Would you read—or discard—a book based on its first paragraph?

I do it all the time.  I figure if a writer hasn’t put enough thought into hooking me, then maybe the writer hasn’t put enough thought into maintaining my interest over 200 or more pages.

These days first paragraphs and first pages of a story need to attract.

Table first paragraphs of books

To prove this to my students, I read to them the first paragraphs of a dozen or so novels, histories and biographies.  I asked the students to record why they would or would not continue reading.  Only after they had written their comments did I tell them the names of the books.

Under “I wouldn’t continue reading” the students wrote

  • No action
  • Boring
  • Not interested in topic
  • I don’t get it

Under “I would continue reading” the students wrote

  • Action, adventure
  • Humor
  • I want to find out more about something

Rejected books include The Great Gatsby, Hatchet, Johnny Tremain, Bridge to Terabithia, Anna Karenina, North to the Orient, Little House in the Big Woods, Stuart Little, Walden, and For Whom the Bell Tolls.

 Books which hooked my fourth through seventh grade students include Superfudge (“I want to know what the big news is.”), John Adams (“I like the description of the winter.  I want to know why those men were out on such a cold day.”), To Kill a Mockingbird (“I want to know why Jem’s arm got broken.”), Ronald Reagan (“It’s funny.  Why does it help to be a dummy?”) and Angela’s Ashes (“Why did Margaret die?”)

Only one book sparked keen interest by every single student, and that was Juliet by Anne Fortier.  Its first paragraph is four words:  “They say I died.”  “Why do they say she died?”  “She must not have died or how could she be telling the story?”  “How did she almost die?”  “I want to know more.”

Juliet is the most recently published book (2010) of all the ones I read, and John Adams and Ronald Reagan, two others which attracted, were published in the past 20 years.  Most of the rejected books were published some time ago.

So what?  I can tell students how important a beginning is—to a story, to an essay, to any kind of writing.  But now they know from their own experience.  Their homework assignment is to write a compelling first paragraph.  Stay tuned.

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