5 Things To Do In Your First 3 Paragraphs

Picture of a tree frog on a hosta leaf

A frog on a hosta leaf - which is more green? Your first three paragraphs need to arrest and intrigue your reader.

1. Engage the senses. You don’t have to hit every sensory stop – but it sure helps. Vivid visuals are great, but they are even better when backed up with visceral, precise taste or touch or sound.

2. Hint at the conflict. The majority of great stories provide the reader with some clue to the conflict driving the story within the first three paragraphs. Here, for example, is the first paragraph of Kelly Link’s marvelous “Travels with the Snow Queen”:

Part of you is always traveling faster, always traveling ahead. Even when you are moving, it is never fast enough to satisfy that part of you. You enter the walls of the city early in the evening, when the cobblestones are a mottled pink with reflected light, and cold beneath the slap of your bare, bloody feet. You ask the man who is guarding the gate to recommend a place to stay the night, and even as you are falling into bed at the inn, the bed, which is piled high with quilts and scented with lavender, perhaps alone, perhaps with another traveler, perhaps with the guardsman who had such brown eyes, and a mustached that curled up on either side of his nose like two waxed black laces, even as this guardsman, whose name you didn’t ask calls out a name in his sleep that is not your name, you are dreaming about the road again. When you sleep, you dream about the long white distances that still lie before you. When you wake up, the guardsman is back at his post, and the place between your legs aches pleasantly, your legs sore as if you had continued walking all night in your sleep. While you were sleeping, your feet have healed again. You were careful not to kiss the guardsman on the lips, so it doesn’t really count, does it.

Holy cow, talk about grabbing the reader with bravura and effortlessly stuffing them full of story. Second person is such a wonderful and reckless choice and it works here in a way not all second person narratives do. There’s physical pain, the bare bloody feet, and sensory beyond the visual with lavender and high-piled quilts and pleasant aches. And beyond that there is both an external conflict, the enforced journey, the drive in her dreams, and an internal conflict, a shame that, because the narrator is so careful not to look at it, makes us achingly aware of its existence: You were careful not to kiss the guardsman on the lips, so it doesn’t really count, does it. (The rest of the story is even better, and Link’s collection Magic For Beginners is worth picking up for its craftsmanship as well as the enjoyment its fabulous stories offer.)

3. Display your command of language. It’s worthwhile for a writer to think about poetry, and all its devices like assonance and alliteration, metaphor and allusion, internal rhythm, even meter. Save scraps of speech that you like, stud those paragraphs with wonderful things and spend with wild abandon from your store, because this is the make or break moment, when your reader decides whether or not to continue. You cannot lavish enough attention on your reader in the form of these paragraphs.

Look at how Carol Emshwiller’s “All of Us Can Almost…” begins, with a fancy hook made of punctuation attached to the title, like an elaborate latch on the door opening into the story:

…fly, that is. Of course lots of creatures can almost fy. But all of us are able to match any others of us, wingspan to wingspan. Also to any other fliers. But through we match each other wing to wing, we can’t get more than inches off the ground. If that. But we’re impressive. Our beaks look vicious. We could pose for statues for the birds representing an empire. we could represent an army or a president. And actually, we are the empire. We may not be able to fly, but we rule the skies. And most everything else too.

That conversational tone doesn’t come easily – it’s beautifully wrought, wonderfully precise.

4. Intrigue the reader while establishing the rules. Thomas M Disch’s “The Wall of America” sets the tone, narrative distance, and time frame (now to near future) while establishing a question (what’s the Wall?) that makes the reader want to keep going:

Most people got more space along the Wall than they could ever use, even the oddballs who painted leviathan-sized canvases they couldn’t hope to sell to anyone who didn’t have his own airplane hangar to hang their enormities. But if you did work on such a scale, you must have had money to burn, so what would it matter if you never sold your stuff? The important thing was having it hung where people could see it.

5. Use interesting, active words. You can never go wrong with this. Here’s James Tiptree Jr. at her best, full of poetry in “Your Faces, O My Sisters! Your Faces Filled Of Light!”:

Hot summer night, big raindrops falling faster now as she swings along the concrete expressway, high over the old dead city. Lightning is sizzling and cracking over the lake behind her. Beautiful! The flashes jump the roofs of the city to life below her, miles of cube buildings gray and sharp-edged in the glare. People lived here once, all the way to the horizons. Smiling, she thinks of all those walls and windows full of people, living in turbulence and terror. Incredible.

All of these count in titles too. Here’s an exercise: write down ten first sentences or titles, playing with one of these concepts in each. Then pick the most promising and go write that story.

(Reader notes: The stories cited here can be found in The James Tiptree Award Anthology 1, The James Tiptree Award Anthology 2, The Wall of America by Thomas Disch, and Her Smoke Rose Up Forever by James Tiptree, Jr. Sadly, none of these are available on the Kindle. The Kelly Link collection, however, is available on the Kindle.)

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About Cat

Cat Rambo lives, writes, and teaches by the shores of an eagle-haunted lake in the Pacific Northwest. Her 100+ fiction publications include stories in Asimov's, Clarkesworld Magazine, and Tor.com. Her short story, "Five Ways to Fall in Love on Planet Porcelain," from her story collection Near + Far (Hydra House Books), was a 2012 Nebula nominee. Her editorship of Fantasy Magazine earned her a World Fantasy Award nomination in 2012.
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  • http://www.laptopbatterylife.com/ Laptop Battery Not Charging

    The King of Limbs is looking very creepy. Think I am about to become lost in a dark and scary forest radiohead thekingoflimbs

    • http://www.kittywumpus.net Cat

      I know this is spam, but I swear to God I’m going to use it as a story beginning.

