance readers have to stop reading. Don’t let them.
What’s the emotional bedrock of this paragraph? It’s his conflict with himself. Remember there are three levels of conflict that every book needs:
- Conflict with others
- Conflict with the world (a big-picture issue like poverty or injustice)
- Conflict with oneself
With Marlowe, his conflict with others is the cases he’s trying to solve, the conflict with the world is his quest for justice, and his conflict with himself is overcoming his self-destructive alcoholism. So the emotional bedrock is that the reader sympathizes with a hero who isn’t perfect. We like flawed protagonists. So right from this first paragraph, our emotions tilt toward this guy.
Thankfully, the strategies for your first paragraph are uniform across all genres. Yes, Chandler’s writing a crime novel, but no matter what you’re writing, you can learn from him. If you look at any well-written romance, mystery, literary, YA, sci-fi, fantasy, crime, thriller, historical, or horror novel, you can mine those first paragraphs to find techniques for your own books, even if you’re writing in a vastly different genre.
Learn from everything. Yes, everything. I’ve found that even genres looked down upon, like erotica or fan fiction, can teach a serious writer about pleasuring the reader and fulfilling reader expectations. Don’t be snobby—be a vacuum.
John Matthew Fox helps authors write better fiction. He is the founder of Bookfox, where he creates online courses for writers. He is also the author of The Linchpin Writer: Crafting Your Novel’s Key Moments, and I Will Shout Your Name (Press 53). After earning a creative writing MA from New York University and MFA from the University of Southern California, he taught writing at the university level for a decade before devoting himself full time to Bookfox, which has been noted by The Guardian, Los Angeles Times, Writer’s Digest, Publisher’s Weekly, and The Huffington Post. His writing has also appeared in the Chicago Tribune and Los Angeles Times. Currently, he lives in Orange County, California.