Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author

Blog

First paragraphs

In a recent comment, Pete Mack provided an “anti-Bulwer Lytton paragraph” — the first paragraph from a Raymond Chandler noir dectective novel:

“There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands’ necks. Anything can happen. You can even get a full glass of beer at a cocktail lounge.”

So, sure, let’s pause for a moment and take a look at anti-Bulwer Lytton paragraphs. Rather than taking time right now to go through my own library, I will cheat and link this post: IN SEARCH OF THE FIRST PARAGRAPH, from the Fantasy Author’s Handbook blog. This post provides a nice selection of good opening paragraphs from SFF novels, in the context of discussing what does and doesn’t work well in such a paragraph.

My favorite of their choices — in the category of “beautiful writing that would make me run screaming from this book” — is this one:

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.

Aaaah! No way would I read this book, but that sure is beautiful writing.

The post then goes on to attempt to pin down what fails and what succeeds in an opening:

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.

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.

Interesting observation! Over the weekend, maybe I will take a look at some of the books in my library and see if I think their opening paragraphs are about feelings and where the protagonist is emotionally.

Please Feel Free to Share:

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

9 Comments First paragraphs

  1. Pete Mack

    It isn’t describing feelings so much as setting atmosphere; in the Chandler paragraph–actually from a short story–the atmosphere is set quite literally.
    Here’s one from an even shorter story.
    “Once upon a midnight dreary,
    while I pondered, weak and weary,
    Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore—
    While I nodded, nearly napping,
    suddenly there came a tapping,
    As of some one gently rapping,
    rapping at my chamber door.”

  2. Mary Catelli

    There was once a boy named Milo who didn’t know what to do with himself — not just sometimes, but always.

    When he was in school he longed to be out, and when he was out he longed to be in. On the way he thought about coming home, and coming home he thought about going. Wherever he was he wished he were somewhere else, and when he got there he wondered why he’d bothered. Nothing really interested him — least of all the things that should have.

  3. Mary Catelli

    No one who had ever seen Catherine Morland in her infancy would have supposed her born to be an heroine. Her situation in life, the character of her father and mother, her own person and disposition, were all equally against her. Her father was a clergyman, without being neglected, or poor, and a very respectable man, though his name was Richard — and he had never been handsome. He had a considerable independence besides two good livings — and he was not in the least addicted to locking up his daughters. Her mother was a woman of useful plain sense, with a good temper, and, what is more remarkable, with a good constitution. She had three sons before Catherine was born; and instead of dying in bringing the latter into the world, as anybody might expect, she still lived on — lived to have six children more — to see them growing up around her, and to enjoy excellent health herself. A family of ten children will be always called a fine family, where there are heads and arms and legs enough for the number; but the Morlands had little other right to the word, for they were in general very plain, and Catherine, for many years of her life, as plain as any. She had a thin awkward figure, a sallow skin without colour, dark lank hair, and strong features — so much for her person; and not less unpropitious for heroism seemed her mind. She was fond of all boy’s plays, and greatly preferred cricket not merely to dolls, but to the more heroic enjoyments of infancy, nursing a dormouse, feeding a canary-bird, or watering a rose-bush. Indeed she had no taste for a garden; and if she gathered flowers at all, it was chiefly for the pleasure of mischief — at least so it was conjectured from her always preferring those which she was forbidden to take. Such were her propensities — her abilities were quite as extraordinary. She never could learn or understand anything before she was taught; and sometimes not even then, for she was often inattentive, and occasionally stupid.

  4. Evelyn M. Hill

    Halla of Rutger’s Howe had just inherited a great deal of money and was therefore spending her evening trying to figure out how to kill herself.
    This was not a normal response to inheriting wealth. She was aware of that. Unfortunately, she did not seem to have many other options. She had been locked in her room for three days and the odds of escape, never good, were growing increasingly slim.
    Her relatives were going to be the death of her.

  5. EFT

    Technically three first paragraphs, but ones that shape expectation that this a true and inhabited world.

    The wind began in the land that was once called Elsweyr, born out of the desert badlands. It raced north, ruffling the fur of the soldiers who patrolled the border with the Empire. Raj’haara had been gazing south, towards the village from which she hailed, as the wind came upon her. She tasted the flavors of home, sun and stone and bright sweet sugar, and then the wind was gone. She turned back to the north with a sigh, and resumed her watch, lest the Empire break their fragile peace.

