Kootenai River in NW Montana, near Canadian Border

Kootenai River in NW Montana, near Canadian Border
photo by Gene Tunick of Eureka, Montana

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Opening Paragraph II

My previous rant was about literary agent Nathan Bransford's excellent search for the best first paragraph. My only disagreement with Nate's approach is that a paragraph is an artificial construct which readers don't pay much attention to. For example, if the book starts with dialog, the opening paragraph will be the bit of conversation from Character One, perhaps just a couple words. When Character Two speaks, or there is physical action by anybody but Character One, a new paragraph will start.

As readers, we don't automatically shut the book at the end of paragraph one, and either put it back on the shelf or carry it to the cash register. We browse for a while, maybe 15-20 lines of text, to see if it has any appeal. Sometimes that's all it takes - Grisham's "A Time to Kill" had me hooked from the first few lines - or sometimes it starts us flipping pages to see if whatever interested us can be found later on.

So that's the scientific test: does the prose intrigue us? Does it set up a dramatic or humorous situation, a unique character, or a fascinating locale? Does the author have a Voice that grabs us by the collar and won't let go? Is there some intangible quality to the writing style that we've admired in other books?

I'm going to push back my own feeble entry in Nate's contest, and instead inflict upon you the opening lines of my crime thriller, "Montana in Flames." I don't have enough emotional distance to know whether this is good or bad, but I've tried to intrigue the reader with an interesting locale, protagonist and situation.

Paul Longo eased his lanky frame into a chair at the New Accounts desk and waited for the statuesque blonde –- Elizabeth from her nametag -- to get off the phone. Her shimmering emerald dress clung to all the right places. Paul didn’t mind the wait.

He looked around the lobby. A small bank for a small town. Some of the windows had the bluish, dimpled look of antique glass. The pressed tin ceiling looked authentic, suggesting the building was a hundred years old or more.

The kid pushing through the copper-and-glass doors didn’t look the slightest bit authentic. A little guy, maybe five-foot-four and 130 pounds, who looked full of meth. Bulging eyes flicked nervously around the lobby, and one cheek twitched a furious beat. Still had prison pallor from his most recent stint. Both hands jammed deep in the pockets of a down vest, despite the unusual autumn heat.

Detective Paul Longo slipped the 44 caliber Super Redhawk from its shoulder holster and dangled it behind his chair. The end of its nearly ten-inch barrel touched the floor.

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