The opening paragraph

The opening paragraph is a important part of a novel. But sometimes its importance is overemphasised, because all it has to to is take the reader to the second paragraph.

It does a number of things:

  • It is a place to start reading the novel
  • Setting the scene
  • Creating tone or mood
  • Introducing a character
  • Posing a question
  • Presenting a mystery or puzzle
  • Providing information (restricting information to create interest)
  • Letting the reader know what kind of novel they’re in
  • To feel dynamic (including some form of physical movement)
  • Encapsulating the novel in a single paragraph
  • Establishing the story balance (from which the story will soon deviate)
  • Presenting a concept (an experience, injustice, irony, or paradox)
  • Providing an opening that doesn’t put the reader off

Literary fiction uses language to create a distinct voice and tone. It is where character and story merge with the language to create a literary experience.

In genre fiction the language stays in the background. It’s there to tell the story. Sometimes genre fiction uses a more exaggerated style or a conversational style, but it is secondary to delivering a coherent story.

Genre opening paragraphs

The opening paragraph of a genre novel can begin in a number of ways:

  • Introduce the protagonist straight away.
  • Hold back on introducing the protagonist.

Usually the character is introduced and named right away, along with some unfolding action that’s they are involved in. With a series like the James Bond or Jack Reacher novels (where the reader already knows the protagonist), the writer can create tension by holding back on introducing the hero.

The story can begin with a large or small scope:

The close-up:

  • Small scale
  • Intimacy with subject
  • A detail (building to a larger context or cutting to a wider picture)

The big picture:

  • A narrated exposition
  • A general situational overview
  • Revealing the world (a city, landscape, or society)

The pace can begin slowly (a low-key introduction), or jump straight into the action.

The slow start:

  • The story world in balance.
  • The everyday normal (and the promise of normality being overturned).

Jumping straight into the action:

  • Starting an action sequence.
  • In the middle of an action scene.
  • Coming out of a dramatic event (often in shock, or confused)
  • Often up-close in scope (leaving the reader to figure out the wider context)

Where does the story start?

  • Is it linear or non-linear?
  • Does it start with the backstory (often as a prologue)?
  • Does it start at the end and ruminate? (More likely to be used for literary fiction.)
  • Does a sub-plot run into the main plot?
  • Does it start in the middle?

Is the character named or unnamed?

A named character:

  • Usually the protagonist.
  • Someone very close to the protagonist.
  • Someone in the backstory who reappears later in the main plot.

An unnamed character:

  • Usually someone who is about to be killed.
  • An operative who fails on a mission.
  • The antagonist (who will be named later on).
  • A mysterious protagonist (perhaps one who has lost his or her memory).

Does it use a simple, conversational, or an exaggerated tonal style?

Simple style:

  • Minimalist
  • Emotionally cool and restrained
  • Threat might be hidden
  • Often an external view
  • Telling the story
  • Efficiently moving the reader to the next paragraph

Conversational style:

  • Usually in first person viewpoint
  • Casual, informal feel

Exaggerated style:

  • Overblown descriptions
  • Threat everywhere
  • Amplified everything
  • Emotionally heightened, everything on the edge
  • Colour saturation set to max

Also see: