Perfecting That First Paragraph I Oxford Open Learning


    Perfecting That First Paragraph

    Hook, Line And Sinker

    Stories live and die on their opening pages, their opening sentences even. Suppose you go into Waterstones or your local public library and browse for your next bit of escapism. In that case, you may well be first drawn in by a wonderful-looking cover, but as I’m sure you’ve heard many times before, you should never judge a book by its cover. The truth is that you judge a book by its opening paragraph. And just like with everything else in life, you never get a second chance at a first impression.

    You may not be conscious of it, but as you open up that book and have a little read of its opening, you’re silently judging whether the narrative in question deserves your attention. From the author’s point of view, if it’s a good first sentence, that buys favour with the reader up until the end of the first paragraph. If that paragraph continues the trend, that grace extends to the end of the first page. From there? The first chapter. In all likelihood, if your reader has gotten to that point, they’re likely in it for the long haul.

    However, when it comes to what examiners are looking for, you need only worry about that first sentence and paragraph. You’re not writing a novel – what you’ll end up writing will amount to barely a handful of pages; a piece of flash fiction. But the rules of storytelling and capturing the audience don’t change, so just how do you go about hooking your reader in?

    A First Paragraph Must Intrigue

    There are two ways to strike up some intrigue with your reader. The first is to introduce a moment of change. This moment is pivotal in changing the course of your narrative and is what will propel your story forward. You need to establish that something that something different from the usual has happened. It sounds tricky, but it’s easier than you think. Read on to find out. How does this create intrigue? That is in what you haven’t written. By not disclosing why the change happened or what exactly the change is, the reader is left wondering what those missing details might be.

    Start Late

    There’s an old adage when it comes to fiction: ‘Start late and leave early’. No, this doesn’t refer to how you should go about your lessons, but is in fact about the scenes of your story. Start your scene as late as possible (close to the action) and leave once you hit that crucial moment. Lingering afterwards can lead to the narrative fizzling out while starting too early will leave your reader bored with pointless filler that doesn’t add to your story.

    That doesn’t mean you’ll nail this straight away, but keeping it in mind, you might see towards the end that you can trim a sentence or two off the start or end of your story. Understandably, that might sound like the last thing you want to do, but when it comes to fiction, word counts are secondary and any decent author will tell you: less is more. For what you’re trying to achieve, you’ll likely only have one or two, start the scene as late as possible—ideally with your moment of change. This will help hook the reader with not only introducing your problem, but if you frame it in the right way you can create intrigue at the same time.

    For Example

    It’s easy to tell you how this will all work, so why not show you instead? Here we’ll take a look at a simple sentence to open up a story and how it serves as a great hook for a reader.

    Charlie didn’t show up today.

    This sentence establishes several things: Charlie usually shows up. He hasn’t shown up and thus is the problem—our moment of change.

    We’ve skipped right past everything beforehand to get to where Charlie isn’t, be that work, school, or wherever—starting late. It creates questions and tension for the reader immediately: Where is Charlie? Why didn’t he turn up? How is this a problem? The great thing about a short sentence is that it’s so light on details the reader can’t help but try and fill them in themselves. Also, that sentence could fit into plenty of narratives, so feel free to pinch it and try out a few of your own.

    As for making a unique voice, you can do that by writing in a first-person perspective too. It’s easier to convey the feelings of how the character in this story is affected by Charlie’s absence and allows you to throw in some unique phrases too. Just don’t go bending the rules, do that after the exam.

    Avoid The Weather

    If there’s one thing that you absolutely shouldn’t do, it’s dive straight into the description. Without a doubt describing the scene is important, but this is a matter of timing—especially when you have so little time and so few words to play with. You might want to write about ominous grey clouds circling above like vultures, or the rain hammering abuse at the windshield, but these can come later. They’re used to build atmosphere and add to the tension. If you start with them, there’s no context to relate it to, so no matter how great they sound they’ll fall flat. Save them for sentence three or four.

    With these tips, you’ll be well-equipped to hone your craft and deliver a great little story, be it for an exam or otherwise. It’s also good to remember that better writing comes with two things: reading and practice.

    And Charlie? He’s okay… Or is he?


    If you are interested in studying English or English Literature, Oxford Home Schooling offers the chance to do so at a variety of levels, listed below. You can also Contact Us here.

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    English Literature IGCSE

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