Monday, 19 April 2010

The Most Important Words You Write

Imagine you're an agent with a stack of unsolicited manuscripts to get through. What do you read first?
Imagine you're a preliminary short story competition judge with a stack of short stories to look through - what do you read first?
Imagine you're in a bookshop choosing a book. You like the look of the cover and open the pages and read...what?

Okay so some perverse people might read the last page or a couple in the middle but the answer for most of those situations will be: the first paragraph. Once you're been successfully published you can risk a less than riveting first paragraph (although I wouldn't recommend it) but to capture the reader's attention when you're unknown, you have to have a good first para.

But what makes a good first paragraph? It's going to be different for every book, but there has to be something, the so-called 'hook', that makes a reader want to keep on reading. Something different, something unusual, something intriguing, something that gets the reader's attention.

"The trial was irretrievably over; everything that could be said had been said, but he had never doubted that he would lose. The written verdict was handed down at 10.00 on Friday morning, and all that remained was a summing-up from the reporters waiting in the corridor outside the district court."
- The opening paragraph from The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson

1) What's the trial about?
2) The use of the word 'irretrievably' intrigues me in a way that, for example, 'completely' wouldn't have.
3) I expected it to say he never doubted that he would win.
4) Why did he never doubt that he would lose? What's going on here?

I want to read on to find out - as have millions of readers around the world. This is also a great opening paragraph because not only does it make us want to read on in the first sentence through setting up questions and confounding our expectations, but it tells us exactly where and when we are in the second. Go and check out some of the novels on your bookshelf (especially first novels in the same area you hope to write in) and examine what works in the first paragraph. Then see if you can apply the same principles to your own writing.

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