How important is the first paragraph of a novel?

I took four fantasy novels and predicted what each was about based on its first paragraph. Yes, the first paragraph of a novel is important.

A house in a suitcase

Writers are told they have to grab their readers by the throat in their first sentence. Attention spans have gone the way of the megalodon, and if you don’t grab a reader straight away you’ve lost them.

A first sentence should do everything. Be a microcosm of the entire story. Introduce a fascinating character. Be surprising. Set reader expectations. Foreshadow the story problem. Raise a question. Wash the dishes. Hang out the laundry. Pick the kids up from school.

Okay, maybe not all those.

I agree first sentences are important, but how much can they really do?

I decided to find out.

Here’s the game. Recently I’ve been looking for comp titles (comparable? comparison?) for my work in progress. I found four books that are nothing like mine but sound interesting anyway (as you do).

Handily, I’ve forgotten what they’re about.

I’m going to read the first paragraph of each (because a sentence is a bit too stingy)–or two paragraphs if the first is very short–and see what I can guess about the book.

Then I’m going to compare my guesses with the blurb (because I can’t read all four books before I publish this post tonight).

Ready?

The Jasad Heir by Sara Hashem

The first two paragraphs

Two things stood between me and a good night’s sleep, and I was allowed to kill only one of them.

I tromped through Hirum River’s mossy banks, squinting for movement. The grime, the late hours–I had expected those. Every apprentice in the village dealt with them. I just hadn’t expected the frogs.

My guesses

We have a main character who’s an apprentice, so probably young. Likely 17 or 18, because nearly every main character in a young adult book is these days, and YA books are more likely to be written in first person.

No hint of gender, but I assume female because the author (I assume based on the name) is female. Also, it feels like more of a girl thing to mention the grime.

Sleep is important to her, and killing things is a viable solution to problems. She’s only allowed to kill one of the things stopping her sleeping, but she really wants to be able to kill both. Harsher times, perhaps. Probably an active protagonist. I’m mildly intrigued.

The first sentence does raise a question: what’s stopping her sleeping. I’m guessing the frogs is the one she’s allowed to kill, and the other is something deeper.

What’s the story about? I don’t know, but I’m going to take a punt. If I can add the information of the title, it’s about the rightful heir to a kingdom (or similar). The heir doesn’t know he or she is the heir and/or has been living a modest life somewhere in secret because REASONS.

Either this main character we met or a close friend of hers is in fact the heir. They will come of age and claim their kingdom, because that’s what heirs do. Bad forces will try to stop them.

The blurb

A fugitive queen strikes a bargain with her greatest enemy that could resurrect her scorched kingdom or leave it in ashes forever in this unmissable Egyptian-inspired epic fantasy debut. 

Ten years ago, the kingdom of Jasad burned. Its magic was outlawed. Its royal family murdered. At least, that’s what Sylvia wants people to believe. The Heir of Jasad escaped the massacre, and she intends to stay hidden, especially from the armies of Nizahl that continue to hunt her people.

But a moment of anger changes everything. When Arin, the Nizahl Heir, tracks a group of Jasadi rebels to her village, Sylvia accidentally reveals her magic—and captures his attention. Now Sylvia’s forced to make a deal with her greatest enemy: Help him hunt the rebels in exchange for her life.

A deadly game begins. Sylvia can’t let Arin discover her identity, even as hatred shifts into something more between the Heirs. And as the tides change around her, Sylvia will have to choose between the life she wants and the one she abandoned.

The scorched kingdom is rising, and it needs a queen. 

Verdict

I’m going to say I didn’t do badly, assuming the character we met was Sylvia, the heir, and the life she abandoned was being queen of Jasad.

3/5

The Bone Shard Daughter by Andrea Stewart

The first two paragraphs

Father told me I’m broken.

He didn’t speak this disappointment when I answered his question. But he said it with narrowed eyes, the way he sucked on his already hollow cheeks, the way the left side of his lips twitched a little bit down, the movement almost hidden by his beard.

My guesses

This one doesn’t give me so much to go on.

Again it’s written in first person, and has a main character who evidently cares a lot about her father’s opinion of her. I’m guessing YA again.

The title and first two paragraphs are all about the father-daughter relationship, so this is probably central to the story. The father disapproves of his daughter because DISAPPOINTING HEROINE. She spends the book thinking she needs to win his approval, and in the end discovers what she actually needs is to approve of herself.

Maybe the father dies early in the book because ABSENT PARENTS, but I don’t think so because disapproving parents are just as good as absent parents in YA. One might detract from the other.

As for “bone shard”, this is fantasy (I was looking for comps, remember?), so maybe a type of magic.

The blurb

The Bone Shard Daughter is an unmissable debut from a major new voice in epic fantasy — a stunning tale of magic, mystery, and revolution in which the former heir to the emperor will fight to reclaim her power and her place on the throne.

The emperor’s reign has lasted for decades, his mastery of bone shard magic powering the animal-like constructs that maintain law and order. But now his rule is failing, and revolution is sweeping across the Empire’s many islands.

