Title Our Authors

Opening Paragraphs

I heard several people in the group talk about how they don't write descriptions or that scene descriptions aren't important to the story. Even for transitions. Let's examine this theory in detail based on a random investigation of current books. We'll start with bestsellers. After all, you want to look at the best and the most current styles, right?

Then we'll cover several genres. We want to be sure there are no significant differences between genres. We'll specifically pick genres our current writers are working with. So, for example, we'll skip Biography as no one in the group is currently writing a Biography.

We're going to concentrate on the open paragraphs, those designed to get people reading… because in the end, that what we all want. Readers to read our hard work.

Modern Literature: Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens


Science Fiction: The Water Dancer: A Novel by Ta-Nehisi Coates


Fantasy: Dellia (The Ever-Branching Tree) by David Scidmore


Mystery: Cold Silence: A Chilling Psychological Thriller by Danielle Girard


History: The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz by Erik Larson


Romance: Cottage by the Sea: A Novel by Debbie Macomber


Memoir: What Happened at the Lake by Phil M. Williams


You might have noticed a pattern here. One which crosses all genres. Here are a few things you might notice in these opening paragraphs of these stories:

First off, there is no dialog. We won't know who's speaking or why we should care because we don't even know what the story is about yet.

Not a single one of them Introduces more than two characters. Generally, we only see one character, with a second being mentioned who is not in the scene. No one likes to be bombarded with the names of too many characters at once. How are readers supposed to keep them straight when we are still learning what the story is about?

Notice the length for most of them. We're not talking about a one- or two-line description. And right away we are getting into the minds of the characters. In general, the author is trying to make the readers wonder. Putting questions in the readers' minds. What do those first lines mean? What's going to happen?

They all start in the compelling narrative voice and absolutely every one of them, I repeat, every one of them starts with a description. Description is good when it encourages people to paint a picture in their minds. Often, simple is best so it's the reader who imagines a scene, instead of simply being told by the author.

But let's go beyond the open paragraph of the book. This is because every chapter in your book is an invitation to the reader to put a bookmark on that page and take a break. We all do it. This means that each chapter needs something to get the reader back interested in reading the chapter. It's not as critical as the open paragraphs of the book, but it's still some of the most important parts of writing. Let's continue to look at Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens:


Once again, notice the absence of dialog. Although, at the beginning of the second chapter, you see more names mentioned. You can see the author is trying to bring us up to speed as to what has happened in the story so far. A tiny narrative recap, if you will.

Even after a break in the story. In this case, it's just a few blank lines on the page, we definitely get the author giving us more description in the opening lines… even within the chapter:


It's all designed to set the scene. To let the reader visually get themselves back in the mindset of the story. And once again, notice there is no dialog. In these sections… even in the middle of a chapter… the author is trying to create an interesting picture. We can see the character's eyes. Hear sounds. In this case Kra's toes in the mud. And we are even reminded about the age of the character… a key descriptor. We know about the environment and even what time of day it is and the season.

Any of these bestsellers open the chapters of their story with the voice of a narrator we can instantly identify with or one that freshly relates things.

Don't feel the need to explain every little detail in a room to your reader—notice, these authors are not doing that. But they are setting the scene. They focus on the important information: You don't see long descriptions of their main character's physical features. And it probably isn't the best choice for your first paragraph as well, unless those features have a mystifying backstory.

Keep researching. Check out your favorite book or look at the Look Inside section of Amazon. What makes the start of each chapter so compelling? Chances are… it's a description.














Writing Prompts
Our Authors
Writers Links

  Menu Book