IN SEARCH OF THE FIRST PARAGRAPH

In his immortal Tao te Ching, Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu wrote, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” It could be said, too, that even a hundred-thousand word novel starts with a single . . . letter? Word? Sentence? I’ve thought about what comprises the first step of a novel, and actually started writing this about the first sentence, but quickly changed direction.

It might be fair to say that the first line is essential to a short story, but I sincerely doubt readers begin judging the comparative worth of a full-length novel by a single sentence. That’s not to say that the first line doesn’t matter. The sooner and more thoroughly you can hook your readers in the better. But if you’re setting out on the long journey of writing a novel, you need to start with a paragraph. Let’s start by looking at the first paragraph of three books that appeared on my list of favorite fantasy novels of all time, and three from of my all-time favorite works of science fiction. In no particular order . . .

The Stolen Child by Keith Donohue

Don’t call me a fairy. We don’t like to be called fairies anymore. Once upon a time, fairy was a perfectly acceptable catchall for a variety of creatures, but now it has taken on too many associations. Etymologically speaking, a fairy is something quite particular, related in kind to the naiads, or water nymphs, and while of the genus, we are sui generis. The word fairy is drawn from fay (Old French fee), which itself comes from the Latin Fata, the goddess of fate. The fay lived in groups called the faerie, between the heavenly and earthly realms.

So what does this first paragraph tell us about The Stolen Child? What’s established here?

Just on the surface, we get that the book is written in first person, which is unusual for contemporary fantasy novels but de rigueur in classics by past masters like Burroughs and Lovecraft. The intelligent, well-read, articulate, straightforward, and opinionated narrator identifies himself as something akin to a fairy—anyway, he isn’t human, or doesn’t think he’s human. And apparently he’s one of a community of such creatures: We don’t like to be called fairies anymore.

From the first paragraph we get that The Stolen Child is, at least at first (and as we discussed on the subject of cover copy, initial assumptions can be turned on their heads by the end of the book), a novel about a community on the fringe of reality. That should mesh nicely with the information we’ve already received from the cover copy (and reviews, etc.) that we’ve bought a book about a boy kidnapped by hobgoblins and replaced by a changeling.

Not bad for 98 words.

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke

Some years ago there was in the city of York a society of magicians. They met upon the third Wednesday of every month and read each other long, dull papers upon the history of English magic.

Here, in only 36 words, Ms. Clarke establishes this enormous work’s setting, and hints that there is a sort of magic peculiar to England. She judges the study of English magic as “dull,” or at least that “some years go” it was dull. As was true in the first paragraph of The Stolen Child, no characters are named and there is no dialog. Still, from these three dozen words we can tell that we’ve begun to read a book about a historical England in which magic is real. I may be jumping to the conclusion that it’s historical, but I get that vibe from the fact that she told us this was “some years ago” and that the magicians are reading papers. The urban fantasy version would have had them blogging. And again, from the cover copy, reviews and suchlike, we know we’ve bought a book about a personal feud between powerful wizards, so immediately have the anticipation that English magic isn’t going to be dull for much longer.

I won’t whine about the word upon appearing twice in the same sentence. She’s English. Maybe they get to do that Over There.

Last Dragon by J.M. McDermott

My fingers are like spiders drifting over memories in my webbed brain. The husks of the dead gaze up at me, and my teeth sink in and I speak their ghosts. But it’s all mixed up in my head. I can’t separate lines from lines, or people from people. Everything is in this web, Esumi. Even you. Even me. Slowly the meat falls from the bones until only sunken cheeks and empty space between the filaments remind me that a person was there, in my head. The ghosts all fade the same way. They fade together. Your face fades into the face of my husband and the dying screams of my daughter. Esumi, your face is Seth’s face, and the face of the golem.

These 124 words grabbed me right away and said in no uncertain terms that this was not your garden variety fantasy novel. Though the editor in me (I acquired this book for the painfully short-lived imprint Wizards of the Coast Discoveries) was skeptical that this previously unpublished author could maintain the risky choice of second person, present tense, much less the highly metaphorical language of the unreliable narrator, it kept me reading, and floored me when I found that he could chew every bit of what he’d bitten off with these choices.

Factually, we know that the narrator is a woman (she refers to her husband, still a reasonable assumption that this is a hetero relationship), and she’s speaking to or writing to someone named Esumi. We know she had a daughter who died, there’s mention of mythological creatures both metaphorical (ghosts) and maybe actual (golem).

From this one paragraph it might be reasonable to assume that Last Dragon is a book about the unreliability of painful memories, and indeed I think the heart of the book is the near-futility of efforts to reconcile past and present, and live with a series of difficult choices. But most of all the paragraph sets a tone, and a rhythm to the language that is this book’s peculiar genius.

Dune by Frank Herbert

In the week before their departure to Arrakis, when all the final scurrying about had reached a nearly unbearable frenzy, an old crone came to visit the mother of the boy, Paul.

It’s interesting that this short, 32-word paragraph, like Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell’s 36, introduce a huge, sweeping epic. It might be fair to say that this is a credit to the finely considered core themes that both Herbert and Clarke preserved at the centers of their masterpieces.

