How to Write the Opening Paragraph of a Literary Essay


If somebody asks the question, is the opening paragraph the most important part of the literary essay? My answer is definitely ‘yes’ because it is the opening paragraph that sets the tone to the rest of the answer as well as it is the paragraph read by the examiner first. Therefore, it should be extraordinary if you want to get an extraordinary grade. 


Most students fail at the first paragraph as they have less idea on how to start the first paragraph of their literary essay. They follow a strict model of a very ordinary opening paragraph. My opinion about the first paragraph is, the opening paragraph should describe the question itself in a different and interesting way. Most students fail to interpret the question, therefore, you should read the question few times before you write the answer, simply digest the question before you put the hand to the pen.

In this post we will be discussing on some methods to start an opening paragraph of a literary answer with examples (remember they are not perfect! what you write is the most important thing, therefore do not blindly reproduce what we give) Not only that, we would give you some tips first on how to compose your first opening paragraph. So let us begin with.


Things you should not do at the first paragraph

Do not over describe about the author or the genre:

Most students tend to write long details about the author like their birthplace, about their works, etc. If they do not support your question, simply avoid unnecessary information about the author, just mentioning the name correctly with the name of genre may be enough for most of the questions. Similarly, it is not necessary to describe about the poem, prose or fiction. Retelling the story is not necessary because the examiner perfectly knows about the story, so your task is to answer the question.

Do not analyse the answer in the first paragraph:

Some students start analysing the answer from the first paragraph. First paragraph is there to introduce how you are going to answer the question, therefore, it is not good to analyse any facts, points or arguments in the first paragraph. Use the paragraphs that follow for that purpose.

Do not provide quotations in the first paragraph:

In the first paragraph we are not going to prove anything. Quotations taken from the text work as evidences to your arguments or points, therefore it is not necessary to provide quotations for the first paragraph.


Things you should do before writing the first paragraph

Digest the question:

Read the question few times and get a clear understanding about the question.

Underline the key words:

Key words are the specific words that tell you what you should include in the anwer. Sometimes at the exam these key words are given in bold letters or within inverted commas. If they are not given, you have to find them by yourselves. Guess what words determine the requirement of the answer and highlight them or underline them. These key words sometimes may be a phrase. Remember, to be a good answer, these keywords should appear in your first paragraph as well as in the supporting paragraphs.

Planning or mind mapping:

Plan the first paragraph to answer key words. If you want, you can use a separate paper or mind plan the answer. Then you can start to scribble.


Methods to start an opening paragraph

01. Providing definitions:

If your question consists of definable keywords, you can start by defining the key words and how it appears in the specific genre. For example, if the term ‘generation gap’ is the key word, you can define the term generation gap and show how it is depicted in the prescribed text given.

02. Using an outside quote or a proverb:

Though somewhat outdated, this is sometimes an effective when starting an essay. If you have a relatable quote or a proverb, you can start with it relating it to the key words given in the question.

03. General to specific method:

General means the general or background knowledge, specific means the given poem, prose or text. You can cross-reference your background knowledge about the given issue or the key words in the question to begin the answer. For example, if the key words are ‘violence destroys humanity’, you can provide an example from the society, world or specific occasion where violence out broke, and show how humanity was destroyed in such kind of a situation. Now, you can take it to the specific level, that means you can relate that fact to the poem, prose or fiction given. You can point out that how this fact is evident in the text given and how successful the author with regard to that.

04. Presenting a list of points that you wish to discuss:

Though a bit ordinary, this is also effective for some questions. You can list out the points you wish to discuss in the supporting paragraphs as single words or phrases and introduce them in the first paragraph to show that this is what I am going to discuss in the following paragraphs. For example, if the question asks about the characteristics of a certain character, you can provide specific list of characters in the first paragraph.


These are some methods I teach my students to start their opening paragraph, there are many methods to start an opening paragraph. You can stick to one or two methods and develop your own style of writing an opening paragraph which will be helpful for you to write and opening paragraph with ease.

If you want to know how to write a supporting paragraph you may read: Hamburg style of writing a paragraph here.

Remember again, as examiners are also human, you need to provide an interesting opening paragraph clearly signposting what your answer going to be. If you write the opening paragraph perfect, consider half the work is done. We hope this post will be useful for you to start writing great answers at the exam. Share the post if you find it useful. If you have unique methods you follow, you can mention them in the comment section for our readers’ enlightenment.   



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