Thursday, October 15, 2009

One Paragraph

Ignore the writing on the fingers, I just thought the palm was cool

In case you didn't know it, Nathan Bransford is holding another Stupendously Awesome First Paragraph Challenge (which closes at 4pm PST today). And yesterday, he asked us what makes a good first paragraph?

I don't have any grand, over-arching theories about what makes a good introductory paragraph, because I look for totally different things depending on the type/genre of book, my mood, etc. I am both arbitrary and capricious. But I noticed that my favorite entries in Nathan's contest tended to be the short ones. Here are some examples from the first 200 entries (as of this posting, there are 2,315 total):
  • "How do I feel about my mother?"

  • I remember the first time I met Kumari. She smelled of gunmetal, blood and death. I hated her.
  • I'm not a god, despite all evidence to the contrary.

  • They wanted me to eat fire.
Could my preferences have anything to do with the fact that the first paragraph of my own novel is a single sentence long? Perish the thought...

But it's giving me food for thought. I love my first sentence. I think it will make people want to read the first page. And then the first page will get them for the first chapter... you see where I'm going with this. But is my first line strong enough to win a contest like this one? I fear perhaps not.*

I guess a bunch of the authors in my boat had the same thought, because I'm seeing a mix of authors who posted only the first paragraph-sentence (gutsy!) and other authors who posted the first two paragraphs to get just a few more words in... and I'm seeing several paragraphs being entered in some cases where the book starts with short dialogue. (I think that's fair,** given that these entries are only 100 words or fewer in total, which is a completely reasonable length for a "first paragraph." Hey, some people are entering 540-word first paragraphs... my whole first page is less than half that long!)

So, what's your take on this? Do some first sentences/paragraphs only grab you because you already saw the summary on the back of the book? Do you expect different first sentences/paragraphs from literary fiction as compared to a mystery? Does my choice of a one-liner first paragraph make me a dumbass? (Wait, don't answer that one...)

On a related note, I suggest that authors go check out Fiction Groupie's post, Which Kind of First Chapter Writer Are You?

* I wrote most of this post last night, and then this morning I woke up to discover that Andrew Jack is also blogging about The First Paragraph, and that he has more faith in me than I do. He's also a fan of the short and snappy. Okay, okay, I'll think about entering!

** I, however, am not the contest judge. Read the rules before entering!


  1. Hey!

    I just heard about this contest and don't think I'll be able to enter this go around. But next time he has a contest, I'll be ready!

    I go back and forth. Both are great tools. I just want the first paragraph to work. I want it to be dramatic, to draw me in, to make me care about the outcome of things. However the author does it is fine with me. That's part of the experience.

  2. I think, for the purposes of Nathan's contest, shorter is ALWAYS better. The long ones get boring fast! In real books I don't think it matters as much as we think. I've read many, many books with ho-hum first paragraphs what were wonderful.

  3. I think shorter-within-reason is better for Nathan's contest. Three to five sentences? Awesome. Over 300 words? Not so much.

    But let's take my current work in progress as an example. The first paragraph is a single line of dialogue:

    "There she is."

    Perfect for my story? Maybe. Totally generic when isolated from the rest of the novel? Probably. Contest-winner all by itself? No way.

  4. I liked shorter, but I liked those that made me go "Oooooh" and want to read more.
    There were a lot of ones that rambled and I wasn't interested in those.

  5. I have picked up books that have an eye-catching, killer first sentence that made me read further. And then the paragraphs following it fell completely flat.

    I guess I realized that you better have a killer first sentence - and then a killer few paragraphs after that, and then a killer chapter, and on, and on, and on!

  6. I tend to agree with the above comments. Shorter is the way to go, especially considering he has 2300+ entries so far.

  7. Only an hour to go! I'm with you on short is better, especially in the context of an endless blog thread. OMG it was over 2500 when I last checked! Those huge blocks of 500+ word text are clunky in the midst of those snappy short ones (I love the ones you mentioned, too.) I think the long ones are off-putting on the page, too--sort of a wall of text between you and the story. Good luck to all who entered!

  8. Yes, good luck to all who entered. Especially the fire eating line. That's my fav. I dont mind if its short or long, just keep me entertained. :)

  9. Shorter is usually the sign of someone who knows how to edit what they want to say and use just a few choice words. Not always true, but short often means better writer, because being succinct is damn hard work. It means you know the tone of your story and you nailed it in just a few sentences. That's my take on it anyway.

  10. Drat! Too late for me to enter. I'll have to go check his blog out. What a fun contest!