Anatomy of a First Paragraph

The first paragraph is the most important paragraph of your whole book. 

Sure, the ending has to be good, or you'll get a grumpy one-star review on Amazon. Sure, the middle has to be good, or your readers will lose interest and forget to write a review at all. But in terms of highest value packed into the smallest space, nothing beats that first paragraph. It's what your readers see when they pick your book up in a store, trying to guess if this will be their next favorite novel, and it's essentially your elevator pitch. This is why you should read my book. This is what makes my book different from the thousands of others you could've chosen. This is what you're going to love about it. All this - and a foreshadowing of the book's plot - must be given to the reader upfront so they can decide whether to buy your book.

With that in mind, let's look at some guidelines for how to craft that perfect first paragraph.

1. The first sentence of the first paragraph should set the stage for the rest of the book. Consider the first sentence of one of my favorite young adult novels, Where the World Ends. It reads: "His mother gave him a new pair of socks, a puffin to eat on the voyage, and a kiss on the cheek." From that, the reader can infer the plot of the whole book: a young character embarks on a voyage (that, incidentally, goes awry). That first sentence clues the reader in to what's currently happening, what's about to happen, and even a little of the relationships between two characters. 

Another tidbit of advice about first sentences that has stuck with me from a middle school writing program is that the first sentence should echo the last sentence, and vice versa. In assigned essays for that class, we were required to restate the first sentence in the final sentence. While that may be too rigid of a structure for most books, it's often a good idea to consider having your first sentence at least foreshadow your final sentence. Separate the two from the rest of the book and ask yourself: "Do these two sentences alone summarize at least a significant part of the story?" If the answer is "yes," chances are you've written a compelling first and last sentence.

2. The first paragraph should be no longer than four to five sentences. Often, only one sentence is enough. In Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment, the entire first paragraph is one sentence: "On an exceptionally hot evening early in July, a young man came out of the garret in which he lodged in S. Place and walked slowly, as though in hesitation, toward K. Bridge." This single sentence is plenty long enough and plenty informative enough to set the scene for what's about to happen. By magnifying such a seemingly mundane action, Dostoyevsky sends the reader's mind scrambling for an explanation. Why is this significant? Why does the main character want to get to the bridge? Dostoyevsky asks but refuses to answer these questions in the first paragraph, keeping his readers hungry for more.

Contrast Dostokevsky's concision with the beginning of Moby Dick: 

"Call me Ishmael. Some years ago — never mind how long precisely — having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world. It is a way I have of driving off the spleen, and regulating the circulation. Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off — then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball. With a philosophical flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword; I quietly take to the ship. There is nothing surprising in this. If they but knew it, almost all men in their degree, some time or other, cherish very nearly the same feelings towards the ocean with me."

If your attention wavered during that paragraph, and you were wondering when it was ever going to end, I don't blame you. While it serves the same purpose as Dostoyevsky's paragraph, raising questions and saving the answers for later, it does so without the focus on one single, interesting event, and readers tend to get lost in the mud along the way.

3. The first paragraph should introduce your main character. Subconsciously, readers often gravitate toward characters whose motivations are unique, but whose actions and emotions feel very human - in other words, relatable. The first paragraph of Mother Tongue reads: "I'm going to speak to you in Russian. If I speak in English, I won't know enough words. In the language of home, I know too many." Right away, you may be wondering what's relatable about that, especially if you aren't bilingual and are living in your native country. But notice what is relatable. The tone is casual, conversational. The sentences are short and to the point, just like they would be if the narrator was speaking aloud. The experience of learning a second language, at least in part, is almost universal. This opening sentence tells us about the main character, and it tells us that, in some ways at least, she's just like us, though her situation is distinct from ours.

One of my favorite books is is 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, but I have to admit that the first paragraph is far from arresting: "The year 1866 was signalized by a remarkable incident, a mysterious and inexplicable phenomenon, which doubtless no one has yet forgotten. Not to mention rumors which agitated the maritime population, and excited the public mind, even in the interior of continents, seafaring men were particularly excited. Merchants, common sailors, captains of vessels, skippers, both of Europe and America, naval officers of all countries, and the governments of several states on the two continents, were deeply interested in the matter."

The first reason why this paragraph isn't very effective is because of the long, disjointed sentences, but the most important reason is that nobody is introduced. It reads more like a history book than a novel (and in fact, when I first read this book at the age of thirteen, I thought it was a nonfiction book until I was well into the story). Since there's no main character, there's nowhere for the reader to place themselves in the story.

4. The first paragraph should rest on conflict. If there's no conflict in your book, readers are likely to lose interest. This applies across all genres, including those that are commonly considered "easy-reading," like romance and slice of life. 

The book I'm currently writing (which we'll call WIP, work in progress, for lack of a better title) rests on a fundamental difference of values between characters involved. And these bizarre values and beliefs are reflected in the very first paragraph: "I’d seen her name at the bottom of the list that very morning. I remember feeling bad for her. I spared a moment to think it was a miracle she hadn't been killed yet, but I was more interested in the names at the top of the list, and I soon forgot about her." 

Here's an interesting scenario: the main character knows that someone she's at least cursorily familiar with is probably going to die, but she doesn't seem affected by the news. Thinking of the previous paragraph, you may once again be wondering: how is this relatable? It should be relatable to anyone who has picked up a newspaper in the past ten years. Hearing about someone's death isn't the same as watching it happen, which is exactly what the main character discovers later on. But more than that, this paragraph displays a deep difference in values between two characters in the story. The main character - the "I" of this paragraph - is simply reading names off a list. The girl whose name is at the bottom of the list, however, sees the situation quite differently. That is the basis for the rest of the plot.

In the case of Dostoyevsky's first paragraph from Crime and Punishment (one of my favorite classical novels, if that's not obvious), the conflict is more personal. It's easy to infer from the first paragraph, and a few sentences that follow, that the main character Raskolnikov is at a low point of his life. His internal conflict, reflected in the very first sentence, is the basis for the rest of the book. 

Do you know any more tips for writing first paragraphs? Discuss them in the comments below! And if you're interested in learning more about the WIP I mentioned in point #4, be sure to follow me on Instagram. If you'd like someone to read your first paragraph and offer constructive feedback, check out the Lauren's Bookshelf Reddit community, or use the "About" tab above to send me a message.