Saturday, August 5, 2017

Tips to Polish the Opening Paragraph of Whatever You're Writing

by Tim Suddeth @TimSuddeth

In the beginning . . . no.

It was the best of times, it was the worse . . . um, no.

It was a dark and stormy. . . definitely not.

The beginning of a devotion, an article, or a book can be the hardest part to write. And if you are writing from cover to cover, it will be the first hurdle you face.

We have such a struggle with writing the beginning because we expect so much of it. Sol Stein, in his classic, Stein on Writing, says the opening paragraph should have three goals:
  • To excite the reader’s curiosity.
  • To introduce the setting and characters.
  • To lend resonance to the story.

I recently had a beta reader look at one of my books. She suggested I get rid of the first four chapters. CHAPTERS. (Sorry. I should have warned you I was going to shout.)

And I had to agree with her. I had done what many new writers do. I filled the start of my story with too much backstory. Backstory is a character’s past, his or hers history. It is important that the reader knows the character, but it is easy to give them too much too soon.

Since I am a pantster, a seat of the pants writer, I am especially vulnerable to do this. It was important that I wrote them so that I could get to know my characters and their personalities. But the chapters weren’t vital to the story.

A plotter, or someone who plans their stories, has often gone through this same process when they did character sheets or studies. They’ve spent days or weeks asking their characters questions or studying their personalities. (If this was a regular blog, I’d be worried you would think I was weird. But since this blog is for writers, I know you completely understand.)

Being especially careful with the opening isn’t just important for books. Cindy Sproles and Eddie Jones run They have a template to help structure a devotion that begins with a hook. The hook is the beginning of the devotion and should catch the reader’s attention with a story or interesting statement.

A newspaper article should always start with the lede, a sentence of what the story is about and the most important facts.

Often times, the beginning was the last thing I wrote. When I wrote devotions or sermons, I would complete the lesson, then I would look for a beginning that 1) got the reader or listener attention, and 2) that helped connect the main points of the story. The reason should be obvious, I didn’t know the main points or teaching of the text until I worked through it. Haven’t you gone home after church and you couldn’t remember the text or the point the preacher made, but you remembered the story?

This is why I always question writers who write straight through. Did they really know what they were writing about? Especially in fiction. Characters have a habit of going in unexpected directions.

Sometimes I’ve been able to pull off writing a short piece straight through. But this is also why rewriting is a writer’s best friend. (That and a good chair.)

So the next time you finish your writing, go back to the beginning.
  • Does it catch your reader’s attention?
  • Does it set up the atmosphere you want?
  • Does it lead the reader into the story?

Another reason that the beginning is so important is that many contests look at your first few pages. At first, I thought this was unfair. How can they know if I have a good story, or (who’s kidding who) a great story, unless they read my dramatic and impactful ending?

But it doesn’t take long to gauge if someone knows the craft of writing. The writer shows by how he or she handle tenses, POVs, and active or passive voices. It only takes a couple of pages for the reader to decide to finish the story or put it down.

So what makes a good beginning to you? Have you ever put a book down because you didn’t like the first few pages? Have you ever forced your way through the first pages to find the book was pretty good? (The Count of Monte Christo comes mind. Loved the book. Moby Dick, not so much.)

I would love to see your comments below. Thanks for reading.

Tips to Polish the Opening Paragraph of Whatever You're #Writing - @TimSuddeth (Click to Tweet)

What makes a good beginning paragraph? Thoughts from @TimSuddeth (Click to Tweet)

Tim Suddeth has been published in Guideposts’ The Joy of Christmas and on He’s working on his third manuscript and looks forward to seeing his name on a cover. He is a member of ACFW and Cross n Pens. Tim’s lives in Greenville, SC with his wife, Vickie, and his happy 19-year-old autistic son, Madison.  Visit Tim at and on Facebook and Twitter. He can be also reached at


  1. First two pages? I should probably learn that trick. I have a stubborn streak that pushes me to slug my way through, but there have been a few that have caused me to admit defeat and put them down. The worst one was an award winner. It wasn't my reading genre, and I lasted about 4 or 5 pages. The most recent one was highly acclaimed. The topic was a part of history I enjoy. Reviews were great. And like Moby Dick, it had been put to film. But about a third of the way through, I realized I was not connecting with the characters. There were too many characters to follow and keep track of. Secondary characters vied to be primary. I closed it and went to the next book in my stack. I could save so much time if I could reach that conclusion in the first two pages. I would like to think I am doing a better job with my beginnings (and the rest).

    1. That's a good point. Sometimes a book or story just doesn't resonate with you. Enjoy your reading. And thanks for your input.

  2. Great beginning! Got me to open the whole article. Nice job making your point.

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  4. Thank you Tim. Good advice. I write children's books, but your blog means as much for my writing. I have to grab the kids, and parents attention even faster.

    1. Yes kids and their parents are demanding readers.

  5. Great advice, Tim. And I LOVED your hook! :)

  6. Enjoyed this teaching and will share it with my Writers Group this month and then give them an assignment to complete based on your tips.

  7. Enjoyed this teaching and will share it with my Writers Group this month and then give them an assignment to complete based on your tips.

  8. Great job, Tim, especially since Edie Melson will be critiquing first pages at the August 26 meeting of our ACFW-SC Chapter. The critique is free. For more info on this meeting and how to prepare a first page to submit at the meeting I encourage anyone interested to email me at You do need to be present to submit.
    Elva Cobb Martin, President, ACFW-SC

  9. Good word, Tim. I too liked your opening hook. Although I will say that when I first clicked your blog site and nothing but a blank page popped up for several seconds, I thought you were really driving a point home! ha! :)