The Opening Paragraph

by Susan Breen

Some years back, when I was young and unpublished, I sent a short story to a respected literary magazine. Months later, having heard nothing and absolutely confident that my story had been rejected, I was amazed to get a phone call from the editor himself. He explained that my story had landed on the slush pile and that an editorial assistant had read it and thrown it in the trash. However, this editor just happened to be walking by the garbage pail, noticed the opening paragraph, loved it, pulled the story out of the trash and now he wanted to publish it.

You could argue that my career was launched by an opening paragraph. (You might also argue that after starting off in the garbage, I had nowhere to go but up.)

Of course, knowing you need a great opening paragraph and writing one are two very different animals, which was something I realized when I began to work on my novel, Pitch. It’s hard enough to write with a blank screen glaring at you, but it’s impossible if you think that the only words you can write are perfect ones. Every time I started to write an opening paragraph, I deleted it. All I could see was that wretched accumulation of words lying forlorn on top of a pile of garbage. And then, one day, this paragraph popped into my head:

I’d heard the rumors about Kosloff, but they didn’t frighten me. Not back then. I assumed they were a publicity stunt; a gimmick that Kosloff was using to set himself apart from the rest of us.

Now I knew this wasn’t my perfect paragraph. I wanted something prettier and more unique. But, it did intrigue me. I was at the stage where I was still trying to figure out what my novel was about, and all I knew for sure was that the protagonist was a pianist named Nina and that an important part of her story would be the love she had felt for Leo Kosloff. This opening paragraph gave me the energy to start writing because I was curious to answer the questions it raised. What were these rumors about Kosloff? Why did he frighten Nina?

I spent a full year exploring those questions, and, before I knew it, I was 200 pages into the novel. What I realized then was that an opening paragraph is not just for readers, but for the writer as well and that it is so much easier to write, if you give yourself something to write about. (If you doubt this, try writing a story that starts, “I woke up at 8:00.” Now try one that starts, “There was something rustling in the cupboard.” Which is easier to do?)

Once I had 200 pages written, I was feeling a lot more confident about my novel. I knew the characters and the plot and how it would end, and once I knew all that, I had a much better idea of how it should begin. That was when I realized my opening paragraph was all wrong. Originally I had seen Pitch as a thriller and had imagined that Kosloff’s ghost would haunt Nina. But, now I realized that Nina was being haunted by something far more damaging—her doubts about whether she had done the right thing in leaving Kosloff. The novel was much more about Nina’s personal journey than anything supernatural, and that meant someone reading my opening paragraph would be misled into expecting a story very different than the one I was writing. So I came up with this paragraph:

We were music students at conservatory, a congestion of the talented fighting over a narrow passage to fame, and we were all searching for that most perfect bite of drama that would catapult us front and center onto stage at Carnegie Hall. That was why one of the pianists in my class played only female composers and another specialized in works for the left hand; one presented little lectures before he played and another ignored the audience entirely, keeping his eyes directed solely on the ceiling (and therefore, God) as he walked onto stage, a dangerous move, but effective. Who could help but watch and wonder if he would trip?

The tone of the opening paragraph now matched the humorous tone of the novel. But now I had another problem, which was that this paragraph was starting the novel in the wrong place; specifically eighteen years too early. Nina’s history as a pianist was a key component of the story, but, by beginning so far in her past, I was forcing myself into relating a lot of back story, and that was going to cut into the tension. It would take the reader fifty pages before she got to the actual point of the story. I needed an opening that would be more dramatic and immediate and so I jumped to:

I am sitting at my breakfast nook, looking out the window, staring at a cherry blossom tree that is shuddering under the blows of a late October wind and my husband of eighteen years says, “Penny for your thoughts.” And I, naturally, think it would not be appropriate to say that I am thinking of the first man I ever loved, perhaps the only man I ever loved, and so I say instead that I’ve never liked cherry blossoms.

This was progress. I had the tone right and I was starting in the right place and I thought I’d done it. And then my agent pointed out that there were two problems. The first one was that I had inadvertently removed tension from the story because once I’d established that Nina was that unhappy with her husband, there was no doubt that she was going to leave him. So why read further? I needed to have an opening that would tease the reader into the story, but not answer her questions all at once. The second problem was that Nina sounded too whiny, and who wants to spend a whole novel with a complainer?

I was beginning to feel that it might be simpler to write the novel without an opening paragraph. Perhaps I could just start at the bottom of page two and hope no one noticed. And then, one last time, a paragraph popped into my head.

When Kosloff said he wanted to change my name, I thought he was proposing marriage. I didn’t understand it was my first name he was talking about; that he wanted to call me Tatyana, wanted me to be his muse, to soothe him and satisfy him and listen to him and have sex with him on the dressing room floor before his concerts so that his life force would be at its peak when he went out on stage. In fact, it turned out Kosloff wanted to do just about everything except marry me.

I circled this one warily. The tone seemed right—funny, but edgy too. It was setting up the core conflict of the novel, which was Nina’s ambivalence about Kosloff, but it was not suggesting which way she was going to go. It was starting in the right place because it was easy for me to jump from this into the main part of the story. I didn’t think she sounded whiny and, best of all, it contained within it the seeds of the climax. (That scene takes place on the dressing room floor. Enough said.) Also, I just liked the way it sounded.

Pitch is done now and is in the hands of my agent and so, once again, I’m trying to come up with an opening paragraph, this time for a new novel. So far, this is what I have:

My mother’s boyfriend’s wife is sitting on the front steps, waiting to talk to me.

I’m sure this will change over the next few months, but for now it’s got me excited. It’s got me writing.

This article originally appeared in The Writer.