We’ve seen millions of copies of literature since the beginning of literacy, but one thing is sure; you know a good book by the first few sentences you read. Writers, whether fictional who compose great prose or academic, as those who you seek online and ask to “do my essay”, “who can type my essay,” or “write my assignment”, have only one chance to capture the attention of their readers. This they can only achieve through the first paragraph.
Before jumping into these unforgettable opening paragraphs, let’s unpack their importance.
How Important is An Opening Paragraph?
The opening paragraph introduces the reader to your voice and gives a foresight of the novel. It takes them into a different world you’ve created for them. This is where you convince your audience that they should flip through one page after the other when they’d rather not.
And while you shouldn’t give away everything you’re writing about in the opening paragraph, provide a teaser to intrigue readers.
Innumerable authors have risked it all trying to lure a significant following of readers into their nets. While most did a commendable job, only a few outdid themselves to make it to this list of 10 of the greatest opening paragraphs in literature, and here they are.
Lightning Rods, Helen DeWitt
“One way of looking at it is that it was the unfortunate by-product of hurricane Edna.”
This opening sentence leaves you wondering what was happening at that time. You already paint an image of chaos and disorientation in the area; that would be the typical aftermath of a hurricane. On the contrary, the writer is unearthing sexual forces in the underworld that rule the modern era.
A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens
“It was the best of time, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – In short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.”
The celebrated writer and social critic explain in a hundred or more words the situation at the time through comparison.
The Stranger, Albert Camus
“Mother died today, or maybe yesterday; I don’t know. I had a telegram from the home: “Mother passed away. Funeral tomorrow. Yours sincerely.” That didn’t mean anything. It may have been sent yesterday.”
While death is a startling and heartwrenching event for the bereaved, it is almost as though Mersault was not moved by it. From the onset, you can tell the lad has no connection to his mother or is trying to mask the pain by being non-responsive to the rather sad news.
Albert shows in six short sentences the nonchalant expression of a child towards their mother’s death.
The Bell Jar, Sylvia Plath
“It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.”
The first three sentences take us into a world unknown. Esther is chasing happiness but seemingly finds herself in an unprecedented situation. She relocates to a new city, only to feel lost and confused by the happenings at the time.
Coincidentally, the move to New York occurs around the same time Julia and Ethel Rosenberg are being electrocuted. There seemingly isn’t a connection between the two events, but the fact that the author mentions it keeps you asking questions.
The Night Circus, Erin Morgensten
“The circus arrives without warning. No announcements precede it, no paper notices on downtown posts and billboards, no mentions or advertisements in local newspapers. It is simply there when yesterday it was not.”
The circus was a celebrated occasion that Londoners never wanted to miss. They’d read magazines and newspapers and listen to every available news outlet to find information on upcoming ones. This one got them off-guard and unprepared, leaving them in a dilemma between canceling current plans and attending the circus they hadn’t planned. However, you’re left wondering if it’s a true circus or a turn of events around the persona’s life that resemble one.
We Have Always Lived in The Castle, Mary Katherine Blackwood
“My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood. I am eighteen years old, and I live with my sister Constance. I have often thought that with any luck at all, I would have been born a werewolf, because the two middle fingers on both my hands are the same length, but I have had to be content with what I had. I dislike washing myself, and dogs, and noise. I like my sister Constance, Richard Plantagenet, and Amanita Phalloides, the death-cup mushroom. Everyone else in my family is dead.”
In the introductory paragraph, Miss Blackwood reveals much about her personal life. By the time she puts the pen down, we know her name, age, personality, secret desires, likes, dislikes, and a nerve-wracking reality about the rest of her family. Her absurd liking toward the death-cap mushroom and the death of the rest of her family leave you wondering about the nature of their transition.
1984, George Orwell
“It was a bright cold day in April and the clocks were striking thirteen.”
This is the epitome of suspense in literary work. The writer quickly brings you up to speed with the paradox of the day in a sentence. And before you grasp the essence of the first few words, he throws in a number that is mostly associated with bad luck.
Fahrenheit451, Ray Bradbury
“It was a pleasure to burn.”
No one wants to burn, not even the devil who’s been cursed to suffer in the lake of fire for eternity, so why would Ray introduce us to a new character who is happy to burn? What other option would have made the persona prefer burning and with pleasure? Who was being belittled here? Or was there a different connotation in the five words that introduced us to Farheinheit451?
Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas, Hunter S Thompson
“We were somewhere along Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold.”
A comparison between the book’s title and the first paragraph is enough to tell you that the characters in question have adverse reactions to their actions.
Metamorphosis, Franz Kafka
“As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.”
What would happen if you woke up from a long sleep with unwelcoming dreams only to find you changed into one of the world’s most loathed insects; a cockroach? For Gregor, this was his reality, and everything went south after the metamorphosis.
In A Nutshell
You have to give your audience something to clasp to if you want to grab and hold their attention. So, if you’re looking for inspiration on what to do to your literary work, here are ten good examples of good first paragraphs.