The Cold Open
What’s more important, a strong first line or a strong first paragraph?
I posed this question on Twitter the other day and received an amazing number of responses (and retweets). There were a variety of replies, but the consensus opinion was that a strong opening paragraph was more important.
I agree, despite the fact that, over the years, I’ve been repeatedly told by “experts” that the first line is the most important thing in a story. Sure, a solid first line can grab a reader’s interest, but if the next three lines are weak you lose them. One of the responses I received summed it up nicely – and I’m paraphrasing here – “The first line should catch their attention, then the paragraph pulls them along, then the chapter leads them to the next…” So sort of like an assembly line, with the narrative slowly pieced together to produce the final product at the end.
To me, putting all the emphasis on the first line isn’t reasonable. That’s basically saying that the entire worth of your story is based on one sentence. That’s also putting too much focus on one line when you should be focusing on the entire story.
I can’t think of a single story I didn’t read because the first line didn’t draw me in. Personally, I feel it’s the first paragraph or page. When I’m browsing in one of my local bookstores looking for a new book, I often read the first couple of paragraphs, but I also flip through to some random page in the middle and read a few there, as well. I don’t consider the first sentence as a make or break. As long as it leads me into the next sentence, then the next, and so on, then I’m hooked.
The reason this came up is because I’m preparing to begin the second draft of my novel and I felt I was thinking about the first sentence a little more than I should. I was trying to rewrite it over and over again in my head, bordering on obsession. But then I took a step back and looked at it from a reader’s standpoint. (Note: I’ve found that, more often than not, looking at my work from a reader’s perspective is incredibly helpful). I thought to myself: If I picked this novel off the shelf in a store and looked at the first page, what would encourage me to read it?
That’s when I decided I’d focus on the first two paragraphs. Not only has that taken the pressure off me to write that amazing, astounding, captivating first sentence, but it gives me room to maneuver. It’s like painting on a canvas – I’m not trying to get that one perfect brush stroke, I’m looking at the bigger picture.