    Sweeping into the heartland of Cyrodiil, the wind rippled the banners over the walls of the Imperial City and pulled at the cloak of Titus Mede as he surveyed his city from high atop the White-Gold Tower. The warm breeze led his mind to wander, but his thoughts soon returned to the many challenges facing his Empire. Rebellion in Skyrim, the entire province of Morrowind beyond his control, and of course the looming threat of the Thalmor and their Aldmeri Dominion. Below, his Empire waited, and Tamriel waited with it. The wind left the old man there, deep in thought.

    Ever northward raced the wind, until it left Cyrodiil behind, and entered Pale Pass. Now bitter cold and howling bleak, it wrapped around ancient ruins and took from them the scents of long ages and distant lands across the sea. The wind roared down the northern slopes, and towards a burning town, where it lifted the wings of a great black dragon as it rose into the sky, its first battle in untold ages over too soon. As the dragon roared away to the north, its wings propelled an eddy of the wind downward, where it curled about the mouth of a cave, and the figures who stumbled out. The final gift of this long-traveled breeze was spent on a ragged Dunmer, clothed in rags, in bloodstained boots and a singed cape, with a sword on one hip and a bow slung across his back.

  6. EFT

    I tend towards things where the first paragraph is only the beginning of the scene setting. To lay the ground for a full world, you need more than one short opening. for example; three opening paragraphs that set the stage in one story:

    The wind began in the land that was once called Elsweyr, born out of the desert badlands. It raced north, ruffling the fur of the soldiers who patrolled the border with the Empire. Raj’haara had been gazing south, towards the village from which she hailed, as the wind came upon her. She tasted the flavors of home, sun and stone and bright sweet sugar, and then the wind was gone. She turned back to the north with a sigh, and resumed her watch, lest the Empire break their fragile peace.

    Sweeping into the heartland of Cyrodiil, the wind rippled the banners over the walls of the Imperial City and pulled at the cloak of Titus Mede as he surveyed his city from high atop the White-Gold Tower. The warm breeze led his mind to wander, but his thoughts soon returned to the many challenges facing his Empire. Rebellion in Skyrim, the entire province of Morrowind beyond his control, and of course the looming threat of the Thalmor and their Aldmeri Dominion. Below, his Empire waited, and Tamriel waited with it. The wind left the old man there, deep in thought.

    Ever northward raced the wind, until it left Cyrodiil behind, and entered Pale Pass. Now bitter cold and howling bleak, it wrapped around ancient ruins and took from them the scents of long ages and distant lands across the sea. The wind roared down the northern slopes, and towards a burning town, where it lifted the wings of a great black dragon as it rose into the sky, its first battle in untold ages over too soon. As the dragon roared away to the north, its wings propelled an eddy of the wind downward, where it curled about the mouth of a cave, and the figures who stumbled out. The final gift of this long-traveled breeze was spent on a ragged Dunmer, clothed in rags, in bloodstained boots and a singed cape, with a sword on one hip and a bow slung across his back.

    The first one tell us of the place once called Elsweyr, both of deserts and sweet plants, and that the people there are both not human (fur), and worried about a border truce. Second takes us up into that empire Elsweyr is worried about, names threats and challenges it faces but not so many we drown in them; giving us more depth, but less texture and sensation. Thirdly we get geography again (the wind entering Pale Pass), traces of history and other civilizations ( blowing the scents of ancient ruins), and then the dangers in the now (burning town, dragon flying away.) Then the downbeat from the dragon directs us to our hero, and the story begins.

  7. Elaine T

    I left the computer for several hours and found the Teen had been at it and posted a comment here as EFT.

    I think the original analysis is wrong… ok I can hardly say the OP didn’t get emotion out of them all, so … I read the samples differently. What comes across to me is voice: First one is grumpy and opinionated; second clean, exact and old fashioned; third probably well done but I flinch away, so won’t opine.. anyway…fourth, Dune, competent (I think the OP was reading too much in except as it’s there in hindsight.) and so on..

    Evelyn’s just above has great voice. Vernon/Kingfisher has a wonderful voice. The books mostly have something that leaves me exasperated, though.

    And a couple more samples, two we should all recognize, and one that I can’t put my finger on exactly why it fails.

    “The City is beautiful at sunset, almost as beautiful as the Lake itself. The waters of the Lake run with crimson and flame-orange and deep lavender as the sun sinks beyond its farther shore, colors pouring across the water all the way to Tiger Bridge. At that moment the exotic lilies carved into the Bridge, crumbling with age, look whole and alive in the moving light and cerulean shadows.”

    Formal, stately, enchanted, awesome in the old sense is what comes across in that one. Poetic in the sense that each word and placement is exact and does exactly what is needed.

