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How to write a novel's first paragraph

Posted by ptheibert on February 7, 2014 at 9:55 AM

 

How to Write the Six Key Elements of a Good Opening Paragraph

 

 

It was about eleven o'clock in the morning, mid October, with the sun not shining and a look of hard wet rain in the clearness of the foothills. I was wearing my powder-blue suit, with dark blue shirt, tie and display handkerchief, black brogues, black wool socks with dark blue clocks on them. I was neat, clean, shaved, and sober, and I didn't care who knew it. I was everything the well-dressed private detective ought to be. I was calling on four million dollars. - Raymond Chandler

 

If you want to write, study the opening paragraph of The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler. Here are the six lessons you can learn:

 

1. Develop a sense of style: "It was about eleven o'clock in the morning, mid October, with the sun not shining …" Read this fragment aloud. Note that you could almost make a poem of it. Note the sense of rhythm. It's a heck of a lot better, than saying - "It was a cloudy day," which is almost as bad as writing, "It was a dark and stormy night." No, instead of stating the obvious, Chandler begins "with the sun not shining." And think what a ominous tone that sets, especially the word NOT.

 

2. Set the mood: Let's look at the rest of the opening sentence. "… and a look of hard wet rain in the clearness of the foothills." Again note the sense of rhythm. But above all - note the foreboding that is inherent in the first sentence, how it sets up the whole novel. It is not just rain. It is "a look of hard, wet rain…" A good writer chooses his words carefully , take the word "hard" out of the sentence and you have lost the entire impact of the sentence and the feeling that Philip Marlowe, Chandler's hard boiled detective is about to enter a hard time.

 

3. Entice the reader with alliteration: Now, the second sentence: I was wearing my powder-blue suit, with dark blue shirt, tie and display handkerchief, black brogues, black wool socks with dark blue clocks on them. Note the sense of alliteration (see highlighted words) that this sentence offers. And Chandler did not say "black shoes." Again he chose his words carefully "black brogues. The word brogue is bit unusual, not used in everyday life and indicates that this is not a normal day for Marlowe - brogue adds a nice touch of foreboding; Brogue is a brutal word. The alliteration gives the sentence life, lifts it out of the ordinary and leaves the reader with a lilting rhythm. Whoops - look at the last sentence - that's right, it uses alliteration too - life, lifts, leaves, lilting….

 

4. Attention to detail: Note the attention to detail in the second sentence. Marlowe is not wearing standard black dress socks. He is wearing black wool socks with dark blue clocks on them. This attention to detail fits Marlowe, after all, he is a detective and the detail helps to set up his character and the way the character views the world.

 

5. Character Development: Every sentence in the opening paragraph contains character development - hard, wet rain; … with dark blue clocks on them… What does his vocabulary tell you about Marlowe? And then in the next sentence, Marlowe opens up even more about his character, "I was neat, clean, shaved, and sober, and I didn't care who knew it." With those words, what is Marlowe saying about himself? What is he normally like? Does he sound like a person who fits in or who - to mess up a cliché - marches to his own ideals?

 

6. Launch the plot: Finally, Chandler uses the last sentence of the opening paragraph to launch the plot. What is Marlowe doing? Why all the attention to detail? Why all the foreboding? The final sentence answers all the questions the paragraph raises - " I was calling on four million dollars." And, like any good closing sentence, it raises more questions in the reader's mind, making them want to read more. Who is Marlowe calling on? Why is he calling on them? What will his task be?

 

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