There is so much riding on that first paragraph in a novel. The pressure gets to me and, sometimes, I can't even begin writing. The opening paragraph - hell, the opening line - needs to pull the reader in. It's your first impression, and you only get one. It's a lot, I know. Let's get through it together.
Start with an image
It's my instinct to start with landscape "the hills were alive with the sound of music!" or some philosophical quote (thanks for that, One Tree Hill), but a writer best practice is to start with an image. An image pulls the reader in, because it flashes immediately in their minds. They can connect easier to a cinematic experience than a fancy, introspective quote. And everyone can envision an image you put in their head, but not everyone can relate to a quote or a landscape that's significant to you. They may not share the same experiences. However, images get the reader every time, because they're graphic and allow the reader to project their own meaning onto the image that pops into their head as they read. Take a look at the image McCarthy opens with in All the Pretty Horses:
"The candleflame and the image of the candleflame caught in the pierglass twisted and righted when he entered the hall and again when he shut the door." - All the Pretty Horses, Cormac McCarthy
Keep it concise
Do you ever wonder why "Call me Ishmael" became such a hit? It was short, sweet, and to the point. That one, quick line did so much. We now know the tone of the novel, the main character, and have an established voice. Better yet, the author has more to do with that. After a line like that, the reader now has to know more about Ishmael, so the author knows to explain more about this person who has just metaphorically stood up and introduced themselves. It's an implied "tell me more."
Introduce the main player(s)
Every first paragraph, at the very least, should have the main character in it. But bonus points if you can bring them in within the first line. Don't worry; that's just extra credit, not necessary. However, the protagonist, our main character, should be introduced in the opening paragraph. We need to know who we're following throughout this story, who we should care about as we read along. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe did it simply in the first line, introducing all 4 main characters in their birth order:
"Once there were four children whose names were Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy." - The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, C.S. Lewis
Have the character doing something
Action drives interest. Pull the reader in with the main character doing something active. This doesn't have to be a car chase or explosion. It could be something as simple as exhibiting some talent or hobby that becomes important throughout the novel. This action should pull the reader in, but also establish a theme that the reader will see represented within the story. We pick up a book and read the opening paragraph to get a sense of what the book will be about, so tell the reader! Use the opener to show the reader how interesting your main character, and your novel, is going to be.
Don't talk about the weather
This is also an instinct of mine. "It was a dark and stormy night" really set a trend for lazy writers. It's a common standby. And while setting (i.e., the weather) can be vital for expressing the mood of the novel and the main characters, it shouldn't be a crutch. Talking about the weather during small talk in real life is dull, readers don't want to deal with it in books too. Open your paragraph with the writer-version of an interesting pick-up line. Intrigue the reader to stay, don't bore them into picking up another book.
What are some great first lines or opening paragraphs you've read? Have any stayed with you?
Share them with me in the comments or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.