Demystifying the Opening Paragraph
Much is written about a story’s first paragraph and much of that is in terms of generalities; the foremost among them is that first paragraph must engage, must hook the reader so he will want to read on.
The word, hook, however, has been so appropriated by and bandied about by the novice writer that it’s come to be understood as “sharp and catchy” rather than purposeful and comprehensively engaging. This has led to a number of us racking our brains to come up with snappy story openers that fire the reader’s synapses for approximately five seconds and then fail to sustain that interest because they do not reflect our story in terms of organic integrity, in terms of story conflict, in terms of story essence and what the story is really about.
A good opening paragraph (or paragraphs depending upon how the writer has structured his opening) is a transition from no story to story. Like every good transition paragraph, a good opening paragraph has intent and purpose and utilizes specific information that allows it to achieve that purpose. The general statement of purpose, that the opening paragraph should engage and fully and irretrievably (“I couldn’t put it down”) immerse the reader in the story, is about as useful to the writer as a rubber pencil.
But, consider the specifics. Upon reading any good first paragraph or paragraphs, the reader ought to be able to formulate a reasonable core-story statement for the story or a close approximation of it: What the story is about. This is why we open to a first paragraph to see if the story interests us. A good opening paragraph also conveys the story’s spirit or essence. These are essential to a good opening paragraph and the good writer achieves them through the inclusion of six more essential elements.
3. Who—an introduction to a character or characters.
4. When—the time or approximate time in which the story opens or takes place.
5. Where—the story setting.
6. What—the inciting incident that gives rise to the story and propels it forward.
8. Concrete story details, not abstractions and generalities.
The creative manner in which the writer presents or utilizes these six factors gives rise to the first two essentials:
1. What the story is about.
2. The story’s essence.
A first paragraph’s pull, or hook, though I would like to remove this term from the equation, arises from the gestalt of these factors. As with any great work of art, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. I like to think of a phoenix—the story—rising from the mundane of Who, When, Where, and What. It receives its form from the concrete details the writer has chosen to give it and receives its life force from the conflict the writer has set for it.
All good opening paragraphs, no matter how varied, meet these essentials.
Carl Hiaasen, Skinny Dip
At the stroke of eleven on a cool April night, a woman named Joey Perone went overboard from a luxury deck of the cruise liner M.V. Sun Duchess. Plunging toward the dark Atlantic, Joey was too dumbfounded to panic.
I married an asshole, she thought, knifing headfirst into the waves.
Hiaasen has given us Who, Where, When and given them to us in concrete detail. He has identified conflict. The What, the inciting incident is Joey is knifing into the Atlantic because of something her husband has done. We know in general that this story is about an upper-middle class couple: Joey Perone in conflict with her murderous husband. The story essence is embodied in the entire paragraph but brought to a point in the line: “I married an asshole.”
It’s indeed snappy and it hooks, but it is also purposeful and comprehensively engaging.
Dean Koontz, By the Light of the Moon
Shortly before being knocked unconscious and bound to a chair, before being injected with an unknown substance against his will, and before discovering that the world was deeply mysterious in ways he’d never imagined, Dylan O’Connor left his motel room and walked across the highway to a brightly lighted fast-food franchise to buy cheeseburgers, French fries, pocket pies with apple filling, and a vanilla milkshake.
Koontz has given us When (not as specific as Skinny Dip’s, but we know it’s a relatively modern era because of the fast-food franchise), Where—the motel next to highway, Who—Dylan O’Connor, who eats fast food. The What, the inciting incident, is Dylan’s being injected with an unknown substance against his will. Here is conflict. The story essence, although embedded in entire paragraph, is summarized in the phrase “… before discovering that the world was deeply mysterious in ways he’d never imagined.” We, the readers, know this is going to be a story about Dylan and the consequences of that injection. And we know it will be deeply mysterious in ways we’ve never imagined. Koontz promises, Koontz delivers.
Martin Cruz Smith, Havana Bay
A police boat directed a light toward tar-covered pilings and water, turning a black scene white. Havana was invisible across the bay, except for a single line of lamps along the seawall. Stars rode high, anchor lights rode low, otherwise the harbor was a still pool in the night.
