Writers: First Paragraph Essentials

Sunrise, photo by Norm Arnold Photography
Begin your new day and your new opening with fresh eyes until you "get it right."
How many times have you written and rewritten the first paragraph of your first chapter? Ten, twenty, fifty times? Stephen King has said he words and rewords his opening paragraphs over weeks, months, and even years: "If I can get that first paragraph right, I'll know I can do the book." What are the essentials of the first line and first paragraph that will entice your reader to want more?

An Opening Checklist
The opening of a novel must accomplish a lot in as few words as possible. When I'm starting a new book, I prop before me Linda Sue Park's book, When My Name was Keoko, to use as a model. Of course, my book is completely different from hers, but the stage is set for her entire book by the middle of page two, and I work to accomplish this as early as possible in my book, following her example.

Park's book is told in alternating sections by Sun-hee and her brother, Tae-yul.

  • Consider the first line: "It's only a rumor," Abuji said as I cleared the table. "They'll never carry it out." Are you in? This first line makes you wonder: Who is Abuji? What is the rumor? Who is 'they'? And what won't they carry out? Without a doubt, trouble is brewing.
  • Consider the second line: "My father wasn't talking to me, of course. He was talking to Uncle and my brother, Tae-yul, as they sat around the low table after dinner, drinking tea." The main characters are introduced simply and succinctly. Page 1 to middle of page 2 add more information to explain what the book is about. In the middle of page 2, the main character's problem is expressed in plain language: "Nobody ever told me anything. I always had to find out for myself. But at least I was good at it. You had to do two opposite things: be quiet and ask questions. And you had to know when to be quiet and who to ask."
  • By the end of this first section, on page 4, the problem that the book addresses is explained. From page 1-4, the story is told by Sun-hee but her name is given only once, as a kind of chapter heading: 1. Sun-hee (1940), and once is enough. Numbering the chapters alternately, first Sun-hee talks, then Tae-yul, is unique and a great way to tell the story.
  • The setting is established early and by the middle of page 2 the reader cares about Sun-hee.  

Sage Advice from Stephen King
When Stephen King writes a first draft, he just writes. So, I understand this to mean that crafting comes with revision. And to draw your reader in, your opening line "should say: Listen. Come in here. You want to know this." He doesn't necessarily agree with advice many hear: to open a book in the middle of "a dramatic or compelling situation, because right away you engage the reader's interest."--called the "hook". He says that's true to a point. But the opening needs to accomplish more with few words, as Linda Sue Park's opening first line did. The opening introduces the writer's style, and more important, the writer's voice. King thinks readers "come for the voice." To find out more of Stephen King's advice and many examples that he offers on first paragraphs that he thinks are great, please go to: A July, 2013 article in The Atlantic.

A Personal Note
I started this post believing that the first paragraph of my WIP was finished. I began reading it and, a la Stephen King, wasn't happy. It is now revised for the umpteenth time. Was this the last revision? I can't say. But I must keep working until "I can get that first paragraph right."

Photo courtesy of Norm Arnold Photography: http://photos.normjr.com/Daily-Photos-from-daily-emails/

Linda Wilson, a former elementary teacher and ICL graduate, has published over 100 articles for adults and children, and six short stories for children. Recently, she has completed her first book, a mystery/ghost story for children 7-11 years old, and is hard at work on Book Two in the series.  Follow Linda at www.lindawilsonauthor.com.


Karen Cioffi said...

Linda, great article. I became a huge fan of Linda Sue Park when I read "The Single Shard." I haven't read the book you mentioned yet, but definitely will. That first paragraph is super-important!

Terry Whalin said...


Starting your piece is critical and you have great suggestions and ideas in this article. Thank you. Terry

Linda Wilson said...

Yes indeedy, thank you, Karen and Terry, for your comments. They're always appreciated.

Carolyn Howard-Johnson said...

I like that Stephen King points out that there is no one way to do this. Having said that, many experts say to avoid using a piece of dialogue for the very first sentence in a novel. The preferred suggestion is something that sets out the premise or theme or foreshadows the major conundrum. That is another idea we might consider when we are working so hard on that first paragraph or first sentence. I have also heard not to give up until you have at least six possibilities written down. This is such a valuable topic that I pretweeted the permalink for a full year. Thank you and hugs, Carolyn

Linda Wilson said...

Ooh, my first sentence is a piece of dialogue. It introduces a recurrent element of the story--the theme is introduced on the second page. Mmm, thank you for your input, Carolyn. It's always thought- provoking, relevant and helpful.

Linda Wilson said...

Thank you, same to you! Thank you for commenting.

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