First Paragraph, First Thoughts

We’re discussing the heart of your story and all the major elements you need to set up in your first few pages. That first scene has a tremendous burden, and as I’ve mentioned in earlier posts, you may have to go back once your novel is done and rewrite that first scene to tie in neatly with the themes you’ve developed throughout your novel, as well as homogenize your voice.

 Who’s Your Audience?

I find that I often start each novel a bit rough in terms of voice and style. I don’t write each book in the same style; in fact, many of my books showcase such diverse styles that readers have commented that they never would have known I was the author of these very different novels. In some cases that’s a bad thing—and agents may tell you in order to sell and market you, you should have one style, one voice. And there’s wisdom in that, especially if you’re trying to brand yourself and your style.

In a series, for example, you would want to keep the same identifiable voice and style, and that’s what I do in my seven-book fantasy series, which I’ve set up to be able to go deep and evocative with language and imagery. But in my “noir” suspense dramas, I use an entirely different style—more of a tight, terse voice that fits the genre.

And that’s what you want to always be thinking about as you begin to write your novel and start setting the tone as you write the first scene. You need to know who your audience is and what style they’re expecting when they read that genre. If you’re writing strict genre (tailoring your novel to fit in a very specific slot), you need to do your homework and study the style and voice of writers who write those kinds of books. No doubt you are probably already a fan and reader of that genre (that’s why you love writing it), and so you should have a feel for this already as you begin your book.

 What to Focus On

So, your voice and style will have a lot of influence on that first scene—the way sentences are structured, the length of the chapter, the tone and pacing. But for the most part, you don’t need to concentrate too much on things like pacing and chapter length, for you’ll tweak and tighten those in your revisions. What you do want to pay special attention to are the things on the first page checklist .

So, if you haven’t downloaded this one-page PDF yet, you can do so now. It’s a great handy sheet to keep in your notebook next to your desk to refer to as you dig in to your first chapter or come back to rework it.

 Don’t Aim for the Mona Lisa

I would suggest you think more about being a sketch artist rather than a detail painter as you write this first chapter. I recall reading an interview with Gabriel Garcia Marquez that so impressed me. In the interview, he mentioned how he often spent months honing the first paragraph of a novel before writing any more in order to get clear in his head all the major elements he wanted in that book—mostly in regard to tone, voice, pacing, and inciting incident. One Hundred Years of Solitude is one of my favorite novels of all time, and his opening paragraph is a great one that does set up all those things for the entire book.

You may be like Marquez and feel you need to labor over that first page for a long while before taking off, but I think for most writers, that will only be an exercise in stalling the inevitable—which is to get to work and start writing. Okay, since I’ve aroused your curiosity, here’s his first line: “Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliana Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.” This is a perfect example of introducing a protagonist and jumping into the start of a great scene.

 Use a Pencil; Resist the Eraser

I don’t mean this literally, unless you really do like to write your scenes with pad and pencil. What I do mean is that it helps to just rough in the first chapter and get the basics down, knowing you’ll revisit it many times throughout the writing of the novel to tweak it more in line with the developing voice, style, pacing, and themes you draw out and tighten along the way.

My first chapters are always a little over-wordy, clunky, and rarely ever start out the gate with a brilliant hook and opening paragraph. I often come back later and hack about half of that chapter away, or just rewrite the whole thing. But your aim for this first scene should be to get those essential elements in at least in a rough way . . . which leads me to my soapbox . . . about planning in advance. And I’ll save my spiel for next week.

This week, since you’ve probably already written that first scene, take a look at the first-page checklist and see what you’ve got in there and what you’re missing. I’ll go over all the points in future posts. However, if you’re well into your novel or have a first or second draft you’re working on, think about going back in and reworking the tone, voice, pacing, and style to better line up with what’s been emerging throughout your novel. And if you haven’t written a first scene yet on your new WIP (work in progress, for those who don’t know the lingo), think about your audience and the tone and style your book will need to be written in. I’d love to hear your thoughts as you begin this process, so feel free to share!

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  1. Hi!

    Your article is so thorough, filled with good suggestions…I really enjoyed reading it! Especially the part about being a ‘sketch artist’ the first time around in your opening section.

    Each book was different for me with regards to opening scenes. In two of them, I had dreams or meditations where I saw and actually heard some of the wording. My opening scenes in my first two novels, while definitely revised and reworked, were pretty much the same as I originally wrote them. Not so for the next two novels, where they changed drastically after the first draft was complete.

    My WIP- I’ve done a draft of the first scene, but it’s going to evolve as I become clearer on theme and plot details. (as you so wisely suggested!)

  2. Thank you so much for sharing this with us – I’m really going to enjoy following you, and hopefully writing something good (for a change)!

  3. Once again, Susanne, you offer a thorough article full of insights and useful suggestions. I love your tone – carefully holding the bar high while being both encouraging and sure that we’ll succeed! I also appreciate your sharing that your own initial drafts of your beginning chapters are reworked several times. Too often we sit alone writing, believing everyone else is able to write without needing much revision. Thanks for the checklist. I’m still working on my first chapter (I’ve written several others further into my WIP novel), but will keep the essentials in mind.

  4. Thank you, Susanne, for a wonderfully helpful blog. I’ve just reviewed every post year to date and look forward to the rest of the series. I write medical thrillers; working on my second right now and I know my work will benefit from incorporating many of your tips.

  5. Thank you for your helpful and encouraging post. In my first book (I.O.U. Sex) my co-author and I did as you suggested: we finished writing the book and then went back and reworked the first chapter. It took quite a while for us to come up with something we were both satisfied with. I’m revising a NaNoWriMo novel now and will refer to your tips in retooling the opening chapter. Thanks a million!
    (FYI: I found you through LinkedIn’s “Writers Cafe.”)

  6. Ms Lakin:
    I seem to find myself in exactly the position you are discussing in this article. I have downloaded the information and intend trying to accomplish what my minds eye sees in my book titled The Hole in the Bottle.
    Thanks for your efforts

  7. What do you think about this? This is a first draft of my work in progress…

    1st paragraph of prologue…

    What marks your fear? Do you shudder when the lights go out? Do you tremble at the first sight of the bogeyman? Does your stomach sink atop a towering structure?

    For me, it’s the clattering sound made by clouds rolling overhead a charcoal sky. But fear does not begin to describe what happens next. It’s at that moment I realize there’s no escaping this. It’s part of nature. I can’t get away from it.

    1. Hi Jeremy and thanks for sharing. This sounds like the start of a nonfiction book, so if it’s fiction, you’ll want it to sound as if it’s more in the head of your character. You are in first person but talking in vague, general terms, so I would think about tying those thoughts about fear to something concrete relating to the plot to add the tension right away that something has either happened or is about to happen. And put the character in some place, some real time, in that moment so it doesn’t feel like he/she is just sitting around musing but is experiencing something right now.

  8. Hi, I came across your site via twitter. I must say it’s really interesting and extremely helpful.
    I know I’m late joining but, I still subscribed anyway (even though I’m reading all the current posts at the moment).
    Thank you for sharing your knowledge.

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