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Monday, 18 April 2011

O: Opening Lines and paragraphs

Have you taken the time to study the opening lines and paragraphs of the novels you have read?


There's an excellent, free pdf article on this very subject at the Mslexia website.


When an agent or editor receives your submission, they will read your pitch letter and then turn straight to the Opening Page of your manuscript. If they like what they read, they’ll read on; if not, your submission will be returned to sender.


Here's some opening lines of books I own:


White Teeth by Zadie Smith
 Early in the morning, late in the century, Cricklewood Broadway. At 06.27 hours on 1 January 1975, Alfred Archibald Jones was dressed in corduroy and sat in a fume-filled Cavalier Musketeer Estate face down on the steering wheel, hoping the judgment would not be too heavy upon him. He lay forward in a prostrate cross, jaw slack, arms splayed either side like some fallen angel; scrunched up in each fist he held his army service medals (left) and his marriage license (right), for he had decided to take his mistakes with him. A little green light flashed in his eye, signalling a right turn he had resolved never to make. He was resigned to it. He was prepared for it. He had flipped a coin and stood staunchly by its conclusions. It was a decided-upon suicide. In fact it was a New Year’s resolution.

Labyrinth by Kate Mosse
A single line of blood trickles down the pale underside of her arm, a red seam on a white sleeve.
At first Alice thinks it’s just a fly and takes no notice. Insects are an occupational hazard at a dig, and for some reason there are more flies higher up in the mountain where she is working than at the main excavation site lower down. Then a drop of blood splashed onto her bare leg, exploding like a firework in the sky on Guy Fawkes night.
This time she does look and sees that the cut on the inside of her elbow has opened again. It’s a deep wound that doesn’t want to heal. She sighs and pushes the plaster and lint dressing tighter against her skin. Then, since there is no-one around to see, se licks the red smear from her wrist.


Room by Emma Donoghue
Today I'm five. I was four last night going to sleep in Wardrobe, but when I wake up in Bed in the dark I'm changed to five, abracadabra. Before that I was three, then two, then one, then zero. "Was I minus numbers?"
"Hmmm?" Ma does a big stretch.
"In Heaven. Was I minus one, minus two, minus three- ?"

Kissing Games of the World by Sandi Shelton
 Harris Goddard's life ran out on an otherwise ordinary afternoon in the middle of May, on the very day it seemed thed rest of the planet was pulsating with life. An unexpected warm front had blown toward the coast overnight, pushing out the last remains of the long, wet Connecticut winter and nudging the buds into a frantic, hurried bloom. By 11:00am the thermometer on the side barn read eighty-six damp degrees and Harris, standing on a ladder and scraping the peeling paint off the house, felt as though he might have missed out on the news flash that the world had slipped into the third circle of hell.


  • One eventually gets going though the style for me is rather un-engaging.
  • For the next two, the immediate focus is the main character involved in something interesting and idiosyncratic.
  • For the final excerpt, a dramatic event is described that sets off a chain of events for the MCs.

So, it seems, to be an engaging first paragraph your reader must be immediately led into the meaty details of the narrative.

How does you opening paragraph shape up?

15 comments:

  1. Very interesting post. I recall White Teeth being very much like that all the way through and it got quite tedious. I wasn't a very big fan of Room either. I thought it was well written and an interesting idea, but it felt like a short story that had been stretched and padded. I'm probably alone in that view.

    Good observations.
    cheers,
    mood
    Moody Writing

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  2. Awesome post.

    When I visit a bookstore I usually base my decision as whether I buy it or not on the back cover blurb. But agents, editors, and publishers base their decisions on the those opening lines; they are your first and only way to make a good impression.

    I read somewhere that the mark of a new writer is that the editor can cut the first two or three paragraphs - that they are unecessary. What does that teach us? Start your story or novel at the exactly the right place. So, get out your openings and ask yourself, would an editor cut this/?

    Ellie Garratt

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  3. Fab post! I thoroughly enjoyed White Teeth but just thought the middle bit (when Irie stays with the Chalfens)dragged!! Her first paragraph drew me immediately into the story. I think for me her first paragraph had a beat/rhythm to it - it was like reading a really catchy tune. I liked that - it was different anyway!

    My opening para of my current wip is nowhere near as polished as any of these here - so lots more work for me! Take care
    x

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  4. I love studying opening lines and paragraphs. Always makes me think about my writing and if it's good enough or if it could be better.

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  5. Hi Madeleine .. I shall definitely keep an eye open on first lines now .. good selection you gave us.

    Very important for a book .. equally so for catching the blogging eye, and tweeting tap .. I try and make mine fun and enticing .. and people do comment - so it works.

    Not 'O' for organised though .. see 'N' for Notebooks!! Cheers and enjoy the week ahead .. Hilary

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  6. I really enjoy analyzing openings too. I like the opening of the wip I'm working on now.Unfortunately that's the only thing I like about the story right now. *sigh*

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  7. Thanks for the pdf link, it’s a great article. I always like to have an opening that grabs the reader by the scruff of the neck and drags them into the book. It’s not always easy, but it is always worth it!

    Steven Chapman (writer)

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  8. The opening paragraph is a struggle, for sure. I've had so many in my [finally] finished book, I've lost count!

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  9. Studying published first lines/paragraphs is an important exercise for any aspiring writer -- thanks for the reminder! I need to get back into doing this...

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  10. I am working on opening lines and paragraphs at the moment.

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  11. Love the opening to 'Room'! I haven't read it yet but I've heard such good things about it.

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  12. Great post! Studying opening lines is fascinating. Call me Ishmael...Scarlett O'Hara was not beautiful...There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.

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  13. Great post and good selections - I often turn to the first para of a book, directly after I've read the blurb, just to confirm that it's going to 'grab' me as much as the hype on the back cover did :-)
    All best, Karla

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  14. Oh yes Luana, I hadn't thought of that one. I guess tastes change with the times too.

    I enjoyed 'Room', though I wondered whether a child who'd had solely adult contact for 5 yrs would speak the way he did, but I guess it helped his characterisation and I thought the story was well crafted.

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  15. I think I've rewritten my opening five hundred times, and I might do it again.

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