First impressions

wetcat

I taught my kids that, right or wrong, first impressions are important. I taught them to consider how they present themselves when confronted with a new meeting. Like job interview. Or a teacher. Evidently payback is a bitch because I got the same eye rolls I gave Mom back in high school when she suggested that my skirts were too short. She feared I’d make a bad impression at school. Ma, everyone’s skirts were that short, remember?

Only now that my kids are older are they realizing ol’ Mom wasn’t such a dingbat after all, just as I did when I grew up…last year. First impressions are hard to overcome.

The same can be said for your first paragraph. I’m reminded of those street repair signs that are currently crowding a street where I go to pick up our mail – “This site reserved for future construction.” I think manuscripts should have a similar sign hanging on the blank page: “This site is reserved for future opening WOW paragraph.”

Readers, as a whole, tend to lean toward ADD (attention deficit disorder). If the first paragraph is slow or overwrought with prose, they put the book down and keep moving. As an editor, I’m equally guilty of this. If that first paragraph doesn’t grab and intrigue me, it’s a red flag. Yikes! A red flag on the first para? Is it really that tough?

Yup. It’s really that tough.

Now that’s not to say I’ll stop reading, but I’ll do it with less excitement. Especially if your second paragraph is equally dismal. So what constitutes a great opening paragraph?

A Great Line

I love a story that begins with a great first line. In my novel, Donovan’s Paradigm, my first line was, “Wake up and get your ass out of bed!” It was my MC’s alarm clock. I happened to really find a clock with that very alarm and thought it would grab the reader with something fun. Fun = hooked. The responsibility with a great line is that you have to back it up with a good paragraph. And then a few bazillion more good paragraphs. But at least your reader won’t put the book back on the shelf. They’ll keep reading. And that’s the point, right?

Simplicity

There are plenty of us writers who tend to get lost in our verbosity because we can visualize what we want to say – only it comes out in a long and confusing paragraph. Everything we saw in our brain looks on paper like my spaghetti casserole surprise. Here’s a prime example of what the mind visualized went terribly wrong on paper:

When Alice looked in the mirror, one day before she was to leave for college, when the birds were singing, a gentle breeze wafted into her room, and she listened to the distant sounds of lawnmowers, she decided the dress she put on made her look frumpy.

I uttered a few Whiskey Tango Foxtrots under my breath before reading it five more times. This was a poor choice for an opening paragraph, and I’m sure it broke a few laws on its way to Writer Oblivion. If you want to say a few things about the setting, may I suggest that you break it up? The comma is a lot like the beagle; it’s useful, but it can’t be expected to carry a lot of weight. Clearly, this sentence required a comma that could bench press my car.

Remember the KISS rule: Keep it simple, sweetheart.

Action

Lots of us love our first paragraph to open in the middle of action. It has the natural tendency to pull in the reader. It doesn’t have to be thriller action, but any kind of action – as simple as throwing a dart:

The dart went wide and hit the mahogany paneling.
“Shit.” Kim Donovan squinted through one eye at the picture taped to the dartboard’s center, took aim with her last dart and let it fly. “Oh, hell yes, she throws, she scores! That’s a hundred points for the pissed off surgeon.” The dart stuck between the eyes of the gaunt, late-for-a-shave mug. “So, you pathetic windbag, how’s it feel to be wearing a dart? That’ll teach you to tell me how to care for my patients.”

Action makes us sit up and pay attention because it exposes the character to react in a proactive manner. Proactive = interested reader.  The reader already begins wondering what the “windbag” did to the MC to have her throwing darts at his photograph. They instantly see she’s full of piss and vinegar because why else would she be throwing darts in her office? At lest that’s the intent I hope to achieve since this is my current WIP. But I digress.

Dialog

Dialog is another attention-getter because you have characters interacting with each other. Where there is interaction, there is something going on. Like Action, you’re creating a proactive environment.

Overworked and Underpaid Editor looked at the empty blender and glared at the beagle. “Did you really need to drink all the margaritas?”

“Sorry,” the beagle said through a small burp. “You were on the phone and the ice was melting. So sue me.”

“I may. Better yet, I’ll let you take your next vacation at the city pound.”

Going the literary route

Be very careful here because going the literary route can be a snoozefest or be of such wonderful quality that the reader is sucked in. I feel that Douglas Light’s beginning paragraph of his award-winning East Fifth Bliss is the Great Yoda of “Grab thy reader by the jugular.”

There are two theories.
The first:
After brothing up a world with water and soil and fish and plants and beasts that stand on two feet and talk and would eventually want credit cards and cell phones and satellite TV, God dipped his finger in the wetness between New Jersey and Long Island and summoned forth the rock called Manhattan. By doing so, He set in motion His austere plan: one day, there’d be an island replete with towering steel buildings and shabby brick tenements, dying trees, and co-ops with monthly maintenances more than most Americans’ mortgage payments. It’d be a paradise filled with hundreds of concrete parks littered with losing lotto tickets and fried chicken bones. Rats would frolic on doorsteps. Dogs would defecate on the sidewalks. Squirrels would charge at the passing people, having no fear.

When I read this, I shoved everything off my desk – including the beagle – and read his manuscript in one sitting. I am giddy over getting the Kindle/iPhone version of his book up very soon.

Set The Tone

Many authors forget that the beginning paragraph sets the tone for the entire book. No wonder many first paragraphs shiver in fear and drink heavily. It’s a big responsibility. So, dear authors, take care to treat your first paragraphs with extra respect. They are the first impression of your story and you, as a writer. And besides, is there anything worse than an inebriated first paragraph?

4 Responses to First impressions

  1. But there’s a large subjective element, isn’t there? One man’s first-line-that-grabs-you is another man’s oh-that-sucks-with-teeth-I’m-already-falling-asleep.

    (Er, ah, I probably shouldn’t say this, but it’s “thy reader,” not “thine reader.”)

  2. Well yes, David, all literature is subjective because everyone has different tastes. But there are trends that cast a wider net as to what makes for a grab ’em and keep ’em first paragraph. Those are the elements I sought to define. The idea of unanimity in publishing sends me into a fit of giggles.

    And yes, it’s “thy.” I had “to thine own self be true” running through my melon while I was typing. Sheesh. Maybe the beagle is right; I do need a keeper.

  3. Robin says:

    Well now, the words of your first example on simplicity were certainly wrong for a story about some yuppie on a package holiday who looks as if he’s going to get lucky in a snowdrift.

    But they weren’t intended for that kind of novel, were they? They were parodied from something entirely different, set in a different time, place, culture. Could one not, therefore, ‘show’ that by style, tone, register, and sentences with an unmodern rhythm?

  4. Robin, my point with the first example was to show a sentence that tried to do and say too much. The result is a poorly written sentence that forces the reader to read it twice and still say, “huh?”

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