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The Dreaded Opening Paragraphs

by Theodora Bryant, editor

All writers have at some point heard the line: The most important part of any book is the first five pages. Or the first fifty words. Or the first three paragraphs. Or the first paragraph. Scary how the number keeps getting tinier, isn’t it?

No matter the number, it’s clear that the opening has to be a grabber (gets the “hook” in) in some fashion or your manuscript is dead in the water with agents, and according to those in the know, the buying public. Your opening, they say, holds up the entire book, no saving it if that isn’t perfect. No pressure there, for sure.

So what should be in the opening, and how long should the “opening” be? When do you know you’ve left the opening and moved into the story? To the first, I’d say by the end of the fifth-ish paragraph, and to the second, by the end of the first chapter. Estimates, both. Books I’ve been reading lately have two-page chapters and then jump to another character and setting. It makes me dizzy.

Long ago I started cutting the first paragraph of the first chapter of manuscripts into one sentence. Just one. Maybe two, if those two are very short and punchy. Many writers have no idea that they’ve already written the opening, it’s just buried in too many words. The second and third paragraphs have to enhance the first one-sentence paragraph, of course, and by carefully crafting those two (often taken right out of those first “too many” words), they have it.

According to all the agents and editors I studied and researched on this subject, those three-to-five opening paragraphs will (in some order, and keep in mind, some agents want it all in the first paragraph): introduce your protagonist; set the protagonist in the middle of something that’s happening right here, right now that bears on the main plot; and three, provide a hint or clue as to what the stakes are/what the protagonist’s goal is. That last one is very hard and I don’t know how set in stone it should be; I like to get to know a bit about the characters first so I get comfortable with the where and who before I know the issue. Mystery writers who show us the detective coming on the scene to see the dead body in some grisly death scene might set the hook, but not necessarily the agents’ (or my) interest.

I wanted to prove the agents right, that the major best-selling authors manage all the “do’s” and are models of “how-to,” and I wanted to come up with some nifty examples of the above, so I took myself to my limited bookshelves (having given away 2000 books when I moved from Colorado to Texas) and started reading opening paragraphs.

I can say I rediscovered that Jonathan Kellerman was my inspiration for one-sentence paragraph openings. He is a master.

After that, I found that all but two failed in the most basic element: introducing the protagonist (as clearly the protagonist; I couldn’t tell, several times). Nelson DeMille did so in Wild Fire, and Leon Uris in The Haj. Both are first-person POV books. The others had bits of the here-and-now action or the protagonist’s goal, but identifying either was difficult. The other authors were Ayn Rand, Jonathan Kellerman, Michael Crichton, John Grisham, Dan Brown, David Baldacci, and Brad Thor. Of course, my author and genre preference may be wildly different from yours, so be sure to check your shelves, see what you find.

What did strike me with all of them was the writing. All of them, in their different ways, immediately drew me in, talked to me, said, “Stay here, listen to my tale.” (I darn near didn’t get back to work. I wanted to sit down and start rereading each book.) It’s an art.

My giveaway advice? Don’t worry so much about whether you’ve hit the mark at the first paragraph or the third, whether you’ve made sure you’ve introduced your MC immediately (maybe that isn’t right for your story) or on the second page, just concentrate on your story, concentrate on drawing people in to listen to your well-told tale.

And don’t forget: Openings can be rewritten. Finish the story and come back to the beginning, if necessary. :-}

Theodora is a Speculative Fiction and Science Fiction Editor. She offers line edits and manuscript evaluations.

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