Tuesday, February 12, 2013

That All Important First Paragraph

Picture from stock.xchange
If you don’t read ex-agent now author Nathan Bransford’s blog  you should start.  He has done a lot to help and encourage aspiring writers.  Last week he held his Fifth Sort-of-Annual Stupendously Ultimate First Paragraph Contest.  This contest is awesome for three reasons.

1.   The winner and finalists get some awesome prizes like partial manuscript critiques by an agent and query letter critiques by Nathan Bransford.  These are prizes that could potentially help you land an agent.

2.   When he announces the finalists and the winner, Bransford takes some time and talks about opening paragraphs.  Trends he sees in the samples, things that work and things that don’t work, and he points out the elements in the opening paragraphs he chose as finalists that won him over.  Overall, his analysis is extremely helpful.

3.  If you spend a little time (okay a lot) and read through the entries, you can get a good idea of what an agent or editor’s slush pile looks likes, and what makes some first paragraphs stand out over others.

I’m going to summarize some of his points and share some of my own ideas, but first I want to provide the links so you can read what Bransford has to say for yourself.  Well worth the time, IMO.

Contest entries (if you want to see what the slush pile looks like):  1st contest, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, and 5th.

The finalists announcement and discussion of opening paragraph:  1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, and 5th.

The winner announcement and discussion of finalists’ paragraphs:  1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, and 5th.

Now that you've read through all of that, here are some things that I'd like to highlight.

What is needed in the first paragraph

 I struggle a lot with beginnings (and endings for that matter).  The first paragraph is so hard to write, and I think that is because it needs to do so many things, introduce character and setting, help the reader get their bearings, establish the tone and voice, and give the reader a good idea of what they are getting into.  It is a bit daunting when considering everything that needs to go into so few words.

I know when I’m trying to perfect that opening paragraph, there are so many things I want to establish immediately because I feel like the reader needs to know all of these things up front.  Sometimes I have to force myself to slow down.  Not everything has to be in that first paragraph, just enough to ease the reader in.

Nathan Bransford said that there are three important things a first paragraph needs to do: “…it establishes the tone/voice, it gets the reader into the flow of the book, and it establishes trust between the author and reader.” 

I agree completely with what he says here.  Tone is very important to establish early.  This plays a large role in making a promise of what type of story is being told.  Is it light-hearted or dark?  A roaring adventure or a quiet slice of life? These are things a reader needs to know from the start.  

I think it is interesting how he talks about establishing trust.  A reader is planning on spending a bit of their time in the writer’s world. They need to feel that they are in good hands. 

And finally, Nathan talks about the importance of flow. This is something he brings up a lot in discussions about first paragraphs.  Having a nice flow is important throughout the story, but perhaps it is a little more important in the first paragraph when the reader is first trying to find their bearings.

Nathan Bransford describes it better.

The concept of flow and rhythm is especially important. It's hard to begin reading a book. The reader is starting with a blank slate and doesn't have much context for understanding what is happening. It takes a lot of brain power to read the opening and begin to feel comfortable in the world of that book. So even if the novel starts with action, or especially if it begins with action, it's very important to draw in the reader methodically, with one thought leading to the next. The flow of the words and a steady building goes a long way toward hooking the reader. Quite a few paragraphs jumped around or felt scattered, and it made it difficult to stay engaged.”

Pressure to Hook the reader

I think we writers sometimes feel a lot of pressure to make the first paragraph hookish or very clever or intriguing, and perhaps first paragraph contests like this only seem to emphasize that importance to immediately capture a reader’s interest.  But really if you try to force something into your story that doesn’t belong, it will only backfire.  I think beginnings need to feel authentic and natural more than anything else.

But don’t take my word for it.  Let’s see what Nathan has to say.

“And...... what didn't work?  Well, in general I'm wary of anything that feels forced: forced cleverness, forced wordiness, forced cheekiness, forced sagacity.... anything that doesn't feel natural and authentic. Great first paragraphs feel effortless, and of course they're anything but.” 

And

“Lots of really great books have very quiet and/or unremarkable first paragraphs. Your book is not going to succeed or fail based solely on its first paragraph. While I do think a good first paragraph can help grab a reader, I hope the takeaway from this contest isn't to elevate the first paragraph more than it deserves or convey that it's essential to cram the entire plot into the first paragraph or to make it overly clever or to treat it as anything but it what it is: your reader's first impression of the book.” 

