Sunday, December 20, 2009

Answers: What's the First Paragraph Test?

Yes, I realize that at the moment that I post this, not even one of you have been asking yourself the above question. Because I've never used the phrase before. But I'm going to use it in future posts. So I'll explain.

I read a lot of books. I've mentioned that. A whole lot of books. This means that I need to acquire a whole lot of books, in order to read them. This means that the logical methods of finding books - reading reviews, getting opinions from friends, buying the books of an author that I already know and like - frequently fail to identify candidates when I need them to. Especially since I'm dealing with used bookstores that have a varying selection from day to day.

So I've developed a way of choosing non-fiction books, mostly mysteries, from the shelves at the used bookstore: I judge the entire book by its first paragraph. If a book fails the first paragraph test, it goes back on the bookstore shelf.

So what causes a book, usually a murder mystery, to fail the test?

Unsubtle explanation and description can do it. If I read in the first paragraph that "Pretty Mary Jane Wilbertson shook back her raven curls as she walked down the main street of lovely art town Millerville, Montana in the late September sunshine..." the book's out of the running. I'll probably be gone at "Pretty" and I'll certainly be gone at "curls", long before the excessive detail about Millerville.

Dramatic or sentimental language can do it. I don't want to hear the fully-flowering grief or terror of a character that I haven't met yet. If the big stuff happens in those first few sentences, it had better happen in a dry, matter-of-fact way.

Failed humor can do it fast. If the author and I can't mesh on something as important as humor in the first paragraph, where they've presumably put in their best efforts, how bad is it going to get later?

On the other side, what causes a first paragraph to pass the test with flying colors?

Dry humor. Restraint. An intriguing fact or event. Subtlety in providing necessary description or explanation. Stepping straight into the action, so that it's as if you're already past the first paragraph. Any of those can work.

For example, Murder Within Murder by Richard and Frances Lockridge starts with:
Miss Amelia Gipson presented a firm front to the world; she stood for no nonsense. For the conscious period of her fifty-two years she had stood for no nonsense in a world which was stubbornly nonsensical. The nonsense in the world had not been greatly abated by her attitude, but Miss Gipson's skirts were clean. What one person could do, she had done. If that was inadequate, the fault lay elsewhere; there was a laxity in higher places. Miss Gipson often suspected that there was.
That paragraph sold me that book, plus another by the same authors that had a much less impressive first paragraph. Yes, it gave me the character's full name and her age, but I didn't notice that I was being fed background - I was fully absorbed in the picture being painted.

Now, the first paragraph test isn't a guarantee in either direction. I just picked up a favorite book by Barbara Michaels, and was surprised to find that it certainly would have failed the first paragraph test. So for my own entertainment, I'll be including a first paragraph rating on my Book of The Day posts, so that over time I can evaluate the first paragraph's success against that of the whole book. And I wanted you to know what it means.

As a side note, I'll also be changing the format of the Book Of The Day posts. I'm dissatisfied with the process and the product of my book posts, so I'm going to try something completely different.

Photo: Lin Kristensen. Wikimedia Commons.

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