Sunday, February 26, 2017

Word Wars: Episode IV- Results. Who Emerged from the Blood & Smoke the Victor?

A week ago I pondered a question and posted a poll. What makes a compelling first paragraph? One that hooks a reader and makes them want to read on? I posted the first paragraphs of four popular fantasy novels, and a first paragraph from one of my own works in progress, and asked people to vote on which one they found the most interesting. You can see the original paragraphs and post here.

First of all, let me reveal where the five paragraphs came from.

Voting results for best beginning of a fantasy novel
Option A: The Eye of the World by Robert Jordan. This is the first book in the Wheel of Time series, one of the most popular fantasy sagas of all time. All-in-all the Wheel of Time books have sold over 80 million copies. Personally, I read the first three books but was too daunted by the vast length to tackle the full 14-book series. Especially considering how several books in the series came in near 300,000 words or longer.

Option B: The Silent Stones by Brian Donald Wright. Yes, that's me. The Silent Stones is one of my three unfinished manuscripts. I threw it in as a sort of control and to see how my first paragraph stood up to the greats.

Option C: The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss. Book one in the Kingkiller Chronicles. This is a favorite of mine (as readers of my blog posts are probably well aware) and one of the few recent fantasy series capable of hitting #1 on the New York Times Bestseller list.

Option D: The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemison. This is the only book on the list I have yet to read. I was recently turned on to the series by twitter friend and fellow fantasy writer A.S. Akkalon (check out her blog by the way for some seriously good writing) and now have this book on order from a local bookstore. A fan of the "Look Inside" feature on Amazon, I read the first page of The Fifth Season and thought "Damn! That's a hell of a start!" I decided then and there I would buy this book at first chance. This reaction, in fact, was partially what prompted this episode of "Word Wars."

Which novel has the best first paragraph?
Option E: The Blade Itself by Joe Abercrombie. This is the first book of The First Law series and another recent fantasy series I couldn't put down. The First Law is very popular and for good reason. It has many of the usual trappings of the genre but turns many of them on their head. And excellent read if you enjoy dark, genre-bending fantasy epics.

So who won? Between the poll, the responses on twitter and the replies on my blog I received a total of 12 votes. Not as many as I was hoping since this was the most popular blog post I have yet to publish but I guess that was in part due to the faulty poll system I tried to use. Here were the results:

1st place: Option E- The Blade Itself
This first paragraph starts with some serious action. The main character, Logen is running from something called a Shanka and cursing himself, as the leader, for losing his companions. Hard not to want to know more.

2nd place: Option D- The Fifth Season
This was my pick. This is beautifully worded, terribly tragic and emotional, and raises all sorts of questions I immediately wanted answered. In my opinion, this is a brilliant opening paragraph. The first line: "Let’s start with the end of the world, why don’t we? Get it over with and move on to more interesting things" is a fascinating way to start a novel. What could be more "interesting" than the end of the world? I have to know....

3rd place: Option C- The Name of the Wind
This paragraph is beautifully written, and hearkens many of the themes that play out throughout the novel but it lacks the action and emotional connection of the first two and I think that is what people responded to.

4th place: Option B- Me!! 
Somehow I managed to scrounge up one vote, which made me happy! If even one person thought mine was better than these greats I must have done something right.

5th place: Option A- The Eye of the World
Not a single person voted for this paragraph and I think I can see why. The sentences, in my opinion, are wordy and even a little unclear. There is no action, no real emotion, and no questions raised that the reader wants answered. Also, as one reader pointed out, there is too much name dropping, which just makes a reader feel confused (a tendency, I've noticed, for many indie authors too).

This experiment provided a few interesting conclusions:

1) is a crappy polling service. Though I was able to collect five votes, multiple people informed me that my embedded poll didn't work for them. Blogger doesn't have a good system for polls within blog posts, and I had to find a third party system. Other polling widgets besides Toluna required ads to be placed all around them. Ugh, I didn't want to subject you all to that. Now I guess have to look for something better should I decide to do something like this again.

2) The great books start with a stunningly written hook. A bit of action or emotion right away is a great way to grab your reader's attention. The best openings raise questions that beg to be answered so that a reader is compelled to read on.

3) Too much name dropping of people and places can be a distraction, especially if you have a prosaic beginning that lacks an action-packed or emotional appeal.

All-in-all, I found this exercise interesting and useful. My only regret is the failure of the polling widget which I think limited the sample of responses. Perhaps I will try this again soon with a crop of five other books and some better method for voting. Thanks to all who took part and I hope it gave us all something to think about when crafting the first pages/paragraphs of our own masterpieces.

As always thanks for reading. If you enjoyed this post, found it somehow enlightening, or just plain want to hate on me, consider commenting below. You don't have to sign up or anything and it's a great way to exchange ideas. You can post as "anonymous" if you want to. I won't hold it again you. Better yet, sign up for my weekly mailing list. Not only will I love you forever (unless, of course, you actually do want to hate on me), but I will reciprocate by reading, signing up for and actively commenting on your blog (should you have one, if not, I'll brainstorm another way to repay you.) Generally I enjoy blathering on about anything from the novel writing process to Giant Redwoods to the Ancient Maya and more.

find us on facebook

All writing is the original work of Brian Wright and may not be copied, distributed, re-printed or used any form without express written consent of the author. Find out here how to CONTACT me with publishing and/or use questions


  1. Thanks for the shout-out, and cool poll! It was sneaky of you to put your own in. :) I recognised the other beginnings except for The Blade Itself.

    One of the things this shows me is that people like different things in a book. (I think I may have mentioned this recently. ;)) I wasn't a fan of the winning paragraph--too much action with too little meaning. But obviously it works for a lot of people.

    I love the start of The Fifth Season too. There's so much voice in that first line and, as you say, what could be more interesting than the end of the world? But what really made this one a winner for me was this: "except his face, because he is afraid of the dark". This is what takes the dead son from sad to tragic. In one sentence fragment it makes the dead boy a person and makes me feel the depth of his mother's loss. Imagine if instead the mother had wailed over his body and the reader had been told how devastated she was. The impact wouldn't have been close.

    1. I absolutely agree! Such an interesting notion, and very powerful. Those two lines together made me go out and order the book. Supposed to come in tomorrow. I'm excited!

      Thanks for the book recommendation. And dont worry, if I don't like the book (which I doubt) I won't judge you. Thanks again for reading and commenting

    2. Awesome! I hope you enjoy it. (And thanks for not judging me either way. :))