Although more artistic and subtle, Even Martin Cruz Smith’s paragraph also meets the eight essentials of a good opening paragraph. The characters are the police (and they’re introduced in detail in the second paragraph). The place is Havana Bay. The time is night and era is relatively modern. Martin Cruz Smith has evoked the mood of this night with its contrasts of black and white, light and dark, high and low. With this and with the police boat using its search light, he’s told us this is a story about conflict between good and evil. And, because the inciting incident, although alluded to by the search, has remained a mystery, we surmise the tale’s essence is thrill and suspense.
W.E.B. Griffen, The Brotherhood of War, Book V
Key West, Florida
1430 Hours, 28 November 1961
Tom Ellis had never been on a yacht before, nor had he ever been farther at sea than up to his waist in the waters lapping a Cuban beach. He was a fair-skinned young man, slightly built with light brown hair, who looked to be about seventeen. He was in fact twenty. He was the sort of pleasant-faced young man whom older people were prone to call “son.” They seldom did so twice. Tom Ellis did not like to be called “son,” nor to be thought of as a pleasant young boy, and when that happened, ice came into his eyes, enough to chill whomever he was looking at.
Griffen supplies the Where and When in his intro information: Key West, Florida; 1430 Hours, 28 November 1961, and then focuses on the character, Tom Ellis. He’s careful to contrast Tom’s appearance with Tom’s personality and foreshadows conflict between Tom and any who underestimate him. He alludes to the still-to-come inciting incident with the statement, “ice came into his eyes, enough to chill whomever he was looking at.” Someone or something is going to cause the mild looking but potent young Tom Ellis to go to “war.” The reader knows from the title that the book is about brotherhood and war, but learns from its first paragraph that the essence of this story is battle at various levels.
Robert Penn Warren, All the King’s Men
To get there you follow Highway 58, going northeast out of the city, and it is a good highway and new. Or was new, that day we went up it. You look up the highway and it is straight for miles, coming at you, with the black line down the center coming at and at you, black and slick and tarry-shining against the white of the slab and the heat dazzles up from the white slab so that only the black line is clear, coming at you with the whine of the tires, and if you don’t quit staring at that line and don’t take a few deep breaths and slap yourself hard on the back of the neck you’ll hypnotize yourself and you’ll come to just at the moment when the right front wheel hooks over into the black dirt shoulder off the slab, and you’ll try to jerk her back on but you can’t because the slab is high like a curb, and maybe you’ll try to turn off the ignition just as she starts the dive. But you won’t make it, of course. Then a nigger chopping cotton a mile away, he’ll look up and see the little column of black smoke standing up above the vitriolic, arsenical green of the cotton rows, and up against the violent, metallic, throbbing blue of the sky, and he’ll say, “Lawd God, hit’s a-nudder one done hit!” And the next nigger down the next row, he’ll say, “Lawd God,” and the first nigger will giggle and the hoe will lift again and the blade will flash in the sun like a heliograph. Then a few days later the boys from the Highway Department will mark the spot with a little metal square on a metal rod stuck in the black dirt off the shoulder, the metal square painted white and on it in black a skull and crossbones. Later on love vine will climb up on it, out of the weeds.
Robert Penn Warren’s opening paragraph is a form of allegory representing the vicissitudes of choice and consequence that will assail his characters in their quest for power in pre-integrated Louisiana. This is what the story is about. He supplies Where—the Deep South and its cotton fields; When—the blacks in the cotton fields and the common term applied to them by whites in the days of segregation. The narrator doesn’t identify himself just yet, most likely because this is allegory presenting all individuals who might choose this road in life.
The inciting incident is given in the opening phrase, the decision “To get there.” The drive down that hypnotizing highway symbolizes his characters’ desire “to arrive.” Conflict is introduced with the juxtapositioning of “black” and “white”: the “the black line down the center coming at you …tarry-shining against the white of slab” and the field hands, black men, who giggle when the car carrying white men runs off the road. That this conflict is innate to the setting is indicated by use of “vitriolic, arsenical green of the cotton rows” and “violent, metallic, throbbing blue of the sky.” The gravity of the conflict is made evident by the “boys from the Highway Department” who mark the spot where the vehicle overturned with “a metal square painted white and on it in black a skull and crossbones.”
