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Wordsmith Wednesday: Strong Opening Paragraphs

Welcome to Wordsmith Wednesday: Opening Paragraphs! I’m your host, Tamara Hogan.

In this monthly feature, we’ll analyze strong opening paragraphs by looking at examples from both published books and unpublished manuscripts.

The unpublished manuscripts part is where you come in. 🙂 More on this in a second. 

Whether we’re talking about the opening paragraphs of a book, of a chapter, or of a scene, the author’s job is the same: ORIENT THE READER, QUICKLY.  To me, this means being able to answer the following four questions in fairly short order:

  • Who’s the point of view character?
  • Where are they? (Setting/world)
  • When are they? (Time/era-wise)
  • Who else is there? (if anyone)

Don’t make me wait too long! A couple-hundred words, max.  Bonus points if the opening paragraphs also convey information about characterization, genre, and the conflict to come. 

Here’s a great example – the opening paragraphs of Tessa Dare’s 2013 Spindle Cove novella, The Beauty and the Blacksmith:

Goodness. Just look at it. Thick as my ankle.

Diana Highwood took her glove and worked it like a fan, chasing the flush from her throat. She was a gentlewoman, born and raised in genteel comfort, if not opulent luxury. From an early age, she’d been marked as the hope of the family. Destined, her mother vowed, to catch a nobleman’s eye.

But here, in the smithy with Aaron Dawes, all her delicate breeding disintegrated. How could she help staring? The man had wrists as thick as her ankle.

 In three paragraphs – after a mere eighty-nine words! – the reader knows: 

  • Who’s the point of view character? DIANA HIGHWOOD
  • Where are they? (Setting/world) A SMITHY
  • When are they? (Time/era-wise) Not specifically noted, but Historical Romance cues abound: waving a glove, smithy, gentlewoman, nobleman
  • Who else is there? AARON DAWES

Other information conveyed in those eighty-nine carefully selected words: Diana, a gentlewoman, is hot for the blacksmith, which is a BIG no-no in terms of the era and socioeconomic class. There’s maternal pressure for her to marry well, to put the family on a firm financial footing. There’s also some naughtiness, and dawning sexual curiosity, revealed via Diana’s thoughts about, erm, size. 

Eighty-nine words, y’all. I BOW DOWN.

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As part of the Ruby Reboot, we’re going to analyze opening paragraphs the fourth Wednesday of every month. While we’ll continue to use published examples as learning tools, we’d love to give YOU the opportunity to submit your opening paragraphs for kudos and feedback, anonymously or not. 

If you’d like to participate in an upcoming Opening Paragraphs blog post, please email your opening paragraphs to me at tamara@tamarahogan.com. (200 word maximum, and let me know if you’d like to remain anonymous.)  We’ll try to publish several Opening Paragraphs per month, and the Rubies and our readers will provide feedback in Comments!    

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Do you have any thoughts about Dare’s opening paragraphs, or about my approach to analyzing them? Is my 200-word guideline too hardcore? 🙂 

If you haven’t yet read Tessa Dare’s delightful Spindle Cove series, you’re really missing out. Buy links for Tessa’s books can be found at http://tessadare.com.

Why yes, this pic IS from my Keeper Shelf!

14 responses to “Wordsmith Wednesday: Strong Opening Paragraphs”

  1. Elisa Beatty says:

    Oh, that ankle line is hilarious! And you’re right–there’s so much energy and conflict already in just those few words.

    Ironically, my WIP opens with a noblewoman trying not to ogle the parish priest as he wrestle down a prize ram while helping with shearing…(she fails miserably, of course).

    The tropes we love….

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  2. Great example of the kind of opening we should aspire to write, Tammy. I want to read more.

    I can’t wait to see what our readers will share with us.

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  3. Heather McCollum says:

    I haven’t read Tessa Dare, but I love that opening : ) It tells so much about the heroine without being a back story dump. And I’m very curious to see now if the largeness of his wrists translates to the largeness of other very important parts of him ; )

    Yes, the opening paragraph must have a hook and tell the reader something about the flavor of the next 400 pages. And I think looking at the opening paragraph is better than just looking at the opening line. If I try to put all that info in an opening line, it would be a ridiculous run-on sentence.

    Great intro to Wordsmith Wednesdays, Tammy!

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    • Tamara Hogan says:

      Thanks, Heather! I’m analytical at heart, and I love to think about WHY certain things work for me.

      I’ve discovered I’m especially oriented to Chapter One, Page One, which, in a printed book, is usually about half a page. As a reader, I want to feel I have a fairly firm grip on the basics before I turn to p. 2. 🙂

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  4. This was a great reminder of what we need to do in our opening. It sure made me want to read more, and that’s all an author can do. Thanks, Tammy.

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    • Tamara Hogan says:

      Bev, I remember taking a journalism class in college, and learning about the questions journalists ask: Who, What, Where, When, Why, and How. My goal when reading a book is to discover the answers to the first four of these questions pretty danged fast!

      Others may have more patience than me – YMMV, of course – but I’m particularly attuned to pace.

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  5. Ooh, I love this way of thinking about it! I tend to think of the opening as trying to hook the reader, but I far prefer the idea of trying to orient them. This is the world we live in, this is the perspective we live in – YES.

    Also, fabulous example. I love Tessa Dare. I haven’t read much historical lately, but clearly I need to get back into my flounces and fripperies phase. 😉

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  6. Great post, Tammy! I love the example. Tessa is awesome. I can’t wait to analyze more.

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    • Tamara Hogan says:

      Isn’t she amazing? Every now and again, I re-read her backlist, and learn something new.

      As an English major-turned-software engineer-turned author, I’ve come to realize that, even in creative writing, analysis has its place. It’s how we learn what works, and why! 🙂

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