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 demand writing justify itself up front. Why, we essentially say, should I bother with you over all the others? Introductions provide that reason.
Introductions are interesting constructions. Called ‘grafs’ in magazine writing, and often ‘ledes’ (misspelled) in journalism, people in the literary realm call a story’s beginning the introduction or introductory paragraph. By whatever name, intros are important. Losing readers is easy; they simply turn the page or close the window. Prose writers need to make readers stay. A good introduction can do hook them. One way to do that is by starting a story with a scene that contains characters and drama, and raise questions in the reader’s mind.
Starting a story in the middle of some action is a technique called en media res. “Jimmy fell from the second story roof when the ceiling tiles slipped beneath his feet,” is one example. Another is, “The elk seemed asleep, until the twig crunched under Teresa’s boot, and the animal leapt to its feet and turned to face her.” Action + scene + trouble. En media res sets up a story in a way so that readers walk into something that’s already started happening. That way the action’s momentum sweeps them into it and carries them forward, deeper into the story. It also makes readers feel invested in the characters: an angry elk? Oh, no! What’s going to happen to Teresa? What this means as writers is that we anticipate readers’ impermanence by making their first encounter with our story immersive and propulsive.
As Stephen Minot says in his book Literary Nonfiction: The Fourth Genre, the intro not only announces “the direction and possibly the tone of the work, it will determine whether your reader will stay with you.” Minot reminds writers that “no one…is obliged to go beyond an unpromising first paragraph.” Where a moviegoer might not leave the theater if the film’s first three minutes are slow, readers can simply turn the page and move on. A piece of writing has one brief first chance to grab readers’ attention. So writers must not only introduce the characters and commence the action, they must capture the reader’s interest and hold it, make them keep reading beyond the first line, or, better yet, make them feel unable to stop reading. In other words: the intro must seduce and sustain the seduction. How it goes about doing that varies.
There is no one way to capture someone’s interest, no formula. In On Writing Well, William Zinsser says, “Within the broad rule of not letting the reader get away, all writers must approach their subject in a manner that most naturally suits what they are writing about and who they are.” He’s talking primarily about newspaper and magazine articles, secondarily about literary nonfiction. Zinsser says a lead “must cajole [the reader] with freshness, or novelty, or paradox, or humor, or surprise, or with an unusual idea, or an interesting fact, or a question.” The one litmus test of success, in his conception, is: does it work? These very useful categorizations provide writers a helpful guide when analyzing your favorite or underwhelming intros.
The New Yorker has a trick that’s become its house style. It usually starts with a date: “On July 1st, 2015, Student X turned on her computer to log onto class, but the computer didn’t work.” That’s a hook because it starts with dramatic tension ─ the computer won’t work, and Student X has a deadline ─ and it grounds readers in a particular time and place. Scenes are concrete. Scenes are the opposite of abstraction, and narrative nonfiction is built of exactly that: narrative. It appeals to readers’ senses, unlike the more abstract world of ideas, theorums and equations. Narrative is here and now, this and that, and trouble happening to particular people.
The New Yorker date + place + person style also works because it portrays human life in a way readers can relate to, or at least envision. There’s a character doing something somewhere, and the description, however simple, lets readers see it, and in turn, participate in it. Flip through a few New Yorker issues and read the first grafs. You’ll see what I mean. Active scenes work very well for first-person nonfiction writers, even if they’re mixed with some exposition.
These sorts of intros also work because they raises questions in the readers mind that they want answers to. For instance: why did the computer not work? Was there a virus? Were hackers attacking the school computer system? Was there a catastrophic nuclear disaster that destroyed the connection but that Student X didn’t yet know about? Readers read on to find out the answers.
