The Importance of the Opening Paragraph

By Wayne Schmidt

Whether a story's fifty words long or a hundred thousand, the most important passage is the opening paragraph. In the few seconds it takes to read it, most readers decide if finishing the tale is worth their time. The story may have the potential of being a bestseller but if the opening paragraph fails to capture the reader's imagination, he or she is likely to loose interest and look someplace else for entertainment. Fortunately, there are several easy techniques authors can use to create powerful opening paragraphs that will grab a reader's attention.

Start with an action scene. Dropping a reader in the middle of something that's happening is the quickest way to get his or her attention. It forces the reader to ask: Why is this happening? Who's doing it? How's it going to end?
Writers who succeed in getting their readers to ask questions in the very beginning of a story are writers who get their stories read.

The action doesn't have to be physical like a battle in space. It can be an argument between two people or a love scene. Anything will work as long as it's something that's happening and, most importantly, happening now. People want to live a story as it happens, not be told about something that happened in the past.

Start with a sentence that makes the reader ask a question. People hate unanswered questions and authors have used this fact to capture their audience's attention for centuries. It doesn't have to be a literal question, just something that piques the reader's curiosity. Consider the following openings and some of the questions they make the reader ask:

He knew he had to disappear. (Who is he? Why does he have to disappear? What'll happen if he doesn't?)

They'd be here soon, too soon. (Who are they? Why is it going to be too soon? What are they going to do when they get there?)

Sentences like these pull readers into the writer's universe.

This technique is effective as long as the writer doesn't kill the suspense by answering all of the first paragraph's questions in the second paragraph. Good writers keep their readers on the edge of their chairs by building more mystery before answering the questions introduced in the opening paragraph.

Hit the reader with an unexpected statement. No finer example of this can be found than the opening paragraph of Raymond Chandler's "The Big Sleep." It starts out with a boring description of what the point-of-view character was wearing. Just when the reader's relaxed but not quite bored, Mr. Chandler closes the paragraph with a short pithy sentence that snaps the reader to attention. The bland beginning lulls the reader so that he or she is shocked by the unexpected closing statement.

Once the reader's caught, don't let them off the hook. Grabbing a reader's attention only gets him or her interested enough to read to the bottom of the first page so avoid killing their interest by lapsing into a boring narrative or flashback. Keep them interested by introducing new mysteries or tensions before resolving the questions presented in the opening scene.

Capture the reader's attention in the first paragraph and don't let go and you'll have people reading your stories from cover to cover.

~The End~

Back to Writing Articles page