Updated: Sep 3
“An effective lead paragraph is usually either one or two sentences.
Once you get to three or more, it just looks like you don’t know where the Enter key is.”
— Chris Smith
I Googled “best paragraphs in fiction” and was astonished to discover that only about five of the more than fourteen million web pages found by Google provided examples of well-written paragraphs. And those five sites were limited to the “greatest opening paragraphs."
Why are there numerous sites devoted to Top-10 Movies, Top-10 Fiction Books, and Top-10 NFL players, but none for Top-10 Paragraphs?
Maybe paragraphs aren't required. I tried to think of even one story ever written that didn’t use at least one. Alas, I couldn't except for picture books that contain no words at all.
But a picture is a paragraph because both pictures and paragraphs represent single thoughts. Thus, even picture books use paragraphs.
Copies of copies
The many thousands of sites on the Internet devoted to describing how to write paragraphs all read the same to me, as if they’re copies of each other. This is disappointing because I bet you already know that paragraphs,
Help organize thoughts.
Break up stories into smaller bites.
Provide white space and visual variety.
Instead, I’ve prepared a list of the best paragraphs ever written. I’m certain that better ones exist out there. Let me know about them by emailing me at firstname.lastname@example.org or leaving a comment below.
Don Quixote started his quest over 415 years ago and people are still talking about him. Today, I'm like Don Quixote and have done what no one else has done. I've assembled a list of the best paragraphs ever.
My list is limited to paragraphs from books written more than a few years ago because it’s not legal to show other authors’ works without their written permission, even when I give them credit.
Also, I haven’t included the first paragraph of any novel because this has been done by other sites. I assume you’re interested in writing stories with more than one paragraph.
Without revealing too much about them, I’ll point out that each, to me, is a short story unto itself. Each conjures in my mind pages of images and thoughts, which causes me to want to read them again and again.
“Jane, I will not trouble you with abominable details: some strong words shall express what I have to say. I lived with that woman upstairs four years, and before that time she had tried me indeed: her character ripened and developed with frightful rapidity; her vices sprang up fast and rank: they were so strong, only cruelty could check them, and I would not use cruelty. What a pigmy intellect she had, and what giant propensities! How fearful were the curses those propensities entailed on me! Bertha Mason, the true daughter of an infamous mother, dragged me through all the hideous and degrading agonies which must attend a man bound to a wife at once intemperate and unchaste.”
It could not have been ten seconds, and yet it seemed a long time that their hands were clasped together. He had time to learn every detail of her hand. He explored the long fingers, the shapely nails, the work-hardened palm with its row of callouses, the smooth flesh under the wrist. Merely from feeling it he would have known it by sight. In the same instant it occurred to him that he did not know what colour the girl's eyes were. They were probably brown, but people with dark hair sometimes had blue eyes. To turn his head and look at her would have been inconceivable folly. With hands locked together, invisible among the press of bodies, they stared steadily in front of them, and instead of the eyes of the girl, the eyes of the aged prisoner gazed mournfully at Winston out of nests of hair.
But I did not know how to make my apology. The words that had strung themselves so easily to make a blunder in the drawing room would not come now that I wished the blunder remedied. I stood there below her window, tongue-tied and ashamed. Suddenly I saw her turn and stretch behind her, and then she leant forward once again and threw something at me from the window. It struck me on the cheek and fell to the ground. I stooped to pick it up. It was one of the flowers from her bowl, an autumn crocus.
My Cousin Rachel
Daphne Du Maurier
Books bombarded his shoulder, his arms, his upturned face. A book lit, almost obediently, like a white pigeon, in his hands, wings fluttering. In the dim, wavering light, a page hung open and it was like a snowy feather, the words delicately painted thereon. In all the rush and fervor, Montage had only an instant to read a line, but it blazed in his mind for the next minute as if stamped there with fiery steel. “Time has fallen asleep in the afternoon sunshine.” He dropped the book. Immediately, another fell into his arms.”