You can see this at work in nearly every story you read, be it fiction or nonfiction ─ the mechanics of the introduction, the writer’s strategy for pulling you in while filling you in. For example, read the first paragraph of Sarah Ashwell’s essay “The Art of War,” Poe Ballantine’s essay “Advice to William Somebody” and Vanessa Veselka’s “The Truck Stop Killer.” Think about the way each essay begins:
“In the airport parking lot, my father loaded my luggage into his new car. He cared thoroughly for this Subaru station wagon — it was tricked out with gold rims, a special exhaust system, and a customized paint job. I read the vanity plate out loud — BALISTIC — but didn’t get an explanation. I also didn’t get an explanation for the bucket of golf balls sitting on the passenger floor. My dad had never played.” ─Sarah Ashwell
“I can’t count the number of times I have officially assembled the equipment to take my life: a knife, a handgun, a plastic bag, a bottle of codeine and a fifth of vodka. My motivations are never quite clear: perception of failure, futility, a sense of irremediable isolation, MTV — nothing everyone else hasn’t suffered through. Yet I tend to magnify my gloomy outlook into a drive-in picture of the end of the world. I can’t seem to remember that despair is a temporary state, a dark storm along the highway; that if I can just stick it out, keep the wipers going and my foot on the gas, I will make it through to the other side.” ─Poe Ballantine
“In the summer of 1985, somewhere near Martinsburg, Pennsylvania, the body of a young woman was pulled from a truck-stop Dumpster. I had just hitched a ride and was sitting in a nearby truck waiting for the driver to pay for gas so we could leave. When they found her, there was shouting. A man from the restaurant ran out and started yelling for everyone to stay away as a small crowd gathered around the Dumpster in the rain. Word filtered back that the dead girl was a teenage hitchhiker. I remember thinking it could be me, since I was also a teenage hitchhiker. Watching the driver of my truck walk back across the wet asphalt, a second thought arose: It could be him. He could be the killer. The driver reached the cab, swung up behind the wheel, and said we should get going. He said he didn’t want to get caught up in anything time-consuming. Stowing his paperwork, he released the brake. Neither of us said anything about the dead girl. As we pulled away, I looked once more in the side mirror. They were stringing crime tape around the Dumpster just as another state trooper rolled into the lot.” ─ Vanessa Veselka
Conflict emerges quickly in contemporary literature, reflecting and reinforcing the tastes of our overwhelmed, impatient time. George Singleton, a favorite fiction writer of mine, says he adheres to “the a-story-must-have-conflict-immediately theory of writing,” and it’s effective. Conflict not only thrusts readers straight into the action, if offers readers the promise of more trouble to come. Richard Ford’s essay “In the Face” begins: “I’ve hit a lot of people in the face in my life. Too many, I’m sure.” Trouble: Ford fighting people, battling the world. First, these lines provide readers essential character traits and later lead to the dramatic problems they cause. Readers assume that, if he’s punched many people in the past, he’ll likely punch some more, so they read on. Readers also want to know more about the narrator — how he developed this habit, who he punched — and Ford immediately begins satisfying their curiosity. “Where I grew up,” he says, “in Mississippi and Arkansas, in the fifties, to be willing to hit another person in the face meant something. It meant you were — well, brave. It meant you were experienced, too. It also meant you were brash, winningly impulsive, considerate of but not intimidated by consequence, admittedly but not too admittedly theatrical, and probably dangerous.” What Ford’s intro line also includes is another mechanism for seduction, what Minot calls the “dramatic question.”
Minot defines the term as “The emotional element in a LITERARY work that holds the attention of readers. An initial question is called a hook, but most works (especially those involving action) also provide a series of such questions to sustain interest.” In Ford’s piece the question is “why was the narrator hitting so many people in the face?” The question arises as a natural response to the material, but many authors intentionally phrase their intros in ways that produce those questions, such as Stacey Richter’s story “Habits and Habitats of the Southwestern Bad Boy.” “None of this would have happened,” Richter begins, “none of this mess with Walter and the bad boy and the sandwich and the cow, if I’d been able to find a time that would have me.” First, the word “mess,” a clear signal to readers of coming trouble. Next, in Minot’s words, Richter’s intro “seizes the attention of the reader,” making them read on to answer the questions: what happened? With what cow? To what sandwich is she referring? We read on to find out.
Jo Anne Beard’s essay “The Fourth State of Matter” begins: “The collie wakes me up about three times a night, summoning me from a great distance as I row my boat through a dim, complicated dream.” Beard places readers inside the scene and action: she’s sleeping, the dog wakes her up, we’re right there in her house with her, curious why the dog does this three times a night. What’s wrong with it? Reading that line I feel like I could pull imaginary covers off my body, step out of bed and walk down her bedroom hall.
Even less traditional forms offer insight into the mechanics of introductions. Bernard Cooper’s collection of brief personal essays, Maps to Anywhere, provides evidence of the genre’s limitless potential in both subject matter and form. Topics range from the fleeting nature of existence (“The Hurricane Ride”) and human-animal relations (“Ark”), to the vagaries of temporal awareness (“Que Será Será”). The writing is almost universally lyrical and rich with imagery. Many pieces — some a mere page in length, three a single paragraph — feel more like prose-poems than what we typically expect of essays. The shortest pieces, such as “Live Wire,” “Futurism,” “Leaving” and “Saturday Night,” rely heavily on dazzling, poetic language to create atmosphere. Shirking standard narrative elements such as arc, climax, resolution, these unfurl their meaning through subtly and suggestion, and yet, the book offers strong examples of ways to start. It’s fascinating to see the various ways Cooper enters a story. Both “Under Water” and “Beacons Burning Down” start with dialogue to thrust us right into a scene. In the latter, the essay’s first line is a line of dialogue: “Mr. Felix Ott?” the speaker says as he and two friends make crank calls.
“Atlantis” begins with a question: “How did the barber pole originate?” Rather than posing a question in the reader’s mind through stated conflict (ie, Ooh, what will happen? Who is this narrator? How’d she get into this trouble?), Cooper asks a question outright. Then, not interested in the answer, he moves on to the real subject: how a trip to his Filipino barber offers a therapeutic glimpse into the “lost world” of his father.
