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How Shall I Begin?

Contributor ,

ou hold in your mind an entire tale. Millions of facts and details sit there, waiting to be written down. You want to share all this with your readers, who know absolutely nothing about your tale before they begin to read. What do you tell them first? How can you introduce them to all you have to say in a way that will grab their interest?

Openings create a work’s theme music and provide the first information readers receive. They should be wonderfully interesting and should raise questions in your reader’s minds.

Your first few paragraphs should have readers wondering, Who/what is this about? Where is it? How did this situation come about? When? What will happen next? Once you’ve aroused their curiosity, they’ll keep reading. To decide what those questions should be, there are questions you must ask yourself. The first is, what do I want to say? When you can answer that in one sentence, you understand your plot.

Your next question, how shall I say it?, depends on knowing who your readers are and what effect you want your writings to have on them: If your intention is to inform -- to tell readers how to make great widgets -- you’ll want them to feel confident they can learn to do it. If you begin with something that inspires their belief in their ability, they’re likely to read on. If you intend to persuade through your writing, decide first whether your approach should be informative or questioning. This will depend on your relationship to your readers (older/younger, more/less knowledgeable, etc.) Begin by addressing these readers in your chosen tone. If your object is to entertain, you need a grabber opening. Is there a dramatic moment in your story that would make an irresistible opening? Could you start there and fill in earlier stuff with flashbacks later on? What tone do you want to set?

Suppose you’re writing something historical. You might open with Daniel Boone standing on a mountaintop in 1800, surveying open prairies stretching as far as the eye could see. You could then write a chronological account from 1800 to today, when the view from that same spot reveals teeming highways and urban sprawl. If your opening scene took place at dusk, with nature’s creatures settling down for the day, it would contrast nicely with an ending that showed today’s electric lights shimmering like fairy dust as afar as the eye could see.

No matter what your objective, you’ll need a riveting beginning for your work. Your fiction, history, or how-to book must compete with the 60-second commercial. If readers aren’t captured by your first few paragraphs they’re likely to put down your work and reach for the remote control. Try out several openings. Ask yourself:

1. which of them will interest my readers?
2. which creates a scene or sets a tone that best launches what I want to say?
3. which speaks best to the readers I want to say it to?

Think of your story as a kind of striptease. You hold the entire body of the work in your head, but reveal it only a little at a time. The revelation of your work begins with setting the tone (like the music the audience hears before the stripper comes on stage). Then you introduce your Main Character (the stripper) who begins some kind of action. A stripper doesn’t rush on stage and tear off all his/her clothes within seconds. The pleasure of the event is in its slow unfolding. In writing as well as stripping, anticipation is a large part of your audience’s pleasure. A good opening will launch your reader’s anticipation.

Patrika Vaughn

I am the world's foremost Author's Advocate. I help writer's write better and get published. I am listed in The International Authors and Writer's Who's Who, Outstanding People of the 21st Century, and has been awarded the Order of Excellence in Who's Who in the 21st Century


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