The importance of being original

One more thing that I’ve learned from these contests is that originality stands out big time.  I know that there are cliché starts that we’ve all been warned not to use (or at least try to avoid if possible), like waking up or a character looking in the mirror or starting with weather, just to name a few.  And every once and a while an aspiring writer argues against these “rules” citing the many published books that have started that very way.  I think that it is important to see what agents and editors are seeing.  Go through and read a page or so of the entries in Nathan’s contest, and you will see how quickly many of those beginnings blur together, and if you’re trying to capture the agent/editor’s attention, that is a bad thing.

In this last contest, there were so many entries that dealt with death, finding a body, burying a body, the protagonist being dead or having died before.  I understand that this is a very dramatic way to start a novel.  Death is a very emotional thing, but after reading so many of these, they no longer stood out.  I glossed over them because they didn’t feel original.

I think we aspiring writers need to realize what agents and editors are seeing in their slush piles isn’t what we are seeing at the bookstore, and when they are kind enough to point out openings that are cliché to them, we should listen.  I’m not saying you can’t start your novel with death or waking up or any of those “cliché” openings, but you should be aware of the pitfalls if you do.  Honestly, you should try to avoid them if at all possible, but if it’s not, if that is the place your story has to begin, then make sure it sparkles and shines because it will need to stand out big time to feel original.

That is all I got.  So tell me what you think makes a great opening paragraph.

~MaryAnn

15 comments:

  1. Great post! Thanks!

    I've been working on the first paragraph of my current WIP and this was so helpful.

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    1. Thanks Connie. I'm glad it was helpful. :)

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  2. Great summary, but you didn't mention how FUNNY it was, written in the voice of the dowager from Downton!

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    1. Oh yes, I totally forgot to mention how hilarious that was. It is worth reading the announcements of the finalists (5th contest) for that alone. Thanks for reminding me.

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  3. I think beginning and ending would be hard. Some authors seem brillant at pulling you in. There are also books that I have read which don't have powerful beginning which are very good books. Obviously you as a writer want to stand out and get published. I think the querry letter will also help get a potential agents interest. I read once that a good book almost goes in a complete circle ending in a similar way to how it began. Seinfield episodes were alway brillant to me, because often even though it is funny everyone often fits like a puzzle. Good luck again.

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    1. Wow I should have edited this post better. Oh well that the power of being anonymous.

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    2. I do think a good query letter helps a lot, but I've heard that most agents are looking for reasons not to read on until they hit the half-way point. So you got to have some good opening pages to go along with an awesome query letter.

      It's tough to land an agent or an editor. You just have to do your best and hope. :)

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  4. Thanks for posting this. I must write and rewrite my first paragraphs in my books hundreds of times. Good to see what a common struggle it is.

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    1. Glad I'm not alone. :) I bet if I had kept count of the number of times I've rewritten my beginning, I'd be in the hundreds as well.

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  5. I wait until I've totally finished writing the book before tackling that opening paragraph. That takes the pressure off. I'm okay if my opening is bad at first because I can fix it later. These are great tips, and the link was really helpful. I really enjoyed getting to see what Nathan Bransford thought made a good opening, and why. I hope he keeps this contest up. :)

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    1. I do that too. The beginning is always something I return to once I've reached the end. Nathan's contest is really awesome. I can't believe he reads through every paragraph. What a great guy.

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  6. It's taken a long time for me to work my way through all the information in this post, so I'm sorry it's taken me so long to comment. Awesome job! That first paragraph is complicated, and I love Nathan Brandsford. I keep forgetting his blog is there though. I need to read it more often.

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    1. Yeah, I put up a lot of links. Glad you got through them all. I can see why that would take a while. :) I really think it is such useful information.

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  7. Great thoughts! Nathan B's contests are a good way to study openings, and also see what others write as far as their first paragraphs. :)

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    1. Definitely, I am really so thankful that he does it. It is a lot of work for him. It is fun to get an idea of what other aspiring writers are working on, and looking back over the old contests, I noticed the opening for the YA novel The Unbecoming of Mara Dyer in the finalists. It is cool to see someone from the contest make it.

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