Writers’ Wednesday: How To Write an Opening Paragraph

Be it known throughout the Realm of Brandonia…

Wednesdays henceforth shall be devoted to the subject of writing.

I teach writing, so I have a lot to say on the subject, and these posts will be a potpourri of topics regarding the whole writing process. My plan is that sometimes these posts will be video demonstrations on things like how to organize a paragraph, or how to use an outline or graphic organizer, or how to vary your sentence structure, but I’m not there with the video editing, so today I though’t I’d tackle a question I get from students all the time:

How/Where Do I Start?

I usually chuckle with devilish glee inside when I get this question, because it means I get to give my ridiculous Dr. Phil answer: “Just start.”

After the eye rolls and the frustration wear off, then we can get to the heart of that answer.

So what about outlines and graphic organizers? Are you saying not to use them? Absolutely not. I think the thing that most students and even seasoned writers struggle with when they get “writer’s block” at the beginning of a paper or project is remembering that writing is a process. There are delete keys, there are erasers, and there are fireplaces for manuscripts. Don’t be afraid of having to revise.

Sure you want your first words to be perfect. You want to hook your readers in. I myself am a first-line junkie when it comes to books. Let’s look at three of my favorites:

1. “In a hole, there lived a hobbit.” – J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit.

2. “The man in black fled across the desert and the gunslinger followed.” – Stephen King, The Gunslinger.

3. “When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow.” – Harper Lee, To Kill A Mockingbird

The first two are brilliant for their simplicity, and I always try to remember that in the first lines of my own fiction. Be short, direct, and to the point.

The third, example, however, is brilliant because it is such a perfect metaphor for the south, Macomb County, to be more exact. Jem’s broken arm, of course, isn’t brought up again until the very end of the novel, but that’s the way of the the south. You don’t just come right out and say what you mean down there; you’ve got to build up to it. Think about a door-to-door salesperson in New York vs. Macomb, Alabama. In New York, that salesman had better get right to it and not waste any of the New York potential customer’s time, but in Macomb, that same salesperson would never dream of “just coming right out with it” for a pitch. In Maycomb, the sales call would have to include at least a half-hour of small talk before the salesperson ever got around to even mentioning the reason for his or her visit.

My point in bringing up these first lines is, while Harper Lee, Stephen King, and J.R.R. Tolkien all ended up with brilliant first lines, the ones they ended up with were not necessarily the ones they started with.

Books go through so many edits and rewrites and revisions before we ever see them, but not many people think about that.

So too, should it be with your own writing. If you’ve got your story mapped out and outlined or put into an organizer, then just start writing. Even if you start with “Once upon a time (your character)…” you can always change it later.

I often find, even with my best-organized outlines that I go back and rewrite sections because of a new idea I get halfway through the actual writing. You can’t keep yourself from starting because you don’t know what to say. Just start writing. You can change it later, and nobody ever even has to see this draft, but get those words onto the screen or the page, ladies and gents.

Okay, you want a little more than “just start?” We can do that, but I don’t want you thinking that this is a formula for success no matter what. Here is a great way to organize an opening paragraph of a story.

Your first sentence should be relatively short and direct. It should have an action verb as it’s predicate, and it should convey – either explicitly or implicitly – something about the protagonist, the setting, or the action of the story. Follow that sentence up with a longer one that provides context for the first sentence. Then write a few more contextual/expository sentences (that give details about setting, character, tone, and foreshadow plot points). Finally, transition to your next paragraph by either hinting at what it’s topic will be, or using a transition word/phrase at the beginning of your next paragraph. Here is an example off the top of my head. I swear to all that is righteous in the universe that I will not edit a single letter of this section before posting, so it might be crap. Let’s find out…

Sarah stood in the doorway. She couldn’t decide if she should leave or stay. Her mind was on a million things and it was raining outside. Her left foot was getting soaked because she was only wearing flip-flops. It was Hawaii, after all, and these short bouts of rain never lasted long anyway. She could go back into the room, cancel her flight home, and just stay here with Justine. But could it really be that simple?

Okay, not bad. I could see where that might have gone. “Sarah stood in the doorway isn’t necessarily the best line in the world to start on, but it’s not terrible either. I’d probably end up changing it a little if I were going to write that story, but it’s just an example, so we’ll probably never know whether Sarah decided to stay or go.

I this has helped any of you writers out there who struggle with how to start your stories. If you have specific questions, drop me a line, or get in touch with me through social media.

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One thought on “Writers’ Wednesday: How To Write an Opening Paragraph

  1. Pingback: Writers’ Wednesday: Flash Fiction Challenge! | Brandonia

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