Lin is the emperor’s daughter and spends her days trapped in a palace of locked doors and dark secrets. When her father refuses to recognize her as heir to the throne, she vows to prove her worth by mastering the forbidden art of bone shard magic.

Yet such power carries a great cost, and when the revolution reaches the gates of the palace, Lin must decide how far she is willing to go to claim her birthright – and save her people.

Verdict

I got some of that. Say you’re a little bit impressed.

2/5

A puppy with a bone in its mouth.
My bone.

The Unbroken by C. L. Clark

The first paragraph

A sandstorm brewed dark and menacing against the Qazāli horizon as Lieutenant Touraine and the rest of the Balladairan Colonial Brigade sailed into El-Wast, capital city of Qazāl, foremost of Balladaire’s southern colonies.

My guesses

We’ve met only one character, Lieutenant Touraine, and I’m guessing this is the main character. No hint of gender and a military setting, so traditionally I would guess male, but with the excitement over breaking stereotypes, I’m going to say female.

Lieutenant is somewhere up there in rank, so this MC is probably a bit older. I’m going to say 30 to 35, because after that women cease to exist.

We have a sandstorm and non-English sounding place names, so an exotic-type setting.

The “dark and menacing” sandstorm could clumsily signal trouble to come, but every fantasy novel has trouble to come, so I might consider the hint redundant.

The idea of colonies comes up twice in the first paragraph, so I’m going to say the struggle–moral and military–between coloniser and colonised is central to the book. Lieutenant Touraine is on the colonising side, but because she’s a moral person (doesn’t she sound it?) she comes to question whether what she’s doing is right…

And the world is never the same again.

The blurb

EVERY EMPIRE DEMANDS REVOLUTION.

Touraine is a soldier. Stolen as a child and raised to kill and die for the empire, her only loyalty is to her fellow conscripts. But now, her company has been sent back to her homeland to stop a rebellion, and the ties of blood may be stronger than she thought.

Luca needs a turncoat. Someone desperate enough to tiptoe the bayonet’s edge between treason and orders. Someone who can sway the rebels toward peace, while Luca focuses on what really matters: getting her uncle off her throne.

Through assassinations and massacres, in bedrooms and war rooms, Touraine and Luca will haggle over the price of a nation. But some things aren’t for sale.

In a political fantasy unlike any other, debut author C. L. Clark spins an epic tale of rebellion, espionage, and military might on the far outreaches of a crumbling desert empire.



‘Clark’s debut introduces a remarkable LGBTQ+ culture amid a story of colonial conquest, exploitation, prejudice, and brewing revolt in a land with a lost history of mystical powers . . . Fans of epic military fantasy will eagerly await more from Clark’ Booklist

Verdict

So Touraine wasn’t born on the empire’s side, she was just indoctrinated into it. But she does question which side she’s on.

2/5

The Foxglove King by Hannah Whitten

First paragraph

Every month, Michal claimed he’d struck a deal with the landlord, and every month, Nicolas sent one of his sons to collect anyway. The sons must’ve drawn straws–this month’s unfortunate was Pierre, the youngest and spottiest of the bunch, and he trudged up the street of Dellaire’s Harbor District with the air of one approaching a guillotine.

My guesses

Argh! So many characters! Is Michal the main character because he’s mentioned first? I don’t think so because we hear about him from such a distant perspective.

Pierre because he gets most screen time? But he’s talked about so disparagingly.

Nicolas? He barely rates a mention.

Guillotine gives a hint as to setting: pre-modern.

I have to say I’m confused by the first sentence. Is Nicolas the landlord?

In any case, the focus here seems to be about someone who can’t or won’t pay rent, which suggests a dark book with a theme of poverty and the lengths it will drive people to. Perhaps even to the guillotine.

But the title is so pretty, maybe the first paragraph doesn’t capture the vibe of the novel as a whole?

The blurb

In this gilded, gothic, and romantic new epic fantasy series from New York Times-bestselling author Hannah Whitten, a young woman’s secret power to raise the dead plunges her into the dangerous world of the Sainted King’s royal court.

Lore has been living by her wits since she was a child, running poisons for the cartel that took her in, avoiding the attention of the law, and keeping her illicit affinity for death magic a secret.

When a job goes wrong and Lore is captured by the Sainted King’s warrior-monks, she expects death. But King August has a different plan. Entire villages on the outskirts of the country have been dying overnight, seemingly at random. Lore can either use her magic to find out what’s happening – or face the pyre.

Thrust into a lavish court where no one can be believed and even fewer can be trusted, Lore must navigate an intricate web of politics, religion, and forbidden romance and solve the King’s mystery. A mystery more dangerous and twisted than Lore can even imagine.

The verdict

I guessed none of the first three characters mentioned was the main character, but I was wrong about nearly everything else. I blame the author.

1/5

Conclusions

That was fun–you should try it.

No cheating!

How important is the first paragraph of a novel for your decision to keep reading? How much of your book does your first paragraph capture?

Subscribe to my blog. One of these days I might find comps that actually work and tell you about them.

