Perfecting the Opening Paragraph

  • By: Jessica Faust | Date: Sep 23 2010

A topic I need help with is opening paragraphs. This is such an important area that so many authors struggle. I wrote and rewrote mine more times than I can count. I understand that the opening paragraphs will make or break an author’s chance of becoming published. You only get one chance to capture the attention of an agent or publisher.

I don’t often give writing advice, primarily because I’m not a writer, but also because unless I read the material it’s hard for me to really have an opinion. Your opening paragraphs are important, as is every paragraph that follows. I have no idea what type of revisions and editing you’re doing, but I will tell you that spending so much time on just the opening paragraph isn’t going to help if the rest of the manuscript isn’t looked at with the same type of care. I also think that a lot of time is spent on the mechanics of the opening paragraphs, or the book in general, when what really grabs an agent is the voice of those first lines.


18 responses to “Perfecting the Opening Paragraph”

  1. Avatar lucyp says:

    What helped me with my book opening was going to Borders and browsing the front tables, reading the first page or so of every book close to my genre.

  2. Avatar Kimber An says:

    Omigoodness, first paragraphs just about kill me every time. The last time was the worst. Get loads of help and tons of feedback. I learned the most from Jacqueline Lichtenberg over at

    She also posts regularly at the Alien Romance blog. Do a Search on her name there.

    First lines, first paragraphs, and first chapters are worth sweating blood over, but they do need to be the flipside of the end, so the whole story's got to be in balance. That was a huge learning curve for me and a ton of work.

  3. Avatar Kathye Quick says:

    I've always been schooled about the opening line and have always written with that in mind.

    But Jessica is right, the rest of the book has to be as good.

    Sometimes once you finish your story, a great opening line seems to appear.

  4. Avatar Miss Sharp says:

    Kimber An, thanks for the link. Jacqueline Lichtenberg is awesome!!

  5. Avatar steeleweed says:

    I have bought books solely on the strength of the opening. The most recent jewel was Fiona Robyn's novel THAW, which she serialized on Facebook and is found at:

    How to master that? I think it has to spring full-grown and perfect. It's not something that can be tweaked. If it isn't right, you have to revisualize the book and make sure it really is what you think it is.

  6. Avatar Phoenix says:

    Another good site that critiques the first 150 words or so is

    Don't submit for a critique if you want to be coddled.

  7. Avatar wry wryter says:

    Essays and short format are my thing. You want 750 to 2500 words I can knock that out, make you cry, make you piss your pants laughing but beyond that I wane.

    So, first lines, first paragraph, first page, no problem. To continue that intensity of thought is like finishing off a whole gallon of Rocky Road;nothing tastes as good as that first spoonful, the rest is bloat.

  8. Put an angel in it. You're done.

  9. Don't worry about the opening lines until the first draft is done, odds are, you're going to change them anyway.

    Once I know how things are going to end, what the tone, the mood, the important themes are, the beginning comes much more naturally.

  10. Avatar Kate Douglas says:

    Just a suggestion that has helped me immensely in my writing–write the book w/o worrying about the first chapter. When you're done, go back and see if you can delete that chapter altogether, or at least the first few pages, and go to the point where the action starts.

    I think we often add way too much information in the opening–information that can be added later in bits and pieces to avoid an "info dump." Start with the action and then segue into the story, filling in the spaces as you go.

  11. Perhaps a great first paragraph won't guarantee success, but a dull or confusing first paragraph will surely guarantee failure, no?

  12. Avatar eeleenlee says:

    A reader has to seized by the lapels in the opening or else he/she will pick up another book in the shop. Or click on another item…

  13. Avatar ryan field says:

    I used to freak out about this a lot. I still do.

  14. Avatar John says:

    Opening paragraphs are critical, but not so critical that you need to give yourself an aneurysm over them. Let's be friendly and say that you have at most 6 sentences to accomplish the following:

    1. Establish for the reader (whoever they are) that you have a particular way of writing, a certain rhythm and cadence to you words
    2. That you have created a world that is worth investing the reader's imagination and emotions into (because you want the reader to care about what goes on in the story…so they keep reading)
    3. That you're not writing this whole story (possibly hundreds of pages) just so that some other human can write you a check (it's nice, but aren't you doing this passionately?)
    4. That you have created a character (or characters) that feel fully-developed, and live as realistically as possible.

    Don't think of the reader as "agent X" because you're not focusing on the storytelling then if you're worried about the reception. When you're writing the story, whether it's draft #1 or draft #19, tell the best story possible, so that the characters live, your world turns and that you express all the beauty, ideas and interest you have.

    Your job is to paint the images of your story (not just the visuals, but the action, dialogue and everything..) into the heads of your readers (no matter if they're agents, your parents or the guy in the coffee shop).

    Just write the thing. You can do it.

  15. Once upon a time…

    Sorry, I had to write that. I agree, the entire story has to work as well.

  16. Avatar M.A.Leslie says:

    The hardest part for me is falling in love with what I have been writing and trying to take an objective look back on it to critique myself. My first chapters always feel too informative but maybe I am being too hard on myself. As of yet I haven't joined a writers group but I am starting to think that I should. A perfect stranger would be more honest about my work than I could be.

  17. Avatar Sheila Cull says:

    The query and opening paragrahph, "Oh my God, I need anti anxiety medicine."

    Jessica, you said, "looking for voice," which is well put but tough to grab.

  18. I look for voice, ms or published novel, doesn't matter. Establish the voice, and the story should simply unfold from there. No backstory dump, just unfold. Like a butterfly.