Editing Tip #47

First Impressions Pt.2 ~

raised eyebrows 1950'sSome writers might say that the first paragraph is not quite as important as the first sentence and not nearly as important as the first page – so why am I focusing on this ‘first’ if opinions vary? A well armed (and informed) writer needs every opportunity to grab his reader’s attention.

In my opinion, if your first paragraph is lacking the promise that your first sentence hooked me with then subconsciously I might lose spirit at this point. I, personally, have never put a book down sooner than reading the first page but there are avid readers out there who don’t have the time to wait for you to ‘get warmed up’ in order to keep their attention.

So, what should that first paragraph do?

Follow through on the promise of the first sentence

Engage readers with a bit more depth regarding the ideas already presented

Open a new can of worms (or spill the can that’s already been opened)

The follow-through:

Any baseball fan knows that if the pitcher or the batter don’t follow through with the swing of their arm(s) it alters the effectiveness of their intent – be it to send in a curve ball or hit a homer. The same theory is applied to writing. If you reveal something mundane, such as memories, alongside something inexplicable, like being locked in dark coffin-like space, (as witnessed with the opener from Poison Study last week) then you’d better be prepared to say a little more on the subject.

Poison Study – 1st Paragraph

Locked in darkness that surrounded me like a coffin, I had nothing to distract me from my memories. Vivid recollections waited to ambush me whenever my mind wandered.

Here author Maria V. Snyder reinforces the idea that the memories that could distract her are actually unwanted and ambush the main character whenever she’s not careful to keep mind empty. At first this may seem mundane but the extension of the promise regarding the memories show us that they are more than unwelcome and are likely linked to the reason why she’s “locked in darkness.”

Engaging readers:

If you mention a disfiguring scar on your body (the first line from last week’s Grave Mercy example), you’d better be prepared to dig into the idea a little deeper and show your reader its significance. To mention something striking like this and then ignore it, thinking you’re creating suspense by returning to it later is not always a risk worth taking. Your first paragraph should be cohesive and relate to your initial hook.

Grave Mercy – 1st Paragraph

I bear a deep red stain that runs from my left shoulder down to my right hip, a trail left by the herbwitch’s poison that my mother used to try to expel me from her womb. That I survived, according to the herbwitch, is no miracle but a sign I have been sired by the god of death of himself.

Here author Robin LeFevre raises the bar with the revelation that this girl is quite possibly a demi-god or at the very least cursed. Readers of fantasy would be snagged at this point wondering which is actually the case and exactly how the supernatural element plays out in relation to this young woman.

The can of worms:

Suspense and mystery raise the level of tension and make the reader ask questions he or she wants to find the answers to. If you bring up the fact that your main character is a slave and attach the extraordinary idea of being escorted, not only wearing heavy shackles but by guards with swords pointed and ready to strike (as in last week’s example with Throne of Glass), you’d better be prepared to one-up or anti-up on the high state of tension already present. The best way to do that is to add an unexpected element.

Throne of Glass – 1st Paragraph

After a year of slavery in the Salt Mines of Endovier, Celaena Sardothien was accustomed to being escorted everywhere in shackles and at sword-point. Most of the thousands of slaves in Endovier received similar treatment – though an extra half-dozen guards always walked Celaena to and from the mines. That was expected by Adarlan’s most notorious assassin. What she did not usually expect, however, was a hooded man in black at her side – as there was now.

Here author Sarah J. Maas not only follows through with an explanation that this kind of slave treatment is the norm but extra care is being taken for her first reveal: she’s a famous assassin – but something is different this time. The inclusion of the foreign entity, the “hooded man in black” should quicken the reader’s pulse, ask more questions, and yet still fulfill the initial promise pulling the eye onto the next paragraph.

The work we do as writers to make a solid foundation of promises and questions that require answering will inherently draw readers on to the next paragraph and the next page. In the rush of a first draft these kinds of connections may not be overly evident or obvious at all. Sometimes what we ‘know’ vs. what we ‘write’ does not become clear until a fresh second reading. It’s in the editing phases that the fine-tuning of your craft becomes paramount – and even a little bit fun: how much can I say without revealing too much? Now that’s a challenge I’m prepared to meet – how about you?

[CLICK HERE for Part One – First Sentences.]

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