Nathan Bransford recently held a First Paragraph contest on his excellent blog, and it got me thinking of first paragraphs and what they should do. His post is very incisive on this point, and I agreed with the points he made.
The first paragraph has three important functions: it establishes the tone/voice, it gets the reader into the flow of the book, and it establishes trust between the author and reader.
He first came to the Iris one day just before the beginning of the summer season. The rain had been falling since dawn. It grew heavier at dusk, and the sea was rough and gray. A gust blew open the door, and rain soaked the carpet in the lobby. The shopkeepers in the neighborhood had turned off their neon signs along the empty streets. A car passed from time to time, its headlights shining through the raindrops.
The next one is from The Wind Singer by William Nicholson, and it tells us immediately something of the world it is placed in, and introduces two of the characters. I was put off by the unknown words, though, which later turn out to be swear words. Trust issues between author and reader! But the para ends with a question and makes me want to read on.
“Sagahog!Pompaprune! Saga-saga-hog!” Bowman Hath lay in bed listening to the muffled sounds of his mother bathing in the bathroom next door. From far away across the roofs of the city floated the golden boom of the bell in the tower of the Imperial Palace: mmnang! mmnang! It was sounding the sixth hour, the time when all Amaranth awoke. Bowman opened his eyes and lay gazing at the daylight glowing in the tangerine curtains. He realized he was feeling sad. What is it this time? He thought to himself. He looked ahead to the coming day in school, and his stomach tightened. A kind of sorrowing, as if for something lost. But what?
Then I read Parrot in the Oven,-mi vida by Victor Martinez, and its first para gives a strong voice, and we know it is a young boy talking. We are eager to meet him and the rest of his family:
That summer my brother, Bernardo, or “Nardo”, as we call him, flipped through more jobs than a thumb through a deck of cards. First he was a dishwasher, then a busboy, then a parking attendant and finally, a patty turner for some guy who never seemed to be in his hamburger stand for more than ten minutes at a time. (Mom believed he sold marijuana, or did some illegal shamelessness.)
I have owned a copy of Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez for some time now, and when I started it two days ago, I was immediately hooked not only by the voice, but the fact that the first para begins with a suicide. We also find ‘love’ in the very first line, and that, after all, is what the book is about. (Somewhat.)
It was inevitable: the scent of bitter almonds always reminded him of the fate of unrequited love. Dr Juvenal Urbino noticed it as soon as he entered the still darkened house where he had hurried on an urgent call to attend a case that for him had lost all urgency many years before. The Antillean refugee Jeremiah de Saint-Amour, disabled war veteran, photographer of children, and his most sympathetic opponent in chess, had escaped the torments of memory with the aromatic fumes of gold cyanide.