How Introductory Paragraphs Work in Creative Nonfiction

Aaron Gilbreath
16 min readJan 5, 2020

Thinking about how to start your story is as important as the story you tell.

While working at Powell’s City of Books, I had a routine. I would pull a story or essay collection from the literature shelves, read the first few paragraphs of every piece in it, then decide whether to buy the book. I did this for nearly six years.

As an introduction to a story, how does the above paragraph rate? In a single anecdote, it delivers a visible scene replete with action (shopping, reading, selecting merchandise), a narrator (me), some character traits (I worked at a bookstore, enjoy fiction, have a hard line philosophy, am possibly impatient) and a physical setting (the store’s literature section). Some of the five senses are absent ─ you can’t smell or hear anything ─ but the paragraph does pose a question in the reader’s mind: why did this narrator only read introductions? And what about those introductions determined his purchases? Unlike a more academic, thesis-driven introduction, the narrative places the reader alongside the narrator in order to lead into this essay’s topic, rather than only providing an abstract notion of that topic via exposition.

Though not quite as shallow as buying a book for its cover, I can imagine some people arguing that it’s unfair to base my purchasing decisions on such a small portion of a book’s total contents. What if each story picks up on its second page? Or fourth paragraph? Unfortunately, in a world of limited time and infinite reading options all competing for my attention, a piece of writing has to grab my attention quickly, otherwise I will abandon it and find one that does. I do this with magazines, too. If I’m not engaged in an essay or article by the third or fourth paragraph, I usually bail.

By now we all know that 21st century Americans are creatures with increasingly short attentions spans. We text, we tweet, we stare constantly at phones, flipping through scores of this and that and are accustomed to online information arriving with such immediacy that any webpage which takes longer than three seconds to load feels inexcusably slow. This effects how we read. With all our technological distractions, many of us have become fickle at best, insatiable at worst. Plus, it’s a busy world. There are so many essays, stories, blogs, websites and articles for us to read and skim, all competing for our attention along with our social and professional obligations that, in effect, modern readers…

Aaron Gilbreath

Essayist, Journalist, Burritoist. Longreads Editor. Writing: Harper’s, NYT, Slate, Paris Review, VQR, Oxford American, Kenyon Review. 3 nonfiction books.