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That First Paragraph


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"I hadn't even realized how much trouble I had gotten myself into...until I felt that first punch land directly on the side of my left cheek...sending me reeling back against the high school lockers. I really should learn to keep my mouth shut."

Now, I'm going to assume what the heck is going on with those past few sentences. Hehehe! Rightfully so. What is going on? Who just got punched in the face? Who hit him? And WHY? Well, as I've said in earlier articles, the answer from me as a writer, to you guys as my readers, is always the same. 'Keep reading and find out!'

Looking at those two brief sentences, you might think that this was taken from somewhere in the middle of some story that you've never read before, and therefore have no context for what the hell is going on here. But you'd be wrong. This is an example of what could very well be the beginning of a brand new story. And with just two sentences, all of those questions above instantly come into play, hopefully hooking a new reader and hold them hostage until they're far enough into my story to decide whether they want to keep reading or not.

Will everybody suddenly be drawn in and keep reading all the way to the end? No. That's not guaranteed. But, at least for those first few paragraphs...I've got their attention. All I have to do now is let the rest of the story sell itself. That's the beauty of the first paragraph. You can begin your story anywhere that you want to...so why not start things off with a bang.

I'd like to talk about creating a first paragraph that will intrigue your readers right off the bat, and get them to invest some time and energy into learning more. Because, more times than not...a strong beginning is just as important, if not more so, than a strong ending. So, let's get started.

What we all have to remember as writers is that a lot of readers, especially online, have a very short attention span. How many of you guys have read a few stories, checked your social media multiple times, and consumed a variety of Youtube videos, in the past couple of hours alone. Some of you may even stop reading this article halfway through for a moment to go and check what's going on in the world of Facebook. Hehehe! It's like...you sensed a disturbance in the force or something, and can't stay away. We're all heavily distracted at all times. The only thing that you can do is be a better distraction than the rest of the distractions rattling around in the heads of your readers. And you've only got a short amount of time to do that before they start to wander. This is where 'the game' comes in.

Using the example above, I could have easily started with my main character waking up in bed one morning before school. And that would have been a totally acceptable beginning paragraph. Readers get introduced to this new character, learn his name, get an idea of what he looks like and what his life is like at home. He cleans up, gets dressed, has some breakfast, hops on the bus, gets to school...and then gets confronted by some other boy who's been bullying him for the past few weeks. The boy is bigger and stronger than my protagonist, but he refuses to give him the satisfaction of feeding the bully with the fear that's he so desperately searching for. And then...POW! He gets punched in the face and falls back against the school lockers. This can work as an effective beginning to a story, sure. nothing wrong with that.

But look at how long it took me just to give you extremely shortened, underdeveloped, version of the story. The people reading my story might have a cell phone sitting next to them, the TV on in the background, and probably some music playing in his or her headphones, all at the same time. Are they going to really focus on my main character brushing his teeth and eating eggs and toast for breakfast? Do they want to hear about his bus ride? Are they going to be locked in long enough to hear about his history with the school bully? ::Shrugs:: Maybe. Some will. It's not outside the realm of possibility.

But what happens if I start my story with a direct punch to the face? A shock to the system? A reason for my audience to let the record skip and think, "Wait! What the fuck did I just MISS???" Do I have they're attention now? Good! Now...let's work backwards, and you can find out all of that other stuff in retrospect. Do you sort of get what I'm saying here? Sometimes, you just have to grab a reader by the collar and get them invested with a scene that inspires them to get more information. And how do they do that?

Keep reading and find out!

I'm actually proud to say that I've gotten a lot better at this since I first started. I think the first question to ask yourself as an author is...'what is my story about?' Like, an overview of what you want to do with your story and where you want it to go. Maybe you're writing a story about forbidden love, or about the first settlement on Mars, or the creepy neighbors that just moved in next door. Whether you're writing about loss, or chasing the dream of being a superstar, or just wanting a romance with someone that you think might be way out of your league...think about that, define it, and drop your readers right into the thick of it. Right away. Not in a major way that's going to spoil anything for later, but in a way that immediately connects to the main theme of your story.

Let's say that the example above is a story about a gay boy in high school who's dealing with bullying and intense violence. Ok. Great. Let's start there. In two sentences, it's established that the main character is dealing with an antagonist who has no problem beating him up. We also find out that the protagonist must have said something to instigate this action by his reaction of 'learning to keep his mouth shut' or 'getting himself into trouble'. At least the way that he sees it. What is the story about? It's about the conflict between this boy and his bully. Everything before that takes time to flesh out...and every story doesn't have to go that route. Sometimes, you can just jump in with both feet and get things started.

Now, after that...maybe you can have the protagonist being comforted by his best friend, or he might go home and his parents see him with black eye and wand to do something to help...and that's a perfect opportunity to build on those character relationships and motivations. This is the time for the extra prose, and the history of his bullying, why it happened and what he's planning to do about it. Now you've increased your chances of an audience reading through that part of the story and fully absorbing it because you've got them interested already. Every minute that someone spends reading your story...it gets more and more difficult for them to back out of it and go do something else. This is why so many stories can feel so addictive. You're invested now. You want to know what happens next. You HAVE to know what happens next!

