First Sentences, Paragraphs, and Chapters – May Round Robin

Topic: Has so much emphasis been placed by other writers advice, publishers, reviewers, etc. on authors to have a spectacular opening page/1st chapter that the rest of the story sometimes gets left behind? What are your thoughts and experiences with this?

Having just read Sol Stein’s On Writing, I fear I might be a little biased on this. While captivating beginnings have been hammered into my head since high school, this book brought home the reasons why.

Readers give a novel less time to engage them than they do any other form of media out there. Movies and games and TV shows get more of a chance from potential viewers/players.

For a TV show, you might give the first whole episode a go.

For a movie, it’s something like the first thirty minutes.

For a book …

Well, for a book we get a sentence. And then hopefully a paragraph. And then maybe a page. If the narrative doesn’t engage us immediately, that book gets put down.

Unless, of course, you have lucked out and found that rare reader who will give the whole thing a shot and THEN decide they hated it.

So the pressure that authors are put under for an excellent first sentence, first paragraph, first chapter is seeded in a depressing reality. People just don’t have time to devote to reading the first three chapters of a book before deciding whether or not they’re going to continue.

They need to want to continue from the very start. Something about the character or the situation has to resonate with them, or they will run off to wash the dishes. (Because nothing humbles an author more than realizing washing dishes is more interesting than their book to some people.)

That being said … the rest of the book has to get better. I have noticed during my second drafts that I’m often tightening my work, trying to touch back to whatever resonance I managed to capture in that first page.

And I always, always, always re-read the first chapter before I write the final chapters.

In fact, oftentimes I end up beginning my second draft before completing the last 3 chapters of a book. I have to bring myself back to the start of it, remind myself what promises I made in the beginning that should be carried forward, before I can complete the work in its entirety.

I tend to follow Stephen King’s advice here. I write the first draft “with the door closed.” Meaning it’s just for me and nobody gets to see it and I tell it the way that I want to tell it.

And then I write the second draft “with the door open.” Meaning I take all the tricks of the trade I’ve been taught and write the book for my ideal reader, keeping them in mind instead of just rushing through a flurry of creativity.

This works.

It means that the whole of the story is down, you know what you want to say and where the book is supposed to lead, so you know what you want to set up in that first chapter. And you know what tension you need to keep through the whole book, which gives you a more cohesive story.

See what some of my fellow authors have to say in this month’s Round Robin discussion …

A.J. Maguire (YOU ARE HERE)
Skye Taylor
Dr. Bob Rich
Anne Stenhouse
Helena Fairfax
Marci Baun
Victoria Chatham
Rachael Kosinski
Connie Vines
Beverley Bateman
Rhobin Courtright


13 thoughts on “First Sentences, Paragraphs, and Chapters – May Round Robin

  1. Interesting! We work in a similar fashion, although I have been known to write a first chapter and then the last chapter before the middle ones. It is stressful to know how much emphasis is put on that first sentence, paragraph, and page.

    1. That’s a good point … even going beyond our readers, if we want to get into a decent publishing house we have a slew of other books we’re competing with and we absolutely must catch attention and hold it.

  2. I admit reluctantly to the fact that we live in a world where hundreds of thousands of books are clamoring for our attention and we better grab it fast. But you make an excellent point that the book better keep the promise.

    1. I threw a book across the room once because I got to the very end and it let me down. I mean … it let me down soooo hard. The ending was rushed and the resolution was wishy-washy and I spent three days thinking of ways I could have made it better.

  3. Interesting that your take on TV and movies is the opposite of mine. I think they have trained people to demand instant action, tension and involvement.

    1. Yes, but that’s also leaking into the novel-world. They want that instant action and tension in prose as well. There’s a part of me that feels like we’re all just lazy now. We don’t want to have to work for it, not even for a paragraph. We want that entertainment immediately.

  4. I enjoyed your post. Most of it is what I believe – including the first few sentences. I’ve heard it’s the cover that makes a reader pick up a book. Then the back cover blurb. If that doesn’t cut it they don’t even read the first few lines. And if they get the first few lines it needs to be kept up throughout the book.

    1. I am guilty of viewing covers and whatnot. It’s only when a book has been recommended to me that I don’t bother looking at the artistry there. I got into the Outlander series by Diana Gabaldon via a friend and those covers have always been a bit on the vague side.

  5. I love your expression “writing with the door open”. I also go back to the beginning and re-read my opening several times, and the opening is the part of my manuscript I rewrite the most. It’s easy to forget the ending – but that’s the part of the book that will remain with the reader longest. There is nothing worse than feeling let down at the end of a book, as you say happened to you.

  6. Whoa. Lots of good points! I love the Stephen King advice; I found out a few years ago that when I write the first draft like I’m being watched or someone is reading over my shoulder, everything stalls and the story breaks apart. Once I write just for me, no judgments, that’s when the magic happens.

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