Sometimes, all it takes is one sentence.
First paragraphs are important. Especially to agents and editors. Many say that they either reject or continue reading based on that first paragraph. Even that first sentence. For a long time that angered me. I mean, how can these people judge my entire story, all my great plot twists, deep characters, themes, and that awesome denouement, based on the first paragraph? Like I said, it annoyed me.
All that changed recently when my wonderful PlotForge partner Terri Smiles, and I were editing the first chapter of her novel Foreseen. She’d recently been to a conference and made some good contacts so we were eager to get her submissions in the mail. Everything looked good but we kept dinking around with the first few paragraphs. They just didn’t have that… oomph.
Her Chapter One opens with one of the main characters in the book asking the main character a pointed and rather inappropriate question. We get the emotional reaction of the MC, her inner monologue if you will, followed by her outward response – which don’t match BTW. It sets the tone for the whole novel. But it just wasn’t hitting. We tried the question at the beginning – first thing. Terri didn’t like it – no setting. We tried it at the end. I didn’t like it – it was out of order. We tried it in the middle. Neither of us liked it. We went back and forth and back and forth on Google Docs, watching each others changes in real time. Terri and Taylor worked on it, too. In the end we all knew it was flat but didn’t know why.
So I’m looking at it and type, “Let me try this…” I selected the question and hit delete. OMG! We both sat there staring at how the introduction had suddenly gone from boring to enticing. By beginning with her emotional response to an unknown question the paragraph leaves the reader wondering what that question was, drawing her into the second paragraph. The second paragraph builds on the first leaving the reader wondering why and how this girl wound up being so out of place in her surroundings. We never do ‘hear’ the question asked but we don’t need to. We figure out what the question is based on everyone’s reaction to it.
First Chapters. They aren’t so much about the story as they are the book cover translated into words. And just as I would caution a person not to judge a book by its cover, and caution agents and editors not to judge books by their first paragraphs, I also realize that publishers give a book a compelling cover to entice a customer to pluck it off a shelf and turn to page one. Like that book cover above. I don’t think it would entice me, but that is one focused cover. So make that first paragraph something that will make the agent or editor you want, or most importantly a customer in your audience, turn to page two. And sometimes, all it takes is one sentence.