Last week I started writing a rant on the topic of writing advice I consider worse than useless: the do and don't lists on how to start your novel. This list from the Guardian went around the Twitter aspiring-author community like wildfire last year, and to some extent it still haunts the mental landscape.
Given the weekend to cool off, I no longer feel quite so ranty. (Never internet while angry.) I do feel like this is a topic that needs more attention and thought that can be provided by a series of checklists. I don't know if I'm the person to provide that, but I may as well give it a shot.
I am a technical writer by trade, and I am going to try looking at the First Paragraph from a functional perspective. Art is dynamic; it needs to do something in interaction with the audience (otherwise you may as well stare at the wall). The First Paragraph in a work of fiction has one overriding purpose: to make the reader read the second paragraph. One way to do this is by stimulating the reader's curiosity, and one way of doing that is with a "hook." As far as I can tell, a hook is a simple sentence that contains something startling.
I am not sure that the hook is essential. There are other ways to excite curiosity. I find myself wondering if, given all the crap they must have to wade through, agents and publishers don't end up putting an almost unnatural weight on that opening sentence, that opening paragraph. Speaking as a reader, I've read the jacket copy; I am prepared to believe that this book I am holding contains an interesting story. It does not actually need to grab me by the lapels and fling me into an action scene in order for me to believe that, any more than every movie has to start with a James Bond sequence. I am generally willing to give a book at least a few pages before I get impatient.
Which brings us back to function. Your first paragraph does something--an infinite number of somethings--to provide the reader entree to the story, to pique their curiosity. It can also serve to identify its intended audience and the story's overall tone. To illustrate, I am going to quote the first paragraph of one of my favorite books of all time, Ellen Kushner's Swordspoint.
By way of contrast, the book I am currently carrying around with me is Kameron Hurley's God's War.
These are very different openings. Is one approach good and the other bad?
I think we can all agree that God's War has quite a hook--it formally declares itself as such by setting the first sentence off in its own paragraph. More than inciting curiosity, however, it also sets a tone. This is going to be a book that treats its characters and its readers roughly. The language is bald and challenging. The place names along with the desert provide a hint as to the setting's roots. This is effective, compact use of language.
As for Swordspoint... Oh. My. God. Weather! And nothing is happening. It has no identifiable hook, and current wisdom, it seems, suggests that no reader would ever get past that paragraph. However--there is more going on in it than "it's winter." Description piles up (like the snow) in a series of contrasts to create tension that can only be eased by reading on: feather-puffs/ruined, jagged/rounded, cozily/shattered. It builds a picture in your mind, promises more but makes you wait for it. The language tells you what kind of story this is going to be, that it is literary, romantic, indirect.
I think there is room in this universe for more than one approach to the opening paragraph. What do you think?