The reader intuits from this first paragraph that All the King’s Men is, at minimum, a story of a white man or men trying to “go places” in the segregated South and that issues of race play a prominent role. The philosophical essence of the story may be presented in the paragraph’s last line: “Later on love vine will climb up on it, out of the weeds.” This could be irony or a birth of a better future.
Although its opening paragraph isn’t snappy, All the King’s Men is rated the 36th greatest novel of the 20th century by Modern Library.
John le Carré, A Delicate Truth
On the second floor of a characterless hotel in the British Crown Colony of Gibraltar, a lithe, agile man in his late fifties restlessly paced his bedroom. His very British features, though pleasant and plainly honourable, indicated a choleric nature brought to the limit of its endurance. A distraught lecturer, you might have thought, observing the bookish forward lean and loping stride and the errant forelock of salt-and-pepper hair that repeatedly had to be disciplined with jerky back-handed shoves of the bony wrist. Certainly it would not have occurred to many people, even in their most fanciful dreams, that he was a middle-ranking British civil servant, hauled from his desk in one of the more prosaic departments of Her Majesty’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office to be dispatched on a top-secret mission of acute sensitivity.
This paragraph tells us Where, Who, and What: a top-secret mission of acute sensitivity. The reader realizes from “Her Majesty’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office” that the story is set in the time of the reign of Elizabeth II. The reader knows from this opening that this is a spy story and anticipates, because of the character’s restlessness, bookishness, distractedness, jerkiness and “brought to the limit of its endurance” that he is in conflict with his assignment. The quirky placement of the boney-wristed, middle-ranking civil servant on a top-secret mission of acute sensitivity leads us to believe the essence of this story may, itself, be quirky and the story may be delightfully full of the unexpected.
Joseph Wambaugh, Hollywood Station
“Wanna play pit bull polo, dude?”
“It’s something I learned when I worked Metro Mounted Platoon.”
“It’s weird thinking of you as a cowboy cop.”
“All I know about horses is they’re assholes, man. But we got the overtime there. You know my little beemer? I wouldn’t have that if I hadn’t worked Metro. My last year in Metro I made a hundred grand plus. I don’t miss those crazy horses but I miss that OT money. And I miss wearing a Stetson. When we worked the mini-riot at the Democrats convention, a hot little lobbyist with nipples big enough to pack up and leave home said I looked like a young Clint Eastwood in that Stetson. And I didn’t carry a Beretta nine then. I carried a six-inch Colt revolver. It looked more appropriate when I was sitting on a horse.
“A wheel gun? In this day and age?”
“The Oracle still carries a wheel gun.”
“The Oracle’s been on the job nearly fifty years. He can wear a codpiece if he wants to…”
The Where is in the title: Hollywood Station. From the dialogue we know the two characters are policemen and from that and the title we know this is a police story and it will be incited by and contain all the conflict and events that pertain to police work. The time is indicated by the reference to the Democratic convention and “young Clint Eastwood.”
The essence of the story is indicated by the personal, rather than crime-solving banter between these two officers and their reference to the “Oracle” who’s been on the job for fifty years. This tells us the story’s essence is not derived from the nature of crime but from the nature and relationships of the men fighting crime.
Herman Melville, 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 bring 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 of 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.
This first sentence is so celebrated that many assume it is the first paragraph. But, as we see, it meets the essential Who and introduces the character. The era is evident in style, tone and references to “knocking people’s hats off” and “pistol and ball.” The When is a state of mind, “whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul.” This state of mind is also the What, the inciting incident that sends him to sea. We readers have no doubt that this story will be about Ishmael’s adventure on the sea. How it ends and the risks it entails are foreshadowed with the sentences, “…whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bring up the rear of every funeral I meet…” and “This is my substitute for pistol and ball. With a philosophical flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword; I quietly take to the ship.”
The essence of the story is implied through the references to the “watery part of the world” which often symbolizes the spiritual; to “soul;” to “moral principle;” and to Cato, a stubborn stoic who, because of his beliefs, threw himself upon his sword. Ahab, because of his non-stoic, destructive emotions, threw himself upon the whale.
Although I copied out many more paragraphs in the course of this analysis, I’ll stop here. I will say, though, that the first paragraph of every novel I opened contained these eight essentials and produced the desired effect of making me want to read on—Again.