There's this terrific 1st paragraph contest going on at Nathan Bransford's blog, hundreds of 1st paragraphs posted one after another in the comments. It is interesting and eye opening to read them.
I entered the contest, but because Family, Genius Species' 1st paragraph lacks the pizazz I was hoping for, I put in the novel formerly known as Idylwilde. It was my first completed project and I am rediscovering it in the wake of my current bummed-out-and-editing state of mind. ...Not expecting much from the contest, just getting my feet wet.
Anyway, the 1st paragraph thing got me thinking about the all-out importance of that first small clump of words. Yes, it's an opportunity to wow a potential reader, to "hook" a reader (How obnoxious is all that sales/fishing talk anyway?) At the very least, you want it to set a tone, let readers know they are in competent hands and can go ahead and settle in.
I once took a weekend seminar with the wonderful Lisa Borders. We examined several published 1st paragraphs, The Lovely Bones, some others I can't recall, and it was clear-- I mean CLEAR--from the get go. Those paragraphs told us exactly the sort of book to come, the conflict that would follow, the tone. Try this with a novel on your shelf. It works!
Your 1st paragraph doesn't do this? That's okay really. It's not likely to be your actual first paragraph. You'll rewrite and rewrite your beginning paring away the back story until you finally reach that nub that just totally needs telling. And there it will be: your first paragraph. I trust in this process as a matter of faith folks, hard to tell if I have gotten to that aforementioned nub but I'm hoping...
Here's the first paragraph of Family, Genius, Species abstracted by Wordle: