Contributed by Linda Wilson
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.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Linda Wilson, is a former elementary teacher and ICL graduate. She has published over 150 articles for children and adults, and several short stories for children. Visit Linda at https://www.lindawilsonauthor.com and on Amazon at https://www.amazon.com/author/lindawilsonchildrensauthor.
This article was first published at: http://www.writersonthemove.com/2017/10/writers-first-paragraph-essentials.html
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