On First Paragraphs

“Call me Ishmael.”

This short sentence is probably the most famous of famous first lines of English language novels. And, maybe how you would expect a post entitled “On First Paragraphs” to begin.

No surprises there. And that’s the problem. The first sentence, the first paragraph of any piece of writing—even a blog—should contain some kind of surprise. At least something fresh, something you weren’t expecting to hear.

Of course, Melville goes on in his first paragraph to give us all sorts of surprises and promises of what his story is about, who this Ishmael is, and his state of mind as we prepare to enter into the story with him.

Here’s one of my favorite opening paragraphs:

Sth, I know that woman. She used to live with a flock of birds on Lenox Avenue. Know her husband, too. He fell for an eighteen-year-old girl with one of those deep down, spooky loves that made him so sad and happy he shot her just to keep the feeling going. When the woman, her name is Violet, went to the funeral to see the girl and to cut her dead face they threw her to the floor and out of the church. She ran, then, through all that snow, and when she got back to her apartment she took the birds from their cages and set them out the windows to freeze or fly, including the parrot that said, “I love you.”

31GD90K5XDLThis is the opening of Jazz, Toni Morrison’s sixth novel. And, while not as famous as Melville’s Moby Dick, or even her own Beloved, the first paragraph of Jazz is one of my favorite first paragraphs. It gives the reader what a first paragraph should give: it lures us in, we’re curious—who is that woman? Violet, we learn her name is, and was she really going to cut the dead girl’s face at the dead girl’s own funeral? And what about the woman’s husband, a man who fell for an eighteen-year-old girl and shot her because he loved her so much? And who’s telling us this story?

No way I’m going to stop reading.

“The value of a well-written opening is that it makes the reader ready to give himself to the writer’s imagined people for the duration,” wrote Sol Stein, in Stein on Writing.

One thing I know for sure. The first paragraph may be the most rewritten of all the sentences in any book or story. I’ve probably written and rewritten the opening of my novel so often the number of words used and discarded total the actual number in the book itself.

What is your favorite first paragraph? Something many readers know and love, or an opening we might not have read? Maybe even the first paragraph of your own story or novel. I’d love for you to post your favorite in the comments section below to share with readers and me.

P.S. I’m presenting a three-hour workshop this Sunday (9/16) on “First Paragraphs and What They Must Do,” at San Diego Writers, Ink. Click here for more information.


4 thoughts on “On First Paragraphs

  1. “I hit the ground and continued running” was the first line of a story I wrote long ago. The first paragraph continued to describe the forrest and twighlight “I” was running through. It’s something that has always stayed with me and I can still smell and hear and feel that exact moment.

  2. Yes, Linda. We wonder who are “they” and since it’s “now,” what happened “then.” There is a sort of nostalgic mood that gets set up for me with this line. This one doesn’t feel so much like a fist coming out of the page, but a hand with the finger curling, saying “come on in.” Thanks for posting.

  3. The work that never made it past the initial 30 years ago author beginnings began with, “They’re gone now.” The now is redundant but three syllables are better than two. “They’re gone” is too final whereas the now sort of pulls the here comes a story hormones and you find yourself curl deeper into the couch for a stay. I love first paragraphs that start like a fist coming out of the page.

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