3 THINGS THE FIRST PARAGRAPH OF A NOVEL SHOULD CONTAIN

1. Interest.

2. Interest.

oh and….

3. Interest.

My background is as a scriptwriter and if the first two pages do not have a producer salivating, forget it and watch it sail into the trash.

As a reader, I note that so many novels open with either the weather or a long piece of backstory. Neither interest me unless the state of the weather or the backstory has an immediate bearing – within 5 pages – on the fate of either the antagonist or the protagonist.

My new novel due out….er, sometime…if editing ever finishes…went to several beta readers, who proceeded to demolish my previous opening pages with a sledgehammer.

They were right to do so.

Now, the novel opens without any mention of weather, but with some of my antagonist’s backstory. The storyline hinges on these first few pages. And it is exciting, if a little rude and violent. My beta readers love it. Being English, I get to the weather later.

We live in an age where a short attention span is the norm; where media overload scrabbles for our attention. So, unless a writer is writing a literary work with a slow build, and the reader expects this construction, it is probably advisable to grab one’s reader by the short and curlies in the first paragraph. It doesn’t matter how this is achieved as long as the reader is not cheated by two pages of interest and 50 pages of boredom.

A writer’s prime concern must be to interest the reader so much that her or she has to see what happens next.

Anything else is an essay (with apologies  to essay writers).

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About J.D.Hughes

Fiction writer. Supernatural Horror Mystery AND SOON THE SONG. Supernatural Thriller, NORTHMAN, on Amazon and three short stories: BOMBER, ISSUE 49 and THE 500 on Amazon and Smashwords. New novel to be published mid 2016 (if the ghosts don't interfere!)
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11 Responses to 3 THINGS THE FIRST PARAGRAPH OF A NOVEL SHOULD CONTAIN

  1. Lisa says:

    Wow! It seems pretty obvious that there should be interest, but you get so tied up with writing you forget that somebody is going to read it and they have to enjoy it. Thanks for that insight JD (as so many others).

    Like

  2. julietmchugh says:

    Apocalyptic weather is ok, as long as it’s desribed in amazing detail, maybe giving fanfair to four horsemen with that rebounding kettledrum crashing around the stratosphere. Happens here all the time. Crash – oh, here comes Pestilence – it must be nearly bin day.

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  3. J.D.Hughes says:

    Think I might have to change the beginning of my novel to include bin day. 😀

    Like

  4. Simon Jones says:

    I have committed this crime and opened with the weather. Doh. Think I might have got away with it though by also featuring a beheading!

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    • J.D.Hughes says:

      Welcome to my blog, Simon! Nothing like a good, old-fashioned beheading to open a novel. Must be a romance.

      Anyway, it’s bin day and there’s a beheading in progress…next?

      Like

  5. Excellent post, JD. I agree that the discipline of screenwriting serves you well in knowing how to grab the reader’s attention early on.

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    • J.D.Hughes says:

      Thanks, Steven. In my twenties, I remember going to see a producer in London with my brand new, carefully honed feature screenplay. I thought we would have a long discussion on its merits. Instead, he skimmed the first two pages, threw it back across the desk and said “Don’t like it. What else have you got?”. The experience was one of many lessons I failed to learn until much later in life!

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      • Great story. There’s an old joke in Hollywood. A producer is dancing around the office holding a script. “This is the greatest screenplay I’ve ever read!” he says. “Who can we get to rewrite it?”

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      • J.D.Hughes says:

        Apocryphal tales – don’t you love ’em! But I’m willing to bet that actually happened. Thanks for that Steven: it reminded me of why I stopped writing scripts 😉

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  6. True. I have learned the same lesson with backstory. We tend to want to put readers in the loop of everything we know about these characters. Then I realized that the biggest advantage we have as a writer is leading up to everything with little hints here and there. P.D. James is wonderful at doing this without cutting back on details. I also found that the best way to practice building interest with your stories is to try it out loud preferable with family rather than friends, as they are the ones most likely to walk away mid-sentence. Anyone who comes from a large family will understand this. If you can manage holding your family’s interest while telling a story…you can write. Now I spread my backstory thin, and I inject it…in the nick of time.

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    • J.D.Hughes says:

      Good advice, Joss and thank you for visiting. I agree with your take on the almost neurotic need writers have to fully round characters in the first three lines. Less is definitely more. We, as writers, are all readers as well and I love the journey of discovery as layers are revealed, whether of plot or character. P.D. James is very skilful at this, as you say and I find the much maligned Stephen King is quite adept, too.

      I need to get a large family. I knew I was going wrong somewhere!

      Like

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