Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author

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First Paragraphs: Doing it with feeling

So, the other day I posted a link to an article which picked out six first paragraphs of various SFF books and argued that these paragraphs work because, rather than focusing on neutral details of setting or clothing or whatever, they all give the reader, right away, a hint of the protagonist’s emotions and feelings.

I’m not sure that this is the rule, or even a rule, for successful first paragraphs — especially after seeing all your comments to that post! Obviously it’s more than possible to write an opening that works well by establishing setting and mood, or worldbuilding and tone, or however one might put that. I was also interested to see, in your comments, several first paragraphs that work by inviting the reader to share a joke with the author, which is honestly what I think is happening in the opening of Northanger Abbey, for example.

It is true, though, that when the first paragraphs set the scene or establish a mood, that is often going to be something that carries over into establishing the protagonist as a person. I mean, the setting is often or usually going to be established through the protagonist’s reactions to it, not just painted in like a backdrop. Or if the first paragraphs build mood, then that mood is probably in some way a reflection of the protagonist’s emotional state or general character. That is true, for example, in this paragraph:

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.

There’s a sense of wistfulness or loss here. It’s not just a scene; it’s also, even primarily, Raj’haara’s response to the scene. Plus it’s setting the stage for the plot; the reader is probably safe to assume the fragile peace will be broken.

So let’s take a look at some first paragraphs, chosen not quite at random.

1. In honor of the recent release of the latest Foreigner book, here’s the first paragraph of the first Foreigner book – that is, of Foreigner itself. I’ve read this book several times, but not lately. Let’s just see how it starts …

It was the deep dark, unexplored except for robotic visitors. The mass that existed here was Earth’s second stepping-stone toward a strand of promising stars; and, for the first manned ship to drop into its influence, the mass point was a lonely place, void of the electromagnetic chaff that filled human space, the gossip and chatter of trade, the instructions of human control to ships and crews, the fast, sporadic communication of machine talking to machine. Here, on the radiation of the mass the distant stars, and the background whisper of existence itself rubbed up against the sensors with force enough to attract attention.

No protagonist yet in sight! Let me see – Phoenix herself is treated almost as the protagonist in the third paragraph. Taylor, the pilot when the trip goes wrong, briefly takes the pov. This is really a prologue: we have fourteen pages of Phoenix taking a wrong turn and her crew discovering she is lost. I had not quite forgotten that this novel has, essentially, a series of short prologues. Phoenix getting lost, that’s one. An ateva named Manadgi sneaks up and basically kidnaps a human, shortly after the Landing, so he and his people can find out what humans are like and what they intend – that’s another short prologue. Ian Bretano, the human who gets kidnapped, gives us his point of view in a continuation of the second prologue. Then we jump past the rest of the first contact and the settlement and the War of the Landing and everything to do with all that and finally pick up with the present day and Bren on p. 47. Let’s look at that first paragraph:

The air moved sluggishly through the open garden lattice, heavy with the perfume of the night-blooming vines outside the bedroom. An o’oi-ana went click-click, and called again, the harbinger of rain, while Bren lay awake, thinking that if he were wise, he would get up and close the lattice and the doors before he fell asleep. The wind would shift. The sea air would come and cool the room. The vents were enough to let it in. But it was a lethargic, muggy night, and he waited for that nightly reverse of the wind from the east to the wet, waited as the first flickers of lightning cast the shadow of the lattice on the stirring gauze of the curtain.

Well, what do you think? What I think is, after all that prologue-y stuff, the first paragraph of the actual story is meant to establish, not Bren’s emotional response to the setting, but his comfort with and familiarity with the setting. This is his world. He knows it intimately. Humans were newcomers to the world, but Bren is not a newcomer at all; this is his home.

Two short paragraphs later, there’s a shadow on the terrace, an intruder, and Bren shoots at this intruder with the gun he isn’t supposed to have, and the actual story is underway. But here in this first paragraph, we have the setting, with the protagonist firmly in place within that setting. The paragraph serves to evoke a feeling of comfort and of being at home. The next few paragraphs draw the reader forward by presenting a dangerous intrusion into this calm and comfortable evening.

All right, moving on.

2. In honor of the soon-to-be-released Enigma Game by Elizabeth Wein, here’s the first paragraph of the related novel Rose Under Fire.