What they do not comprehend is man’s helplessness. I am weak, small, and of no consequence to the universe. It does not notice me; I live on unseen. But why is that bad? Isn’t it better that way? Whom the gods notice they destroy. But small...and you will escape the jealousy of the great.
The Man in the High Castle Philip K. Dick
His emotion on entering the room, in seeing her altered looks, and in receiving the pale hand which she immediately held out to him, had risen, in Elinor’s conjecture, from something more than his affection for Marianne, or the consciousness of its being known to others; and she soon discovered in his melancholy eye and varying complexion as he looked at her sister, the probable recurrence of many past scenes of misery to his mind, brought back by that resemblance between Marianne and Eliza already acknowledged, and now strengthened by the hollow eye, the sickly skin, the posture of reclining weakness, and the warm acknowledgment of peculiar obligation.
Sense and Sensibility
He was most fifty, and he looked it. His hair was long and tangled and greasy, and hung down, and you could see his eyes shining through like he was behind vines. It was all black, no gray; so was his long, mixed-up whiskers. There warn’t no color in his face, where his face showed; it was white; not like another man’s white, but a white to make a body sick, a white to make a body’s flesh crawl—a tree-toad white, a fish-belly white. As for his clothes—just rags, that was all. He had one ankle resting on t’other knee; the boot on that foot was busted, and two of his toes stuck through, and he worked them now and then. His hat was laying on the floor—an old black slouch with the top caved in, like a lid.
Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
Soon we were hemmed in with trees, which in places arched right over the roadway till we passed as through a tunnel; and again great frowning rocks guarded us boldly on either side. Though we were in shelter, we could hear the rising wind, for it moaned and whistled through the rocks, and the branches of the trees crashed together as we swept along. It grew colder and colder still, and fine, powdery snow began to fall, so that soon we and all around us were covered with a white blanket. The keen wind still carried the howling of the dogs, though this grew fainter as we went on our way. The baying of the wolves sounded nearer and nearer, as though they were closing round on us from every side. I grew dreadfully afraid, and the horses shared my fear. The driver, however, was not in the least disturbed; he kept turning his head to left and right, but I could not see anything through the darkness.
They picked a way among the trees, and their ponies plodded along, carefully avoiding the many writhing and interlacing roots. There was no undergrowth. The ground was rising steadily, and as they went forward it seemed that the trees became taller, darker, and thicker. There was no sound, except an occasional drip of moisture falling through the still leaves. For the moment there was no whispering or movement among the branches; but they all got an uncomfortable feeling that they were being watched with disapproval, deepening to dislike and even enmity. The feeling steadily grew, until they found themselves looking up quickly, or glancing back over their shoulders, as if they expected a sudden blow.
The Fellowship of the Ring
The tent he lived in stood right smack up against the wall of the shallow, dull-colored forest separating his own squadron from Dunbar’ s. Immediately alongside was the abandoned railroad ditch that carried the pipe that carried the aviation gasoline down to the fuel trucks at the airfield. Thanks to Orr, his roommate, it was the most luxurious tent in the squadron. Each time Yossarian returned from one of his holidays in the hospital or rest leaves in Rome, he was surprised by some new comfort Orr had installed in his absence - running water, wood-burning fireplace, cement floor. Yossarian had chosen the site, and he and Orr had raised the tent to get her. Orr, who was a grinning pygmy with pilot’s wings and thick, wavy brown hair parted in the middle, furnished all the knowledge, while Yossarian, who was taller, stronger, broader, and faster, did most of the work. Just the two of them lived there, although the tent was big enough for six. When summer came, Orr rolled up the side flaps to allow a breeze that never blew to flush away the air baking inside.
Introduction, support, summary
Notice that each paragraph has a first sentence that introduces it, and most have a last sentence that summarizes the paragraph like a grand period.
