08 January 2022

First Up, Opening Paragraphs

First up for 2022: an ode to opening paragraphs. Great openers are art within the art. A great opener crackles--and promises--such that Reader Me recognizes I'm in expert hands. Bang, I've heard a call to fiction adventure. Sure, the short story exists to deliver a meaningful end moment. Those seeds get sown from note one, in a symphonic sense. Without a first movement, the big honking finish risks hitting flat. I might've put the story down altogether.

Openings aren't just about raw hook. I could put dogs or babies in trouble and catch a reader's attention. The story darn well better unfold with dogs or babies in a core, connected way, or else readers will spot my shenanigans and curse my name. Hook sustains from the right thematic launch toward that big honking end. This can be subtle or in-your-face. The best openers are bit of both. 

It doesn't even have to be a single paragraph. The opener can unfold, and it often does. Here's a two-paragrapher by an American gent named Edgar Allan Poe. You might've heard of him. 

"The Cask of Amontillado" -- 1846

The thousand injuries of Fortunato I had borne as I best could, but when he ventured upon insult I vowed revenge. You, who so well know the nature of my soul, will not suppose, however, that I gave utterance to a threat. At length I would be avenged; this was a point definitively settled — but the very definitiveness with which it was resolved precluded the idea of risk. I must not only punish but punish with impunity. A wrong is unredressed when retribution overtakes its redresser. It is equally unredressed when the avenger fails to make himself felt as such to him who has done the wrong.

It must be understood that neither by word nor deed had I given Fortunato cause to doubt my good will. I continued, as was my wont, to smile in his face, and he did not perceive that my smile now was at the thought of his immolation.

Poe is public domain and widely studied, so his (long) passages make for prime forensics. Two things jump out as "Amontillado" opens. One, a clinical certainty to the narrator, Montresor. Our guy is having quite the scheme-fest. He's all in. He's verbose about it. Meanwhile, Poe leaves no room for confusion on what's what and the tone to expect. Revenge, punishment, and just look how Poe sticks the landing: "immolation." A word of extreme violence. Readers then would've understood Poe meant Fortunado would be a sacrifice. But to what? Justice? Family? We don't know.

That's my second reaction. Montresor rails about those thousand injuries but can't be bothered to specify a single one, not even the supposed grave insult. Poe leaves open that Fortunado might not have done a thing to Montresor. They might not even be rivals. With no gauge on injury versus justice, we can't rule out "Amontillado" as cold-blooded murder. Hello, horror element.

Poe checks a lot of boxes here: Hook, tone, subject, theme, conflict, the ending foreshadowed. Some things are more indirect. There is almost nothing to suggest place and time other than Fortunado's name and the title. Poe doesn't clear up until paragraph three that this is Italy and not Spain. Leaving out place from the opener de-prioritizes it and frames "Amontillado" as tackling larger questions. 

This is what first paragraphs can do. Should do. It's not 1846 anymore, and authors need to get things boiling faster. Fast, though, can be too fast. Or, as Kurt Vonnegut said:

"To hell with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages."

 — Bagombo Snuff Box: Uncollected Short Fiction

A million times yes. It's a false choice between speed and set-up. Give me your hinted layers, your intrigue, your seeds of character, and give them right from jump street. Reader Me starts every story wanting exactly what the author did: a pay-off. First things first, though. That big resonant finish hangs on a well-constructed opener. 

Write strong in 2022, everybody.

* * * 

Bonus other favorite first paragraphs:

  • Ben Fountain, "Near-Extinct Birds of the Central Cordillera"
  • Tim Gautreaux, "Gone to Water"
  • Lorrie Moore, "Debarking"
  • Flannery O'Connor, "A Good Man Is Hard to Find"
  • Ron Rash, "Something Rich and Strange"


  1. Excellent post, Bob.
    I always tell people in my workshops that the brilliant opening sentence can be a trap and that they should consider the first paragraph or even the first page as "the opening." Set the scene, establish the mood, and help the reader get used to the narrative voice. More often than not, my last revision in a short story is the opening scene because by then I know where I'm going. Ideally, that opening helps set up the ending, too.

    I have a three-page list of favorite opening lines, generally a sentence, but my favorite extended opening comes from Laura Lippman's "The Crack Cocaine Diet." It's funny, and it gives us the character's voice and personality vividly. It also sets up the story's ending perfectly without giving anything away.

    1. Thanks, Steve! And my first paragraphs are usually the last thing to gel. Same reason you mention. I don't know what to frame just yet until the rewrite slog is done. My final first paragraph is often based on the third or fourth paragraph from those early drafts.

  2. I love a great beginning. It's the come-hither look on paper.

  3. I still say one of the great openings is Toni Morrison's Paradise: "They shoot the white girl first." If you don't want to keep on reading after that...


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