Wednesday, February 24, 2010

It was a dark and stormy night...

Part One

Every great story begins with an equally compelling beginning. Hopefully.


How often do you pick up a book in a bookstore, read the book jacket blurb, and think "Wow" this book sounds wonderful? Then you flip it open, read the first paragraph... and hope it lives up to your expectations.

As writers we are forever striving to improve our craft. We attend workshops, classes, critique groups, and study books on the art of creative writing. We write, rewrite, and revise our manuscripts constantly, all to produce our best work possible -- including the all-important first page.

But how about that perfect first paragraph?
How do we choose just the right moment in time to begin our precious tale? How do we decide which character and setting to use to catapult our words off the page? Do we begin with narrative? Dialogue? Action? Reflection?

In my opinion, here are some examples of well written and eye-catching first paragraphs:

The following is from Betina Krahn's Make Me Yours:

England's Lake Country, 1887
"All I want is to be left alone to run my own life and tend my business in peace. Is that too bloody much to ask?" Mariah Eller muttered as she pulled her cloak tighter against the wind-whipped rain and squinted, trying to make out the lights from Eller-Stapleton Inn. There were at least a dozen things she'd rather be doing at nine o'clock on a rainy October evening...most involving a glowing fire and toasty slippers.

I love this paragraph because it tells us so much about the female protagonist and sets up the potential for some strong conflict. We learn in the first line what this woman wants in her life -- to be left alone to run her inn. But right away we know there is imminent trouble that forces her from her home at night, into the cold autumn rain.

I can't resist, here's the second paragraph:

"Hurry, miz!" The boy with the lantern looked back anxiously and halted for her to catch up. "Pa said they wus about to blow the windows out."

I'm hooked. :)

Here is an excerpt from Montana Sky by Nora Roberts:

Being dead didn't make Jack Mercy less of a son of a bitch. One week of dead didn't offset sixty-eight years of living mean. Plenty of people gathered by his grave would be happy to say so.

What an intriguing paragraph. In two sentences we learn a multitude about a character who is already dead at the beginning of the book. His death propels the story and several conflicts develop from this opening.

Out of the Storm by JoAnn Ross begins like this:

The last day of Sissy Sotheby-Beale's life dawned another Low Country scorcher. It was dog days in the South, when any canine possessing the sense the good Lord gave a flea could be found sprawled on a veranda beneath a slow-moving bladed fan.

Can't you just feel the heat? I love the author's blend of tone, locale, and the foreshadow of the woman's death. I definitely want to read this one. :)

And from Janet Evanovich's first Stephanie Plum novel One For The Money:

There are some men who enter a woman's life and screw it up forever. Joseph Morelli did this to me -- not forever, but periodically.

In two sentences the author sets the tenor with her signature humor and wit.

Sandra Brown, who is one of my favorite romantic suspense authors, begins French Silk like this:

The Reverend Jackson Wilde had been shot in the head, the heart, and the testicles. Right off Cassidy figured that was a significant clue.

Although there is a prologue in French Silk this is the beginning of Chapter 1. Not only does it grab us with a murder in the first sentence, but we learn the victim is some sort of man of God. I'm reading more!

And the last excerpt for now:

I first saw him at my brother's wedding, at the back of the reception tent. He stood with the insolent, loose-jointed slouch of someone who'd rather spend his time in a pool hall. Although he was well dressed, it was obvious he didn't make his living sitting behind a desk. No amount of Armani tailoring could soften that build -- big-framed and rugged-- like a roughneck or a bull rider. His long fingers, clasped gently around a champagne flute, could have snapped the crystal stem with ease.

This is the first paragraph from Blue-Eyed Devil by Lisa Kleypas. I think it's fascinating how the author uses vivid character description to begin her story. His name is Hardy Cates; he is most definitely a blue-eyed devil and one of my most all time favorite characters. :)

What captures your imagination on a first page? How do you decide what to include when you write your first paragraph?

See you next Wednesday! :)


Unknown said...

Yes. Yes. Yes. How many times have I picked up a book, read the first page, yawned, sighed and put the book away...never to pick it up again? First paragraphs are of the utmost importance. I like the examples you have chosen.

Cynthia Sherrick said...

Thanks, Muriel! :)

Dell Smith said...

Great post. Nora Roberts' first line is one of the best listed here. I'm personally not crazy about starting a story with dialogue. I think the reader needs more story/character context before characters start to talk.

Thanks for linking to Beyond the Margins!

Laurie Smith Murphy said...

Thanks for a great post, Cindy! I love looking at first sentences...paragraphs and using this technique when teaching beginnings to my students. One of my favorites is by Kimberly Newton Fusco in her YA novel Tending to Grace.
"We drive out Route 6 on a silent day at the end of May, my mother, the boyfriend, and I."

Hmmm...I hope you don't mind if I use this for one of my posts. :)

Cynthia Sherrick said...

Thanks for reading and all the support. There is more to come on this vast subject. Certainly more than enough to go around. ;)

Joanne said...

Great topic, it's hard to know exactly where to open a story. I enjoy a moment of conflict, forcing an immediate decision that then propels the story, and the reader!