Because these are single, isolated paragraphs, we don’t know if their last sentence leads to the next paragraph.
The following thoughts shall be the only ones I’ll highlight in this report. In general,
The first sentence introduces the paragraph.
The middle sentences provide support for the paragraph's singular thought.
The final sentence either summarizes the paragraph or serves as a bridge to the next paragraph.
Below are three series of paragraphs that illustrate these points. The introductory and summary statements I have colored in red. The supportive sentences I have colored in purple. The bridging statements to the next paragraph I have colored in cyan. As with all rules of fiction, these thoughts must not always be followed, else the prose becomes regimented and stale. But their presence is strong enough that you can see their smoothing effect.
The Old Man and the Sea
The old man drank his coffee slowly. It was all he would have all day and he knew that he should take it. For a long time now eating had bored him and he never carried a lunch. He had a bottle of water in the bow of the skiff and that was all he needed for the day.
The boy was back now with the sardines and the two baits wrapped in a newspaper and they went down the trail to the skiff, feeling the pebbled sand under their feet, and lifted the skiff and slid her into the water.
"Good luck old man."
"Good luck," the old man said. He fitted the rope lashings of the oars onto the hole pins and, leaning forward against the thrust of the blades in the water, he began to row out of the harbour in the dark. There were other boats from the other beaches going out to sea and the old man heard the dip and push of their oars even though he could not see them now the moon was below the hills.
Sometimes someone would speak in a boat. But most of the boats were silent except for the dip of the oars...
Lieutenant Roger Shawn must have found the binoculars difficult. The metal would be cold, and he would be clumsy in his fir parka and heavy gloves. His breath, hissing out into the moonlit air, would have fogged the lenses. He would be forced to pause to wipe them frequently, using a stubby gloved finger.
He could not have known the futility of this action. Binoculars were worthless to see into that town and uncover its secrets. He would have been astonished to learn that the men who finally succeeded used instruments a million times more powerful than binoculars.
There is something sad, foolish, and human in the image of Shawn leading against a boulder, propping his arms on it, and holding the binoculars to his eyes. Though cumbersome, the binoculars would at least feel comfortable and familiar in his hands. It would be one of the last familiar sensations before his death.
Louisa May Alcott
"We've got Father and Mother, and each other," said Beth contentedly from her corner.
The four young faces on which the firelight shone brightened at the cheerful words, but darkened again as Jo said sadly, "We haven't got Father, and shall not have him for a long time." She didn't say "perhaps never," but each silently added it, thinking of Father far away, where the fighting was.
Nobody spoke for a minute; then Meg said in an altered tone, "You know the reason Mother proposed not having any presents this Christmas was because it is going to be a hard winter for everyone; and she thinks we ought not to spend money for pleasure, when our men are suffering so in the army. We can't do much, but we can make our little sacrifices, and ought to do it gladly. But I am afraid I don't," and Meg shook her head, as she thought regretfully of all the pretty things she wanted.
"But I don't think the little we should spend would do any good. We've each got a dollar, and the army wouldn't be much helped by our giving that. I agree not to expect anything from Mother or you, but I do want to buy Undine and Sintran for myself. I've wanted it so long," said Jo, who was a bookworm.
"I planned to spend mine in new music," said Beth, with a little sigh, which no one heard but the hearth brush and kettle-holder.
“If you rewrite a paragraph fifty times and forty-nine of them
are terrible, that's fine; you only need to get it right once.”
— Tana French
Slippery smooth writing and readability
I have written previously about slippery smooth writing and readability. Just as a runner smoothly passes the baton to another runner during a relay race, many of the paragraphs from these passages transition fluidly to the next, making the prose more enjoyable and easier to read.
If we’re going to get people off their cellphones and away from their TV sets, we’ll have to make reading more exciting. That will make the leaders of the big tech companies upset.
But that's okay. They need to learn how to read a good book just like the rest of us.