While the last sentence of a book may be the one by which we judge whether we liked the book, the opening sentence is the one that decides whether we read it. The same can be said for the opening paragraph. In fact, the opening paragraph is the one that seals the deal whether the reader allows page two to ever see the light of day. The opening sentence hooks us. The opening paragraph sets the hook and reels us in.
With Memorial Day upon us, I’m reminded that the opening paragraph of Flags of our Fathers is one of the most moving opening paragraphs I have ever read. No matter how many times I read it, it has the same powerful pull on me. I wonder how many times author James Bradley rewrote it before he said exactly what he intended to say.
Now, I admit that Bradley’s opening paragraph grips me for a personal reason, nevertheless, notice how each line is beautifully crafted and builds curiosity. Let’s break it down line-by-line and then review the entire paragraph.
Opening Line: “In the spring of 1998, six boys called to me from half a century ago on a distant mountain and I went there.”
Six boys? Who were they? “…from half a century ago on a distant mountain…” How is that possible? Now I’m intrigued. “…and I went there.” Where? Why? I must know more. Bradley hooked me.
Second line: “For a few days I set aside my comfortable life—my business concerns, my life in Rye, New York—and made a pilgrimage to the other side of the world, to a primitive flyspeck island in the Pacific.” What compelled him to interrupt his comfortable life to go to the other side of the world, particularly a flyspeck island in the Pacific—50 years later? I must find out.
Third line: “There, waiting for me, was the mountain the boys had climbed in the midst of a terrible battle half a century earlier.” Okay, now I know where he’s going, but I’m still not sure why.
Fourth line: “One of them was my father.” Now the journey is personal. His father fought there. Still, why is he going? Why now? What is he yearning?
Final line: “The mountain was called Suribachi; the island, Iwo Jima.” Now it’s clear. In this paragraph and the ones that immediately follow we learn Bradley’s father was one of the six flag-raisers who hoisted an American flag on a makeshift pole on Mount Suribachi in what would become “the most recognized and most reproduced image in the history of photography.” We still don’t know why he felt compelled to go there but it’s too late for me—Bradley has me hook, line and sinker.
Now let’s read the paragraph in its entirety so we feel its rhythm and momentum.
“In the spring of 1998, six boys called to me from half a century ago on a distant mountain and I went there. For a few days I set aside my comfortable life—my business concerns, my life in Rye, New York—and made a pilgrimage to the other side of the world, to a primitive flyspeck island in the Pacific. There, waiting for me, was the mountain the boys had climbed in the midst of a terrible battle half a century earlier. One of them was my father. The mountain was called Suribachi; the island, Iwo Jima.”
This paragraph is personal for me because my father fought at Iwo Jima too. He earned a Bronze Star for bravery and survived a mortar shell that screamed through the sky at 3:00 AM one morning and exploded just a few feet from his foxhole. He was on the island when the flag was raised. So, this opening paragraph stirs my soul every time I read it. For the reader that has no personal connection, it’s still a beautifully crafted paragraph that compels you to find out why the author would pluck himself out of “his comfortable life” and travel to the other side of the world 50 years later.
The answer, in its broadest sense, is to satisfy a yearning. In every work of fiction, the protagonist must satisfy a yearning. If you can skillfully and creatively reveal that yearning in the first paragraph you can inspire your readers to care about your yearning, identify with it and rally around it by simply reading your book.
And isn’t that the goal of a powerful opening paragraph?
May you enjoy the Memorial Day holiday as you reflect on the significance of those, who in Lincoln’s words, “gave the last full measure of their devotion.”