  • Rachel Swirsky

    I try to go with “establish a voice” and “establish a grounding, which need not necessarily include setting, but should give the reader some sense of where sie stands in relation to the text.”

    Those are editor not writer impulses, though, born from the fact that little annoys me as much as stories where I can’t figure out where the hell I’m situated, and in the absence of being situated, haven’t even been given a strong enough voice to connect to.

    Obv. my standards for what qualifies as “strong voice” and “well-situated” won’t be universal; I can think of several writers who are often praised whose work I don’t enjoy because I never feel situated or engaged by a voice.

    • http://www.kittywumpus.net Cat

      I think we can’t underestimate the importance of setting up the physical world – I hate stories where voices are just floating in a white room.

      • Rachel Swirsky

        Yes, although for me, the problem is significantly worse when it’s a white room and I can’t tell even the basics. Is it in the future? The past? America? Britain? A small village in the Amazon? A world where fantasy is real?

        If I have to revise the assumptions I’ve made after the first few paragraphs (Oh! We’re actually in South America and there are werewolves, but somehow it’s also a computer simulation! Got it!), I rarely recover from that. I almost never recover if I have to do it multiple times…

        • http://www.kittywumpus.net/blog/ Cat Rambo

          I’m thinking of the wonderful beginning to the film Serenity, where we think we’re in a school – whoops, it’s a hologram –whoops, it’s a different hologram — whoops, it’s the assassin on her trail, and it works beautifully there because each time the world is complete (it helps that it’s visual, sure) before it’s shattered.

          So you can change worlds – but it has to be deliberate, and not just seem like you don’t know what you’re doing. Which is true for violating the majority of writing rules.

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  • http://www.alastairmayer.com/ Alastair Mayer

    I absolutely agree with 1, 2, and 4: engage the senses, hint at the conflict and intrigue the reader while establishing the rules. But displaying your command of language (3) and, to a lesser extent, using interesting, active words (5) raises the question of whether one is writing for one’s self or for the reader. To be sure, there are many readers who will be as pleased by the former. There are many who won’t.

    While I can admire Emshwiller’s or Tiptree’s verbal dexterity, their styles are not something I would want to sit down and actually read for more than a few minutes at a time. The writing would — to me — get in the way of the story. A stained-glass window can be a beautiful thing, but then it doesn’t work well as a window.

    It comes down to personal preference of both writers and readers, of course. And that comes down to one I think you missed (although it also comprises hinting at the conflict and establishing the rules): set reader expectations.

    • admin

      Establishing the rules is worth a whole post in itself!

      I think style doesn’t have to be poetic or dense or hard to follow, but plain style, the sort of clarity Sturgeon and Heinlein get up too, is still a style too, isn’t it?

  • @smitheclaire

    Wow, thank you guys so much!

    The comments as a writer are just as helpful as the article itself on what a reader wants.

    On the topic of Serenity, and the show Firefly, think the dynamics between the characters are a great example too. Like I really enjoy how each character interacts with each other.

    Thanks again for such wonderful comments, wish mine could be as helpful :)

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  • http://emilyraerobles.wordpress.com Emily Rae

    This is exactly what I needed as inspiration! Thanks so much for it. I would also add: Flow well, but be unexpected. Use unexpected words and images, but make them work! My latest favorite example is from Chris Cleave’s The Other Hand:

    “Most days I wish I was a British pound coin instead of an African girl. Everyone would be pleased to see me coming. Maybe I would visit with you for the weekend and then suddenly, because I am fickle like that, I would visit with the man from the corner shop instead–but you would not be sad because you would be eating a cinnamon bun or drinking a cold Coca Cola from the can, and you would never think of me again. We would be happy, like lovers who met on holiday and forgot each other’s names.”

    So. Good.

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  • An

    “It’s worthwhile for a writer to think about poetry, and all its devices like assonance and alliteration, metaphor and allusion, internal rhythm, even meter.”

    One of the best habits I ever got into, as a prose writer, was reading and writing poetry. It’s a master’s class in how to evoke mood and emotion without wasting words. I have a GMail conversation with myself whose only purpose is to store poems I’ve come across that really resonate with me: some of my favorites include “The Year of Held Breath” by Veronica Patterson, “Advice to a Prophet” by Richard Wilbur, and “Dedication” by Czeslaw Milosz, each one evocative and in my opinion brilliantly rendered.

    In particular, another favorite, “Portage” by John Glenday, actually inspired my own story, using the same title.

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  • http://www.writinganoveltips.com/ Alec

    in reference to a setting up a story’s world and where the reader is situated, I find that if done can correctly, some level of ambuigity can work well and be intruiging. I enjoy not quite knowing where I stand and not having all the blanks filled in for me.

    • http://www.kittywumpus.net Cat

      Alec, I think you’re right, but (imo) there also needs to be enough that you feel that the writer, if not the reader, understands everything that’s going on. Too much ambiguity can lead to contradictions that can throw readers out of the story, which might be a valid strategy for some narratives, but usually spells disaster.

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  • http://bwengineering.tumblr.com/ BL Engineer

    Fantastic blog post. This has helped me learn something unique.

  • Melody

    I was just randomly looking into storytelling; I’m trying my damnedest to change my sort of patchwork style of writing. & I came across your blog about how to end a tale & just had to read some others. just wanted to say thanks!

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