    Same writer, later work “Beside the coals of the dying fire, within the trampled borders of our abandoned camp, surrounded by the great forest of the winter country, I waited for a terrible death.”

    Now that you could say has emotion, dread and anticipation for nasty short future. Not obviously poetic at all, but every word works hard as in the former example.

    The one that bugs me (by someone else), a book professionally published but which instantly put me in nitpick mode.

    “I left the house with the letter because I did not know what else to do. The lawn was wet with late-morning dew that soaked by favorite silk rose slippers, for in my haste I hadn’t thought to put on pattens. But I did not stop until I reached the trees overlooking the lawns in front of the house. The letter I had clutched in my fist and I opened it once more to check I hadn’t imagined it, that I hadn’t drifted off in my chair and dreamed it up. ”

    It could be said to be just badly written, but each individual element is ok. It seems to me that each sentence undercuts and distracts from the previous. And the writing distances the reader from the narrator instead of inviting engagement.

  8. Rachel

    Mary — those are both so good, in such different ways, plus now I kind of want to go re-read The Phantom Tollbooth, but I’m pretty sure I don’t actually own a copy.

    Jane Austen offers many excellent examples of clever, engaging openings that are very definitely about setting the scene and situation, in a way that is quite distant from the protagonist. Yet I’d say that she actually does hint at Catherine’s … not emotions, maybe, but personality. The humor of the Gothic sensibility is immediately established.

    Evelyn, that’s almost similar to Jane Austen, isn’t it, because of the tongue-in-cheek elements. Even though it’s so much faster paced and moves us into the protagonist’s head much more quickly and directly, and instantly sets up a specific situation, it’s still … let me see … I guess I would say it’s still playful. It’s an opening that invites the reader to enjoy the author’s playfulness. Elaine, I wonder if the way the story is basically a parody is what puts you off?

    EFT (Teen), sorry your comment didn’t post at once, sometimes the oddest things get stuck in the spam filter. I started to delete the less complete version, but I liked this line:

    ones that shape expectation that this a true and inhabited world

    And put the comment back even though it’s mostly repeated by your second comment. I think this is a useful, concise statement about what the opening of a lot of novels is really meant to do. Not so much the opening of Swordheart, perhaps, because that’s humorous and almost a parody of a fantasy romance. But for an epic fantasy, yes, I think that’s what the opening is meant to do — show the reader a true and inhabited world and a protagonist who is a real person in that world.

    I agree that the first paragraph is never (hardly ever) going to finish setting the scene, though it may be enough to definitively set the mood or tone. Your three-paragraph example does a good job of worldbuilding while also showing us three distinct possible protagonists. That’s quick work for an opening. Yours is an example I don’t recognize. What are the furred people? Are all these people the same species?

    Elaine, thank you!

    Your introduction of the third example put me in nitpicky mode too, so it’s hard for me to judge as though I were just opening the book and reading the first paragraph. Your observation that each sentence undercuts and distracts from the previous is really interesting. I’m not sure I would have read it that way, but I think you’re right. Being distracted about the slippers does not, for example, seem consistent with being distraught about the letter. I’m not sure the writing as such puts me at a distance from the protagonist; maybe it does, hard to tell. I’m put off by what appears to be, at first glance, an overemotional, even hysterical, chit of a girl who can be rendered distraught by a letter. Maybe, once we find out about it, the letter will seem sufficient to make someone feel that way, but right up front, it implies she’s easily overwrought.

    And you don’t clutch letters in your fist, usually. (That’s me being nitpicky. But honestly, you don’t. Or at least, not unless you roll the letter into a cylinder first.)

  9. Elaine T

    The Teen isn’t up to contributing today, so here I am instead. The 3 paragraphs are from a very good fanfiction (I’ve read it, as far as it goes) titled Dragon from Ash and is set in the (game) world of Elder Scrolls during the time of the Last Dragonborn. Got one of the more interesting vampires I’ve read, too. Not that I read many books featuring them. It reads like a novel with a lot of thought behind it. The furred people are Khajit, cat people, (who, I gather come in all feline shapes and sizes) there are also humans and assorted varieties of non-humans called elves, which differ wildly from each other. Can interbreed, though, to some degree.

    Speaking of setting expectation of a true and inhabited world, how about the opening of FORTRESS (ItEoT)? A true inhabited world with a long long history before we come down to characters.

    And a short first paragraph “I clasp my hands and bow to the four corners of the world.” Number Ten Ox. He’s a polite well spoken, humble person. And somehow comes off as Asian – maybe it’s the bow to the four corners, phrase…?I don’tthink I’m reading back into it from previous knowledge.

Leave A Comment