Dune’s first paragraph assigns special significance to one particular place (Arrakis), and one particular person (Paul). Though two other people are mentioned (the old crone, and Paul’s mother), the fact that they are not yet given names, shifts the emphasis to Paul. It may seem as though this is a simple, quickie set-up, but a look just under the surface reveals that these 32 words are a statement of purpose. Dune is a book about a young man challenged by the old order. The boy Paul grows up to be the man Muad’dib and challenges every assumption of the older people and even older customs and institutions around him. That’s the emotional core of a story that plays out as a pastiche on the dangers of a single-resource economy.

Emotional core? I’ll get back to that.

Gateway by Frederick Pohl

My name is Robinette Broadhead, in spite of which I am male. My analyst (whom I call Sigfrid von Shrink, although that isn’t his name; he hasn’t got a name, being a machine) has a lot of electronic fun with this fact.

If I give Susanna Clarke a pass for two upons, I’ll forgive Pohl for the semi-colon within parentheses. I know copy editors who would be moved to physical violence by that one, but Pohl is a Grand Master, and long ago earned a pass from the likes of me.

Anyway, this paragraph immediately introduces us to the first-person narrator’s underlying insecurities. He’s a guy with a girl’s name and if for no other reason (of course we learn over the course of this brilliant book that there’s a very good, very tragic reason) it’s why he’s in therapy.

This is a science fiction novel we’ve started reading. I got that from the fact that Robinette lives in a world of computerized psychoanalysts. But there is no mention of the Gateway asteroid. It’s almost as though all that stuff about ancient starships doesn’t matter compared to the POV character’s inner neuroses. This is a book about a future man struggling with his own insecurities, and only from the cover copy do we know that it’s also a story about exploring the galaxy in dangerous pre-programmed starships.

It’s almost as though Frederick Pohl is at least a little more concerned with the Who of his story than the What—and that in a work of hard science fiction. Hmm.

And last but not least:

The Runaway Robot by Lester Del Rey

It was an exciting day. A rocket was due from Earth, and I guess nothing more exciting than that ever happens on Ganymede. Well, maybe when a manned spaceship comes in, it is more exciting, but a rocket is pretty important too.

I guess I like books written in first person.

This time our narrator lives on the Jovian moon Ganymede, and Ganymede is a pretty dull place. We must be so far in the future that living that far out in the solar system is considered routine, but there’s still a frontier quality to life there in that not too many people come and go. For a book called The Runaway Robot, it’s interesting that there’s no mention of a robot in the first paragraph. Instead, we learn the difference between a rocket and a manned spaceship.

But it isn’t until the seventh paragraph that we realize that the narrator is the robot. This isn’t just a computer with legs. This is a “living” “person” capable of complex emotional responses.

What we’ve learned.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve sat in a circle with other editors bemoaning the low quality of the writing we were getting in the slush pile. I think it was Mark Sehestedt who finally identified the inevitable elements of the bad first paragraph: weather report/fashion report.

The first paragraph of so many well-intentioned manuscripts begins with the author either lovingly describing the weather or other physical conditions of the setting, or describing in equally loving detail what the hero is wearing. Truly bad attempts managed both a weather report and fashion report in one opening paragraph.

Note that none of these six books do that. Not a single one of them tells you it was a dark and stormy night—and believe me I’ve read every variation of weather conditions and times of day. The Runaway Robot tells you it was an exciting day—and there is a really huge difference between a physical description and an emotional response. And none of these six first paragraphs tell you that the hero’s long blond hair fluttered in the dark, stormy wind, and that he’s wearing a forest green tabard with thread-of-gold trim.

Only half of these six (Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, Dune, and The Runaway Robot) specify locales at all. And only half (Last Dragon, Dune, and Gateway) mention even one character by name. Obviously all of these books feature detailed settings and fully realized characters, but all six personalize the story up front. They all make emotional appeals:

The Stolen Child: We don’t like to be called fairies anymore.

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell: long, dull papers . . .

Last Dragon: But it’s all mixed up in my head.

Dune: . . . the final scurrying about had reached a nearly unbearable frenzy . . .

Gateway: . . . has a lot of electronic fun . . .

The Runaway Robot: It was an exciting day.

In a massive, sprawling epic like Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, all we know in the first paragraph is that English magic used to be boring. From there we find out just how exciting it gets, just as we find out how universe-changing Paul’s move to Arrakis will be, how the sui generis fairy came to know all this about the fey folk, and so on.

Where is your character (and for Clarke, English magic was as much a character as Strange or Norrell) at the beginning of your story—not physically, but emotionally? Details may be sprinkled in, but all of these paragraphs are about feelings.

—Philip Athans

About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and the recently-released How to Start Your Own Religion and Devils of the Endless Deep. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, (https://fantasyhandbook.wordpress.com/) is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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6 Responses to IN SEARCH OF THE FIRST PARAGRAPH

  1. This is actually one of the most helpful posts on openings I have ever read. I will be referring to it the future, trust me. Thank you!

  2. Great comparisons! This is an extremely helpful post. I’ll be linking back to you. Thanks!

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