I just got back from Celia Forester’s funeral. I’m supposed to be writing up an official report for the Tempest she flew into the ground, since she’s obviously not going to write it herself and I saw it happen. Also because I feel responsible. I know it wasn’t my fault – I really do know that now. But I briefed her. We both had Tempests to deliver, and I’d flown one a couple of times before. Celia hadn’t. She took off ten minutes after me. If she’d taken off first, we might both still be alive.

Well, now. No argument with this one. This is definitely an opening paragraph that uses the emotions of the protagonist to draw in the reader. I know it wasn’t my fault – I really do know that now. Powerful! No surprise, as there are hardly any novels I can think of that are more emotionally powerful than these WWII historicals by Elizabeth Wein. In a historical setting like this one, the reader has to be introduced to the world in almost the same way as in an SFF world, but this paragraph is doing the heavy lifting with the protagonist’s emotions, not (yet) by giving us any sensory feel for the world. This could hardly be more different from the beginning of Bren’s story in Foreigner.

3. In honor of the very-soon-to-be-released Return of the Thief, here’s the first paragraph of The Queen of Attolia.

He was asleep, but woke at the sound of the key turning in the lock. The storage room held winter linens, and no one should have been interested in it in the middle of summer, and certainly not in the middle of the night. By the time the door was open, he had slipped through a square hole in the stones of the wall and soundlessly closed the metal door that covered it. He was in the narrow tunnel that connected a stoking room to the hypocaust of a minor audience chamber down the corridor. The door he’d crawled through was intended to allow smoke into the storage room to fumigate the linens. Moving quietly, he inched down the tunnel to the open space of the hypocaust. Squat pillars held the stone floor above him. There wasn’t room to sit up, so he lay on his back and listened to the thumping noises, like drumbeats, as people hurried over the floor of the audience chamber above his head. They could only be looking for him, but he wasn’t particularly worried. He’d hidden before in the spaces under the floor of the palace. His people had used the tunnels of the hypocausts to hide in since the invaders had built them to heat their new buildings hundreds of years earlier.

Whew! That’s a long opening paragraph! The main function of this paragraph is to get the plot off to a fast start and begin to build the setting, but we do get entry to the protagonist’s feelings as well – a general sense of his competence. He woke instantly even though there was no reason to expect anyone to come searching for him, and though people are in fact searching for him, he isn’t particularly worried. That isn’t going to last, of course, as we know if we’ve read the story before.

Lots of details of the setting here. There’s a lot more of the setting than the protagonist’s emotions; and I would say that this paragraph does not really evoke a mood, either. The tension here is part of the plot, not part of the mood or feel of the story. I would say this paragraph is meant to set the scene and give us a general sense that there is history here, history and a broader context. This is a worldbuilding, plot-driving paragraph.

One more:

4. In honor of T. Kingfisher’s not-quite-released new novel The Hollow Places, here’s the opening of her recent The Twisted Ones:

I am going to try to start at the beginning, even though I know you won’t believe me.

It’s okay. I wouldn’t believe me either. Everything I have to say seems completely barking mad. I’ve run it through my mind over and over, trying to find a way to turn it around so that it all sounds quite normal and sensible, and of course there isn’t one.

No setting at all! I like that because it is such a contrast to most of the other paragraphs at which we’ve been looking. This is nothing but mood! Well, mood and voice. Anyway, it’s an opening that says horror novel here and does absolutely nothing about worldbuilding except use a contemporary voice to let the reader know this is essentially a contemporary-ish setting.

So these four novel openings actually do a great job of showcasing an amazingly broad spectrum of types of successful openings, thus warning us all against drawing firm conclusions about what works in a first paragraph. I suppose we could categorize opening paragraphs this way:

a) Draws in the reader by showing the emotions of the protagonist and inviting a sympathetic response from the reader.

b) Draws in the reader by offering a puzzle or question.

c) Draws in the reader by establishing a tone or mood.

d) Draws in the reader by creating the world and inviting the reader to look around.

e) Draws in the reader by starting the plot and urging the reader to see what happens next.

And, although most well-written novels may do all or most of those things within the first few pages, many are doing only one of those things in the first paragraph.

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