The Complex Craft of the Opening Paragraph in Fiction & Nonfiction
The first paragraph of a piece of writing must be impeccably crafted. And that’s just the start of what’s required to draw readers in. A structure and purpose should be evident, promising revelations ahead. Period and place is established to ground readers in the situation. Tension, which may be as simple as an underlying narrator’s need to know why, simmers just below the surface—and there are hints of more ahead.
And that’s not all. Whether readers know it or not, they seek connection with a central character from the outset, someone with aspirations and problems, be it the brave orphan Anne Shirley of Green Gables, or miserly Ebenezer Scrooge.
All of this—the setting, period, tension, and a troubled protagonist—must be revealed within the natural flow of an unfolding story, whether it be fiction or nonfiction. If the story is about an inanimate object, then the narrator’s underlying voice (or active presence) becomes a reader’s focus.
In a recent nonfiction piece in The Guardian Weekly, journalist Richard Lloyd Parry queried his inability to fully respond to human suffering while covering Japan’s 2011 earthquake and tsunami. He opens with a crisp paragraph of cocktail party-worthy facts and then thrusts himself—and likewise his desensitized readers—into a post-tsunami trial about the bungled evacuation of a village school, and the senseless deaths of over 70 children. Parry appears directly just twice, once at the opening to confess his lost capacity to feel, and at the end as a changed man. He set readers up from the outset to follow–and identify with–his travails, and to be likewise transformed.
For an inspiring opener, carefully crafted around a creative nonfiction theme–and brilliant writing–see Parry’s full article at: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/aug/24/the-school-beneath-the-wave-the-unimaginable-tragedy-of-japans-tsunami )
With so much riding on the opening, it makes sense to simply rough it in and come back to it later, when you know the story, its trajectory and ending. Before you approach it again, try these exercises to clarify your thoughts.
- Learn from the masters. Type the opening paragraphs of your favourite essays or books, preferably within your genre, to internalize and absorb their strengths. What makes them memorable?
- Make a list of possible openings. There are myriad options, but which of them will hook readers and deliver your theme?
- Make a list (or write a sketch) of the background details that lead up to your chosen opening. Now set all (or most) of that aside and write a scene that drops readers into the thick of action. This version likely stands on its own—with no set up required. You need to know what preceded because it informs your writing, but do readers?