How Not To Write An Opening Paragraph
Remember this? The opening paragraphs I (ignorantly) promised to critique? Yeah, well, I finally finished critiqued all 30+ of them. This is being said lovingly, of course, because I’m really glad that so many people participated and I hope the critiques helped. While the first paragraphs were in general very good, I did notice a lot of the same mistakes being, which inspired this post, a workshop on how to/how not to write an opening paragraph! Hopefully this will help a little more.
The below are rules you need to follow 99% of the time (there are always exceptions, naturally, but it’s best to assume yours isn’t the exception because it probably isn’t) in your opening:
- Opening with your MC: This is key. Always open with your MC (main character). Always always always.* The MC can be the narrator or can be the one doing the action (or both), but he or she NEEDS to be there. Passive, third party narrators with no hint of an MC is an automatic turn-off for me.
*The only exception I can think of is if you’re writing a prologue from your antagonist’s point of view, but even then it can only work if you make a connection to your MC right away.
- Make it active: A lot of your openings were attempts to say something deep about death or dreams or whatever, where, say, the MC stares at a book and it reminds him or her of the cycle of life . Do not do this. I repeat: Do not do this. I know, I know, deep openings sound good (I know because I used to do this, too), but they really aren’t. Make your opening active. This does not necessarily mean instant action, but have your main character DO something, or talk to someone, or talk about who he or she is.* It’s like with active and passive sentences in English class; you always want to start actively.
*If you do this last option, be very careful of info-dumping.
- Add voice: This is a huge issue for me. Voice. Every opening needs a distinctly YA, distinctly teen voice. If you’re writing YA, don’t make your characters sound like adults. It’s YA. They’re teens. They should sound like teens, and therefore the voice in the book should be authentically teen (without going too overboard with slang.) I have a feeling some of you have questions about voice, so please keep reading because I’ve added examples a little further into the post.
- No info-dumping: Another big issue. A lot of you spent the opening paragraph describing the setting, your MC’s dark past, or what your MC looks like. Don’t do this. This goes back to my point of starting active. Your opening paragraph is vital to your book, so don’t waste it describing a character. Frankly, we don’t care what the character looks like yet. We want to get to know the character first. Make something happen, add background in little hints, etc.
- Hook: Every novel should have a hook. When you think of your novel, what strikes you as the thing that sets it apart from all of the other YA books out there? What makes it unique? You want to hint at this pretty quickly. Not necessarily in your first paragraph, but quickly, because you want to retain a reader’s interest. So if you’ve written yet another vampire book, you need to show why yours is special right away. Keyword: Show. Don’t tell us. Maybe the main character is a vampire hunter who falls in love with another vampire. If so, show us that he/she is a vampire hunter right off the bat. You don’t need to show the romance yet, because that should take time, but the vampire hunter part hints at something unique. Make sense? I know, this is tricky to balance because you also have to be wary of info-dumping, but hopefully it helps.
- Punchy first line: I love a good punchy first line to suck the reader into the story. Make your first line short, sharp, and unique. Give it voice and a hook, and make it grab the reader. I love to use Mindy McGinnis’ first line in NOT A DROP TO DRINK as an example: “Lynn was nine the first time she killed to defend the pond.” It’s strong, it’s emotional, and it gets you interested in the story right away. See what I mean?
What is voice?
I get this question a lot, and I’m not entirely sure how to answer it, to be honest. “Voice” is hard to define, but I’ll try: It’s the way your main character narrates the book, and the little things that make him or her feel like a complete, individual person. Voice is in the syntax and the style of speaking of your character, and the more authentic, the better. There’s a great post on it here. In YA, you want your main character to have a distinctly teen voice. You can interpret this however you want to, but the point is: Your character should sound like an authentic teenager. You don’t want to be too formal in your writing, because no one is formal in their speech. I know, voice is a hard concept to grasp when you aren’t too familiar with it, so I’m giving a few examples to help.
This first one came from the opening paragraph critiques, and it’s one of my personal favorites from that post. It oodles with voice. (The author is Jasmine.) Take note:
“Okay, I’ll admit, it was really stupid thinking the book was fake. What did I expect? That the lady selling the dusty tome was so desperate to get rid of it because it was old and ratty, and not because it had been magically enchanted hundreds of years ago? “It’s cursed” is kind of a lame excuse not to buy the thing. Besides, it was summer. I was bored. It seemed like a good idea at the time.”
Don’t you just love the voice there? It sounds like a teen, it’s informal, and it has a perfect touches of sarcasm to lead the way. Read it again. You can almost feel the voice.
Here’s another example, from the opening paragraph of Kody Keplinger’s THE DUFF:
“This was getting old.
Once again, Casey and Jessica were making complete fools of themselves, shaking their asses like dancers in a rap video. But I guess guys eat that shit up, don’t they? I could honestly feel my IQ dropping as I wondered, for the hundredth time that night, why I’d let them drag me here again.”
That excerpt is a little more crude (and voice doesn’t have to be crude, FYI), but hopefully, you see a pattern. The way the main character narrates has an authentic teen-ness to it, and it should pull readers into the story.
However, if you’re writing sci-fi/fantasty, voice is a little different. Voice in this genre is about how atmospheric your writing is; it’s in the emotion, in the individual word choices. Here’s a great example of sci-fi voice, in the opening paragraph of Kat Zhang’s WHAT’S LEFT OF ME:
“Addie and I were born into the same body, our souls’ ghostly fingers entwined before we gasped our very first breath. Our earliest years together were also our happiest. Then came the worries— the tightness around our parents’ mouths, the frowns lining our kindergarten.”
See how absolutely haunting and beautiful and emotional Kat’s writing is? That’s sci-fi/fantasy voice. You have to be sure to distinguish your book as contemporary or sci-fi/fantasty (it can be a sci-fi/fantasty with a contemporary voice too, FYI, like Jasmine’s example above) and nail that voice, because to agents, voice is one of the most important aspects of a novel.
Here’s another excellent example of sci-fi voice, from Annika, in the first paragraph critiques:
I’d been able to say the word from a young age, while all the other three and four year olds were still learning to weave their letters into something barely coherent.
It’s the one word that always made me different. The one word that always makes others shied my touch and me theirs.
It isn’t a matter of personal space or a just a silly pet peeve. It’s a bit more serious than that. Because when I touch people, they die.”
What is info-dumping?
Info-dumping is pretty simple. It’s where you throw a lot of background/setting/whatever descriptions at the reader all at once. Info-dumping is a Bad Thing 90% of the time, but there are moments when you can get away with it. However, the extent of providing information is an “info-dump” or not is very subjective; in general, try to feed the reader information little by little, and when you need to throw a lot of information out at once, do it in the most discreet way possible. Just… be careful of info-dumping. Too much information is not necessary.
Thoughts? Questions? Need more help with your opening? Let me know! I’ll be respond to comments.
Posted on October 15, 2012, in Contests, Insight, Uncategorized and tagged how to write an opening paragraph, opening paragraph critiques, TCWT, teen critiques, teen writers. Bookmark the permalink. 28 Comments.