Friday, January 04, 2008

Opening Paragraphs

Wednesday, I wrote about opening sentences and gave examples from books of opening lines that I thought would hook the reader/agent.

But it’s really difficult to have a hook in the very first line. Sometimes an author can do it for a particular book. Sometimes you can’t.

The next best option is to do it within the first paragraph. If not there, then the second paragraph. If not there, then within the first page. If you can’t do that, then you better have something by the end of Chapter One that will make the reader turn the page and keep reading rather than put the book down and go to sleep.

I went back to my library and picked out three books that I think have great opening paragraphs.

In alphabetical order, we start with Jeff Abbott in Distant Blood. He actually starts out with a great hook in the first line, then he keeps you hooked through his opening paragraph:
Mortal fear is knowing you’ve been poisoned. I sagged against the fine oak paneling, agony vying with numbness for control of my body. My heart raced with the knowledge that it was pounding its last rhythm, like the beat of a runner’s shoes against the road as he surges toward the finish line, toward blessed rest. Bile rose in my throat and I swallowed, trying to steady my breathing. I slid down to the floor, dizziness and nausea washing across my body like an obscene tide. I tried to cry for help and my throat felt dead. Raising one leaden arm, I managed to focus my vision on the blurred figures in the room.

Next, here’s Marsha Moyer in The Second Coming of Lucy Hatch:
I was thirty-three years old when my husband walked out into the field one morning and never came back and I went in one quick leap from wife to widow.

Now, that’s a pretty good hook, I think you’ll agree. But keep reading and see how she develops this hook and then catches you again at the end of the paragraph.
I wasn’t the one who found him; that was Sam Gill, who’d come by to ask Mitchell to help him load a horse. He’d fallen off the tractor and under the blades of the mower – my husband, Mitchell, not the horse; I guess we’ll never know how. Try as I might, and I have a thousand times on a thousand nights, I cannot imagine such a thing; my mind creeps up on it, then turns and bolts. I can’t let myself think it, a man shredded like a handful of husks, bleeding dry in the sun. I’ve never much liked machines, never trusted them, but Mitchell could drive anything, repair it, make it run, and he was not a careless man. I didn’t love Mitchell, which you’d think would help but it doesn’t, really, not when you’ve been with someone fourteen years and worn their presence next to you so long it’s like a favorite old shirt, come to take for granted its smell and its feel. I didn’t love Mitchell, but he was mine and that was something.

And lastly, we turn to Gerald Roe who wrote the young adult book, Terror in the Steel Mountains:
It was just two months ago that I lost my mind. Now, I know that sounds kind of weird. After all, losing your mind is something that happens mostly to really old people, right? And when it happens to them, it’s sort of expected. But I’m only eleven years old. No one expects an eleven-year-old guy to lose his mind; but that’s exactly what happened to me. At least that’s how it felt at the time. I heard voices, had strange dreams, and even saw things that seemed to appear and then disappear into thin air. I mean, who wouldn’t go mental under the same circumstances?

All three of these have a strong opening sentence. All three follow it up with a strong first paragraph. If you weren’t hooked by the first line, then you are soon after.

Writing is hard work and re-work and re-work. You know you’ve succeeded when the reader thinks it was easy. Or, better yet, when the reader doesn’t even think about the writer or the process of writing and editing. They’re just caught up in the story.


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