Some people love to flip to the end of a book first, but I’m definitely a go-to-the-first page gal. In a bookstore, I can while away my time quite happily by picking up novels with intriguing titles and checking out their first couple of paragraphs. I especially love a first sentence that sucks me in. As a reader, that’s what I want: to be instantly absorbed. I once read that a well-known writer labored for two months – that’s right, two months! – to get the first paragraph of a new novel just the way she wanted it. I can totally understand that kind of drive and attention.
In my experience, a great opening usually makes for a great read. A fabulous first sentence and paragraph can telegraph so much to us about what’s to come: who we’re going to meet in the pages ahead and how clueless or clever the narrator is. I just pulled Wuthering Heights off my shelf – here’s how it starts:
“1801 – I have just returned from a visit to my landlord – the solitary neighbor I shall be troubled with. This is certainly a beautiful country! In all England, I do not believe that I could have fixed on a situation so completely removed from the stir of society. A perfect misanthropist’s Heaven – and Mr. Heathcliff and I are such a suitable pair to divide the desolation between us. A capital fellow!”
The first paragraph goes on, but you get the idea. We are plunged into the moment, encounter the misanthropic Heathcliff, and glimpse the narrator’s oblivious naivete – all in a handful of sentences. Impressive, isn’t it?
It can be fun and very instructive to make copies of the first page of five or six novels, short stories or essays that you find very powerful and systematically pull apart the first paragraph of each one. How, exactly, do they compell your attention and admiration? Revisiting the first pages and paragraphs of books that we love can be a great source of inspiration – and a spur to polish our own openers until they seize and shine.