Five Powerhouse P's for Your Memoir Opening

Hot-ParagraphEveryone knows that the first paragraph of a story is the most important and often determines whether a reader will continue or set the story aside. Follow tips in this guest post from Matilda Butler to learn how to gain instant reader connection with a hot opening paragraph. Read the tips, then put them into practice by entering the “First Paragraph” Contest described below the tips.

Don’t dawdle about the contest. Entries are due by midnight PDT September 3. It’s only a few words, so you can do it! If you are already nodding your head, then here's the link to the contest rules

Still Working on Your Opening and Want Suggestions?

In my previous life as president of a small high tech company, we regularly set our goals around the 4 P's of marketing (Product, Place, Price, Promotion). In my current life as writer and writing coach, I've spent an inordinate amount of energy focused on opening sentences and opening paragraphs. A few years ago, I even did a series called Opening Salvos and a second one called Memoir Moments with both delving into effective openings. This led me to develop 5 P's of openings (People, Place, Plot Problem, Persuasion, Prose).

What's the big deal? The opening paragraph is just a paragraph. Your book will have many paragraphs but it is the first one that will probably determine if a reader stays around long enough to see all those other paragraphs you've carefully constructed.

Let me share five P's that will move you toward a powerful opening:

#1. People: There are two groups of people to consider for your first paragraph --audience and characters in your story. Picture your audience, a reader or even a room full of readers. Who are they? Why would they be interested in your story? What needs do they have that your book meets? How can you engage them emotionally in your story?

Once you have thought through your audience, see if one or two characters in your story can be introduced in the opening paragraph in a way to engage that audience you've just spent time understanding. How will you introduce your character? With dialogue? With descriptive detail? Does your reader begin to ask himself or herself questions about your character, to interact with your story? If so, then you have a strong first paragraph and you've hooked your reader.

Remember, the first paragraph is when you begin the relationship between you, your story, and your audience.

#2. Place: People don't float around. They are anchored by place and time. Readers are willing to be lost in a fog, but not for long. They want to know the context around your story and two important elements are place and time. There are many ways to work place and its correlate time into your paragraph without blatantly stating them. You might mention:

"...glistening snow on the Grand Tetons..."

"The usually benign trade winds were bringing the Big Island trouble this time..."

"Three new airports had been built in Singapore since my previous visit in 1966. But it wasn't aviation concerns that brought me back."

Of course, sometimes it is fast and efficient to put place and perhaps time on the line before the first paragraph where it might serve as a foreshadowing or connection with history:

Dallas, November 22, 1963

Oklahoma City, September 11, 2001

or merely a locator so that the reader can fill in details that you won't have to write:

Summer, 1942

New Orleans

#3. Plot Problem: Your plot, the cause and effect events of your story, will be revealed over the length of your book. But the opening paragraph can begin to hint at the plot or more specifically the problem that drives your story. What is your story about? Try to foreshadow your plot in your opening.

#4. Persuasion: No potential reader has unlimited time and resources. Your readers, just like you, decide what to read and how many books to purchase. So it is up to you to be persuasive in your opening paragraph. Is your story worth reading? Of course, you can't just say something like, "Read this story as it will change your life." Instead, you need to intrigue your reader with the notion of a fascinating or important or humorous or... story that is worth his or her time and money. Even a book that is written for one's family and therefore has no out of pocket cost for the reader must be compelling enough for a family member to want to spend time with it.

You'll need to find a way to be persuasive through provocative dialogue, or fascinating sensory details, or rich character description, or exotic places/past times, or strong emotional connections. It is a case of show, don't tell.

#5. Prose: Polish your prose. From the start, your words need to be true to your style and voice. You definitely don't want to pull a bait and switch on your readers by changing the point of view or tone between your opening and your later chapters. The same tale could be told with humor, drama, mystery. However, only one approach is right for you.

And finally, just because you have written your first paragraph, it doesn't mean it is ready for prime time. Put it aside for a few days. Go back and read it again. Think about how the reader will react. Get a friend to read it or even better a member of your writing group. This takes us back to #1 People. Consider if you have begun your relationship with readers in the way that works for you and your story.

Enter Your First Paragraph (Fiction or NonFiction) in Our Contest

Pamela Jane Bell is a regular guest blogger on She is the popular author of more books than I have fingers and is currently completing her memoir. Pamela came up with this fantastic idea for a First Paragraph contest and I couldn't resist. She has judged many contests and is excited about this one.

For full rules, please go to:

Just remember that all entries must be submitted by midnight September 3. Winners will be announced later in the month.

Write now: Polish an opening paragraph in an old story or write a new one, and enter the contest.

Matilda Butler is an award-winning co--author of the collective memoir Rosie's Daughters: The "First Woman To" Generation Tells Its Story and Writing Alchemy: How to Write Fast and Deep and Co-Founder of Women’s


Linda Thomas said...

Excellent post, Sharon. I'll share it with my memoir buddies. And today I hit the "send" button and submitted my entry for the contest. :) How about you?

Sharon said...

Yay Linda. Glad you liked it and super that you already entered. Me? Yes, I'm working on one.