No on said beginnings are easy. Personally, they’re the toughest part of the manuscript to get right. Especially that first line, first paragraph and first chapter that could be critical in a submission to an agent or publisher. That’s why I’m loving the First Paragraph Challenge from US literary agent, Nathan Bransford. It’s a competition for writers with unpublished manuscripts which is judged completely on the first paragraph.

If you go here and read a few of the submissions (there are over 2000 of them), you will realise very quickly that an ‘ok’ first paragraph is not enough.
If you have ever uttered the phrase, “But my story kicks in at page 20!” or “That publisher didn’t even read past the first page. There were no creases in the returned manuscript!”, then you need to understand what it’s like from an industry perspective.

I don’t have a golden formula for first paragraphs; writing is much more intuitive than that. But I find if I’m not introduced to the character within the first few sentences then I don’t feel the need to keep reading. The same is true if I get confused in the first paragraph or if I feel the writer is being too clever (read as: trying too hard to impress me).

For me, the first paragraph in Jenny Downham’s Before I Die is absolutely perfect:

I wish I had a boyfriend. I wish he lived in the wardrobe on a coat hanger. Whenever I wanted, I could get him out and he’d look at me the way boys do in films, as if I’m beautiful. He wouldn’t speak much, but he’d be breathing hard as he took off his leather jacket and unbuckled his jeans. He’d wear white pants and he’d be so gorgeous I’d almost faint. He’d take my clothes off too. He’d whisper, ‘Tessa, I love you. I really bloody love you. You’re beautiful’ – exactly those words – as he undressed me.

The imagery and emotion are clear and so easy to relate to and I already feel like I’m beginning to understand Tessa. But it’s the end of the third sentence, “as if I’m beautiful”, that kills me. It’s so honest and vulnerable that I feel like Tessa is a friend of mine, and I haven’t even finished the first paragraph yet…



  1. I didn't enter this time – I'm trying to get two or three novels together before I start approaching agents. But Nathan has a great blog and he's so passionate about books, including YA.You're going to need a box of tissues when you read 'Before I Die'. I was a total mess.

  2. Great post, Kathleen,I agree with you about 'Before I Die'. It's a great hook that is full of beautiful insight into the main character.Love your blog.

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