This, like I said before, is 'the game'.

Think of it as lighting a bunch of small candles in a dark room. Lighting just one candle isn't going to illuminate the whole area...but you get to see a little bit more than you did before. So you light a second candle. Then a third. Then a fourth. And with every tiny flame...you begin to discover more and more details about the room that you're standing in. Pictures on the walls. Windows. Doors. Floorboards. Playing the game with your first paragraph is no different. ONE lit candle in a pitch black room is an immediate draw for anyone in the room with you. It's a focal point that blocks out everything else. Now...what will your second candle be? Oh...he has a best friend that really cares about him, but isn't big enough to keep him from being bullied. You get a little more detail. Third candle? His mother worries about him coming home with bruises on his face, but he's ashamed to admit what's going on at school, so he rejects her attempts to soothe him. Fourth candle? Maybe his father comes home from work, and he's embarrassed to see that his son has gotten beaten up again. He wants his son to stand up for himself, and it only adds to the main character's shame for not being able to do so. And so forth and so on.

The idea is to snatch your reader's attention with an exciting jump off point, and holding their attention long enough for you to 'light another candle' and draw them in further. Don't give them too much! Just let the story unfold a little bit at a time for right now. Let them learn about your characters and figure out what's going on. And when you're done with whatever new detail that you've decided to feed them with...add a little bit more. By the time you've built an adequate foundation for your story, they'll be too invested to turn away from it. That first paragraph means a LOT to a story, especially if you're drawing in brand new readers who have had no previous experience with you up until that very moment. Catch them first...and then proceed to string them along, allowing their own curiosity to carry them further into the story that you're trying to tell. Let your details 'swell' gradually. While reading your initial intro to this world and your characters, your audience should be learning something new every few paragraphs. They should be thinking, 'Oh. Well, there's something else that I know. Oh, and something else. Ohhhh...that's why he got punched in the face. Wait...ok, I get it. Well his best friend seems cool. At least he's not alone in all this.' Etc etc...

One thing you DON'T ever want to happen is for someone to start reading your story and think, 'Where is this going?' You should be giving them hints as to where things are going right from that first paragraph. If your story is about bullying...then start there. If you story is about losing a loved one...start at the funeral, and work backwards through memories or flashbacks. Take what your readers will instantly cling to as something relatable and provocative...and use that to hook them without trying to build up to it with any filler.

In my older stories, I would have my main characters practically introduce themselves through some sort of self narration, explain where they are and how old they are, and I'd go through the agony of having to inform my audience that they were gay, and feel different, and struggle to keep it a secret. Nowadays? I try to avoid that as much as possible. If the point of my story is creating a romance...then I start with the main character already being in love. Done.

"I can't help but stare at him."

Those seven words might be my whole first paragraph. Can't help it? Stare at who? Why or why not? Readers engaged...now let's get on with it. In the story, "My Only Escape", I have Zack rushing home after school to keep from receiving another beating from his abusive father. In "Give It To Me Straight", the protagonist has a huge crush on a straight boy from school. So let's start in the middle of a high school party where he's watching him from across the room. Whether it be a short story or a long series...let's get started with the interesting stuff and build it up as we go along. Let the audience grow with you and your characters. Do that? And they're more likely to stick around for a while and make it to the end. So make sure your story ending is up to par! Hehehe! They won't be expecting anything less!

But that's a lesson for another day! :P

Anyway, that's all for today! Just remember to catch your readers with the kind of literary 'bait' that is significant enough to warrant more of their attention as you bring them into your story, and build your world around them. Keep lighting those candles! It'll be worth it, trust me!

Take care! Hope this helps! And I'll seezya soon!

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I needed this! Thank you, this was a great read and really has me thinking…not just about the first paragraph but transitions and new chapters.

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I LOL'd when reading your example of a nice beginning line "I can't help but stare at him." Literally one of my stories starts with "Bus Boy looking fucking sexy today. I can't help but stare."

My other opening paragraphs, just for laughs: 

"I'm gay, Kev," says Torry.

 

"You've been great! Go home and take a shower. We are Black Fox." Cayden, our frontman, spoke his trademark line just like he did after every gig.

 

I was crying. I wasn’t even trying to hold it back. Normally I would but this time, it was the only thing that I hoped could save me from the inevitable.

 

I started teaching myself programming when I was 14 years old.

Looking back, they're not bad, maybe except for the last one, haha. A typical "let me tell you about myself for half of the effin' chapter" situation.

Awesome article, as always. Usually when I stumble upon a story that starts with a character describing themselves (including their physique, ugh), I just hit ctr+w. 

I especially appreciate starting story "in the middle" and then revealing the past stuff through conversations, memories and slowly completing the puzzle while simultaneously pushing the plot forward. Amazing tension-building potential!

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Using the example above, I could have easily started with my main character waking up in bed one morning before school. And that would have been a totally acceptable beginning paragraph.

This might just be me, but nothing will have me leaving a story quicker than an opening like that.  I haven't met this character and I'm not going to care unless they are doing something interesting.  

Good topic!   

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