Look at Your Opening Paragraph

March 4, 2013

Look at your opening paragraph of your short story. Look at the opening paragraphs for each of your novel’s chapters.

 Questions:

How did you show your characters in that paragraph? This is our first glimpse of them at this moment.  An all-important glimpse. Is it a visual take you’ve given us? Did you show them via some dialogue? Was the entire paragraph description via narration? Or did you give us a scene to see?

Look at these 8 examples of various opening paragraphs from short stories. Also, notice the word counts:

1

Sunday, in the car after church, she’s still on it about the comments that Ms. Avisian wrote with my Creative Writing midterm grade.  She keeps mumbling, Nina’s gotten an A in spite of herself, like the words are dirty and she’s cussing me out.  My mom has a thing about our brains, my sister’s and mine.  We have distinctly different fathers, so Mom feels it must’ve all come from her.   “Common denominator,” she taps her own forehead, glaring at me via her rear view, “the girl’s got a 138 point IQ.”  She tells the windshield, “That’s no fifteen year old idiot, you know.”  (103 words)

2

Gordo drove rather sanely for a guy with a full-sized mattress set strapped onto his ‘71 Impala’s roof. The rising sun struck his rear-view mirror at an annoying angle, but he was patient. It would move. With an open can of Coors sweating between his legs, four more cans cooling his ankles and his cousins’ truant wife, Bernie next to him, silent and still, he steered westward. (67 words)

 3

It’s far after midnight. Terry’s shoved me into the back seat of the Yellow Cab that’s come to take us to the emergency room. My wrists sting, like jellyfish burns. The rest of me feels numb. Even my brain seems lighter behind my forehead, and my ears are clogged, like I’m underwater. (52 words)

4

In the dreams Mr. Arreaga, the old baker, acted like he didn’t hear the cracking sound in Raymond’s chest, like cartilage snapping. (22 words)

5

When we were both fifteen, Anna stood in the center of Pious X Girl’s Senior High quad, smiled, winked, and started yelling.  Out came very cuss word that she knew or could make up for the occasion. Loud and clear so nuns for miles would hear, even the ones working at St. Linus’ on the next street over. (58 words)

6

What Rikki remembers is jumping up off the couch for a Diet Cherry Pepsi as the commercial started. That and a wobble-feeling that strobed behind her eyes, just before the TV’s volume rose up to a crashing level and she dropped like a corpse onto the rough carpet, face first. (50 words)

7

On the playground, we stood in the line for the horizontal bars after lunch. Becca was behind me, because I may be small but I’m faster than most and I got there first. When you’re in fourth you don’t wanna be on the rings anymore; the boys can see your underwear. And they never let you forget it. But the horizontal bars area is at the end, near the third-grade rooms, and mostly you just have to give the littler kids a boost when it’s their turn and they’ll let you stay on as long as you like ’cause they know you’re in fourth. (104 words)

8

Christina waits in front of her fourth motel office lacing her numb fingers around a cup of courtesy coffee and refuses to stare at the height of the Rockies looming up in her peripheral vision to her left. Sober as a judge, all she can think of is five days previous and her step-dad Harrison waiting outside her work. Sitting behind the wheel of his truck, just slightly buzzed. (69 words)

 

Half of these are written in first person POV – yet out of those 4 excerpts the word “I” is only used twice, and ‘I’m’ three times. That’s five instances of ‘I’ in over 300 words.  If you’re writing in first person is your first paragraph using forms of “I” too often for our first glance of your narrating character? If so you’re telling more than showing.

In the remaining four excerpts a narrator is speaking about the characters. IN your work, are your lines showing or telling? Are the verbs strong, or are they state-of-being verbs?

How many instances of was, is, had, or were are we seeing in these 200+ word examples? Two instances. The rest is attempting to show these worlds ‘in scene’.

Visual. Physical. Visceral. That’s all I ask from my novices.

 More Questions:

Look at your opening paragraphs once more. What are you showing us? And what are to telling us about your character in this first glimpse of yours? How long is your first paragraph? Are the verbs strong enough to show us a scene?  Or is your first person POV all I, I, I?

One last Question:

Might there be something you can edit now?

A Further Note:

The book I’m planning after July’s release of my non-fiction ‘Tell Me (How to Write) a Story’, is going to be a collection of excerpts from novices, in first draft, which I’ll edit into first revision and last revision samples, coaching as we go through the excerpts.

I’m titling it ‘Revision for Beginners’ and I’ll be calling for submissions of first draft excerpts in mid March. Watch for the post.

ej

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2 Responses to “Look at Your Opening Paragraph”

  1. Karlie Says:

    You touched on one of my biggest problems. Out comes the red pen again! (I’ll be watching for the March post, too, by the way.)

    • ejrunyon Says:

      So many novices want to work to put alot into their opening paragraphs, but most think that means sftory-facts and overwritten description, when what’s needed to catch a reader is something visual, physical or visceral.
      Glad this helps, Karlie.

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