Author: A.S. Akkalon

By day, A.S. Akkalon works in an office where the computers outnumber the suits of armour more than two-to-one. By night, she puts dreams of medieval castles, swords, and dragons onto paper.

12 thoughts on “How important is the first paragraph of a novel?”

  1. Wow, I’d heard “Romantasy” was the flavour of the month, but those books really highlight it!

    I was quite impressed how many aspects you absolutely nailed, though. Well done!

    Just for laughs, what do you think of this one:

    “Early summer lay in the valleys, the golden light of dawn streaming between the mountain peaks. Wind streamed through Illara’s hair, as she leaned over the coppery brown scales of Ralph’s neck. She grinned as they approached a ridgeline. To ride a dragon at sunrise in the mountains was surely up there with the best life had to offer.”

    The working title is “Awakening”.

    I have high expectations!

    1. Oh, fun! Let’s see what I can come up with.

      You didn’t give me a genre, but dragon means fantasy. We’re in mountains somewhere, which could be the real world or a secondary world but the fact you don’t name the mountains makes me think a secondary world.

      We’ve only met one character, so I’m guessing Illara is the main character. She’s riding a dragon and she’s thrilled about it, which makes me think she hasn’t been doing it so long it’s become mundane, but it’s also not so new it’s scary. The special feeling of dragon riding suggests it is not something that everyone in the world does. At a guess, Illara is a dragon rider, which is a special class of people. She doesn’t feel like a teenager, and we’re in third person, so adult fantasy and Illara is between 22 and 27.

      The first paragraph is full of warm colours and cheerfulness, so the overall tone of the book is upbeat. There is danger and adventure (it’s fantasy, after all), but we have a world where friends are steadfast and good triumphs in the end.

      This paragraph is the calm before the storm. Illara is on top of the world, and things are about to go very wrong for her. Perhaps from her dragon she sees the massing of dark creatures in the mountains.

      The title’s a bit of a conundrum. I’m inclined to think it should be taken literally, that many things (beings? creatures?) awake. And because TROPES, the beings are ancient gods or similar who are accidentally awoken and then seek to reestablish their dominion. Illara and her dragon play a crucial role in the war against them.

      How close was I?

      1. I’m impressed – you know your tropes well… 😀

        – yes, fantasy
        – yes, a secondary world (when I wrote this WIP, it was literally just a couple of mountain ranges and the valleys between, but it’s expanded quite a bit as I’ve written WIPs 2 & 3, set in the same world)
        – yes, Illara is the main character. The entire book is told from her perspective. If she’s not there to see it, it happens ‘off camera’
        – yes, riding a dragon makes Illara special – unique, in fact
        – yes, she’s been doing it for a while, but it would *never* become mundane…
        – yes, adult fantasy (is all YA written in first person, or is it just common?)
        – yes, ~22ish was the age I had in mind
        – hmm, I wouldn’t have classified the book as upbeat – I think it’s a lot more serious than upbeat (bad things happen along the way, and the final battle is difficult and costly). You’re at a disadvantage, though, in that you haven’t seen the prologue that provides an essential bit of background info for the reader and sets a much darker tone (I should probably have given you that, rather than the para I did, but thought it would be unfair, as it describes characters and scenes that don’t come back into the book until the second last chapter)
        – yes, there is danger and adventure, and good triumphs in the end
        – yes, it’s the calm before the storm, and they are shortly to see something in the mountains. Not a massing of dark creatures, but something that upends Illara’s world nonetheless
        – yes, there are dark creatures in play, and at least one of them is being awoken from slumber, but it’s not the focus of the story (it’s dealt with by the end of chapter 5). I’ll give this one to you anyway… (‘awakening’ is intended to have multiple meanings, both literal and figurative)
        – yes, Illara and her dragon play a crucial role in the war

        11/12 is a pretty good score, well done!

        The short blurb I’ve written for it:
        “You’d think that having a dragon for a friend would make Illara somewhat unique – and you’d be right. Nobody else has even seen one for a thousand years. But Illara is a remarkable young woman, and her adventure is just beginning. Before this tale is out, she will make discoveries about herself that upend her sense of identity, and shake the very foundations of her world.”

        And the one-line pitch:
        “A young woman and a dragon encounter an army, that they end up aiding in a desperate mission to stop a demon from conquering the world.”

  2. What a fun idea! I liked the first example best as the narrator sounds a little dark and sarcastic. Gives me a lot to think about with regards to opening my own stories, as I think I could do better. For me first lines are so important, because I don’t have any attention span to speak of unless something really grabs me!

    1. I like the voice in the first book too. The other voices didn’t grab me as much, especially the voice in the book about the Lieutenant, which felt quite distant and mechanical.

      I suspect we can all always do better with our first paragraphs. I hope this gives you some ideas on what you might want to change. Good luck! 🙂

      1. I agree, the first one really grabs the reader with dark humour.

        The Lieutenant one feels like “Oh, I’d better cram as many details into this first sentence as I can, so people know exactly who this is happening to and where.” It’s a hard trap to avoid at times…

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