The Tantalizing Power of Opening Paragraphs

When you are in a library or bookstore, how do you choose which books to take home? In addition to checking out the back cover for blurbs from either published authors I admire or prominent book reviews, I usually read the first page or first paragraph, and I know.

But what do I know?

An article by Nick Mamatas in the most recent issue of The Writer discusses how a good first paragraph doesn’t necessarily have the “hook” we’ve been told it must have:

“The start of a story, its first paragraph, should assure the reader that he is in capable hands. The beginning of the story should tantalize, not hook, the reader.”

Some good examples of this come from the novels of one of my favorite writers, Willa Cather, whose writing and life crossed geographical boundaries of personal interest to me and whose prose never fails to stir something deep inside my writer’s soul. For more about Willa Cather’s life and work and why I love her so, read Kathleen Norris’s essay written for American Masters.

Here are examples of how Cather tantalizes rather than hooks the reader in her first paragraphs, how she assures us that we are in capable hands:

My Antonia

I first heard of Antonia on what seemed to me an interminable journey across the great midland plain of North America.  I was ten years old then; I had lost both my father and mother within a year, and my Virginia relatives were sending me out to my grandparents, who lived in Nebraska.  I travelled in the care of a mountain boy, Jake Marpole, one of the “hands” on my father’s old farm under the Blue Ridge, who was now going West to work for my grandfather.  Jake’s experience of the world was not much wider than mine.  He had never been in a railway train until the morning when we set out together to try our fortunes in a new world.

Song of the Lark

Dr. Howard Archie had just come up from a game of pool with the Jewish clothier and two traveling men who happened to be staying overnight in Moonstone. His offices were in the Duke Block, over the drug store. Larry, the doctor’s man, had lit the overhead light in the waiting-room and the double student’s lamp on the desk in the study. The isinglass sides of the hard-coal burner were aglow, and the air in the study was so hot that as he came in the doctor opened the door into his little operating-room, where there was no stove. The waiting room was carpeted and stiffly furnished, something like a country parlor. The study had worn, unpainted floors, but there was a look of winter comfort about it. The doctor’s flat-top desk was large and well made; the papers were in orderly piles, under glass weights. Behind the stove a wide bookcase, with double glass doors, reached from the floor to the ceiling. It was filled with medical books of every thickness and color. On the top shelf stood a long row of thirty or forty volumes, bound all alike in dark mottled board covers, with imitation leather backs.

O Pioneers!

One January day, thirty years ago, the little town of Hanover, anchored on a windy Nebraska tableland, was trying not to be blown away. A mist of fine snowflakes was curling and eddying about the cluster of low drab buildings huddled on the gray prairie, under a gray sky. The dwelling-houses were set about haphazard on the tough prairie sod; some of them looked as if they had been moved in overnight, and others as if they were straying off by themselves, headed straight for the open plain. None of them had any appearance of permanence, and the howling wind blew under them as well as over them. The main street was a deeply rutted road, now frozen hard, which ran from the squat red railway station and the grain “elevator” at the north end of the town to the lumber yard and the horse pond at the south end. On either side of this road straggled two uneven rows of wooden buildings; the general merchandise stores, the two banks, the drug store, the feed store, the saloon, the post-office. The board sidewalks were gray with trampled snow, but at two o’clock in the afternoon the shopkeepers, having come back from dinner, were keeping well behind their frosty windows. The children were all in school, and there was nobody abroad in the streets but a few rough-looking countrymen in coarse overcoats, with their long caps pulled down to their noses. Some of them had brought their wives to town, and now and then a red or a plaid shawl flashed out of one store into the shelter of another. At the hitch-bars along the street a few heavy work-horses, harnessed to farm wagons, shivered under their blankets. About the station everything was quiet, for there would not be another train in until night.

Each of these openings serves a different purpose. The first, from My Antonia, draws us into the voice of the first-person narrator and introduces us in a natural and easy way to his world and circumstances and immediate problem and goal. The second, from Song of the Lark, uses rich detail to paint a portrait of Dr. Howard Archie (notice how we learn he has “a man” but that his books have “imitation leather backs,” how his papers are in “orderly piles” on a “well made” desk, all clues to his character and status). Finally, my favorite, from O Pioneers!, makes the town of Hanover which “was trying not to be blown away” as real and familiar to us as our own back yard.

What they all have in common is an absolute certainty that the story is going somewhere and that the author knows how to take us there. “Take my hand; let’s take a journey,” she seems to say.

Practice Inspired by Willa

Just as pianists never stop perfecting scales, writers can continue to improve and refine their skills with deliberate practice that may never be read by anyone else. Scott H. Young has written an excellent piece the idea of writing practice for mastery: “Getting Good: How I’m Trying To Be a Better Writer“. He offers several ideas from his own experience of how one can develop a plan to practice writing so as to reach one’s personal goals.

One way writers can practice deliberately—sentence variety, paragraph structures, concrete vs. abstract words, style and voice, satisfying conclusions, so many more—is by copying the style or rhythm or tone of favorite sentences or passages, especially opening passages. Challenge yourself to write an opening paragraph of one of your own projects in the style of Willa Cather. How does it change your story? What new skills have you added to your writing repertoire?

How can you use your opening paragraph(s) to reassure your readers that you know where you are going and to tantalize them to read further?