Dos and Don’ts of the Opening Paragraph
Those of us who write genre have read all the dos and don’ts about that all-important opening scene. But who reads an opening scene when deciding on his or her next read? We read the back cover blurb and then we read the opening paragraph. That opening paragraph determines our book’s fate with readers, and if the reports are accurate, with editors and agents, too.
So what does an opening paragraph for a genre novel need to convince a reader that this is the book he or she has been looking for? In one word, conflict.
Look at the opening paragraph of the first chapter of The Witch’s Salvation.
“On her eighteenth birthday, Anasztasia got the Fendi purse she had told everyone she couldn’t live without, the latest and greatest tablet to ease her way through her first year at Columbia, money toward wants and needs, and a plane ticket to Romania to meet a five-hundred-year-old witch. The Fendi purse was pure bliss, the tablet an academic luxury, the money a given, but the witch gift, if she could call it that, left her unable to enjoy her strawberry gateau with crème patisserie. But it was time her grandfather had proclaimed with the clarity and conviction expected of a crown prince without a country. Time to move beyond the facade of her comfortable life in Manhattan to the royal court of their noble homeland. Time to shed the frivolities of the common adolescent and embrace her inheritance as a princess. Time to change the circumstance of her birth and become like him, her grandmother, her parents, and all those people who had followed him out of their homeland over five centuries before. Immortal.”
Anasztasia sounds like your average adolescent with expensive taste. She’s18 and university/party bound. More important, she’s mortal. But her family is immortal. They are also royalty and want Anasztasia to be like them. They disapprove of her mortality, of who she is. I have immediate conflict in my first paragraph: Anasztasia vs. her family. Does this conflict intrigue you? Does it make you want to read on to find out how it will play out? If the answer is yes, then my opening paragraph is effective.
My opening paragraph also has inferred conflict. Whether you’ve read the back cover or not, you’re probably assuming from that opening paragraph that Anasztasia is the protagonist. But do you know if she will become a heroine? Do you want to know? Do you want to know how she will do it? If the answer is yes here, too, then my opening paragraph has another level of intrigue. This can only work in my book’s favor.
Is there anything else an opening paragraph should have? You may call it something else, but I’m going to call it respectability.
Have you ever been intrigued by a title and back cover blurb only to be let down by the opening paragraph? Did that opening paragraph have conflict but lack integrity? When you read that paragraph, were you convinced that the writer was going to tell you the story in a voice or tone that appealed to you?
Let me give you an example of what I mean. I’ve rewritten the opening paragraph of The Witch’s Salvation without any frills.
“On her birthday, Anasztasia got an expensive purse, a tablet for school, money, and a plane ticket to meet an old witch. The purse, the tablet, and the money were nice, but she didn’t like the witch gift. Her grandfather, a prince without a country, said she had to visit the witch. It was time to make her immortal like him, her family and his loyal people.”
The conflict between Anasztasia and her family is evident, but the writing is flat and the voice nonexistent. It sounds more like a report. If you the reader are okay with that report-voice, then great. But if you the reader are not and are looking for depth of writing and an authentic voice to carry you into and through the novel, then that book isn’t going anywhere.
Conflict and respectability are not new. Take a look at Beginnings, Middles & Ends by Nancy Kress. I’ve just reworded and applied what the author says about the opening scene to the opening paragraph. The First Five Pages by Noah Lukeman is also invaluable for any aspiring writer.
Does your opening paragraph have conflict, whether stated or inferred? Does it have respectability? Conflict is necessary to hook the reader, especially for genre. Respectability is something that may be important to a reader or may not. It all depends on what he or she wants to read. But it doesn’t hurt your writing to have it. Voice can only add depth to your writing.
What do you look for in an opening paragraph for genre novels?