Others, like “Temple of the Holy Ghost,” do the traditional literary trick of generating a question in readers’ minds. When we read the line “Mother was right about the Visible Man,” we wonder what Mother said about him, why he’s named the Visible not the Invisible Man, and keep reading to find out. Peculiar first lines work that way too, such as, “It’s odd how children move through their childhood with such big heads,” which grabs your attention and keeps you reading.
In “Spontaneous Combustion” and” “Auld Lang Syne,” Cooper launches right into scenes of bustling human activity. In the latter, it’s: “At the stroke of five, secretaries, executives, brokers and clerks fling open windows, gather on roofs…” There’s a certain school of literary thought that short stories and essays should start with immediate conflict. “Live Wire,” a single paragraph long, begins this way: a live telephone wire unravels above playing children. Here, that approach works; you’re hooked from the start.
In rare instances, the way the first lines are written, the phrasing and tone, are more seductive than the lines’ content. Voice is a powerful hook. Joy William’s essay “The Case Against Babies” offers an interesting study of the power of voice and pace in luring readers. It begins: “Babies, babies, babies. There’s a plague of babies.” First, there’s the word “plague,” which implies reproductive trouble with the fervor of an epidemic that requires immediate fixing. That’s the essay’s subject. Then the voice and pace kick in: “Too many rabbits or elephants or mustangs or swans brings out the myxomatosis, the culling guns, the sterility drugs, the scientific brigade of egg smashers. Other species can ‘strain their environments’ or ‘overrun their range’ or clash with their human ‘neighbors,’ but human babies are always welcome at life’s banquet.” It’s a breathless passage of complex sentences loaded with “ors” and quotation marks and few commas, the frantic sense that this is a person with strong opinions that won’t allow anything, not even punctuation, to stand in the way of her making her point. By the second line the reader is almost breathless too, as if by reciting the words we were running a race. Here, as in so few essays — and despite the sensitive nature of the subject matter — it’s largely the author’s audible personality that compels me to keep reading. And the voice runs at such a wild clip that it creates a manic momentum which clutches the reader and refuses to let go.
Another if somewhat lighter example is Jack Pendarvis’ story “Roger Hill,” which begins: “Everybody smokes cigars now. Famous people. There are magazines about it. Women smoke cigars. It doesn’t matter. Meg won’t let me have one in the house.” The voice, if I can attempt to describe it, results from the unusual meter, the stop-and-go of alternating sentences and sentence fragments, and the comic sense that this speaker is strangely compelled by the forces of popular trends, yet somehow, we sense, also a bit quirky. Then the conflict arrives in the intro’s final sentence: the narrator’s partner has rules against smoking.
Poe Ballantine’s essay “501 Minutes to Christ” offers a unique example of blending voice, drama, setting and starting in the midst of action. In a single, winding, forty-eight-word sentence, the intro captures it all. It says: “Outside of the psychotic who attacked me a few months ago (I stuck his head into a snowbank until he promised to leave me alone) and a middle-aged fellow who drives around town shouting obscenities from a riding mower, there is not much happening here in Middlebury, Vermont.” First off, that line is odd. Odd meter, odd characters, odd occurrences, all set in contrast to the idea that this is a boring town. Now to me, odd is enchanting — largely because it’s fresh, things I’ve not previously encountered — but also because it makes me want more info. Here I’m so perplexed I wonder: why did a psychotic attack him? What kind of weirdo drives around shouting obscenities from a lawnmower? Richter’s “Blackout” intro contains the same quality: what do a cow and a sandwich have to do with each other? And cryptic phrases “a time that would have me” and “bad boy” — what do those mean? You read on partly to decode them. In Poe’s piece, his phrasing — that meandering, run-on sentence — is, like Pendarvis’ and Williams’, an example of a strong, magnetic voice. Also, the intro is funny.
Being funny — it’s such a simple thing, but humor is a powerful seducer. Zinsser urges writers to write leads that are fresh, novel, surprising, paradoxical and/or humorous. Sometimes oddity and humor are inseparably weaved together. This is one of Pendarvis’ signatures. His story “Your Body Is Changing” begins: “Henry and his mother returned home from Wednesday prayer meeting to find an enormous owl eating sausage biscuits out of a torn sack on the kitchen counter.” First, there’s the comic juxtaposition of the avian and the human, the wild and the Southern: a raptor eating sausage biscuits? It’s almost nonsensical. And the owl — it which serves such a minor function in propelling the rest of the story that Pendarvis could have easily done without it. But its function is less about furthering the plot as enticing readers. The owl then knocks “a whole slew of stuff off the counter as it craned and shook its broad wings” then takes off after Henry down the hall, “emitting a constant stream of silky yellow defecation” before slamming into Henry and darting into the bathroom. I cackle every time I read that because it’s so insane, so unexpected, and that is the point: Pendarvis hooked me with humor, delivered the good, giddy feeling of laugher and the promise that there will be more to come. And in a Pendarvis story, there is always more.
Another related device is tone. Dennis Johnson’s story “Car Crash While Hitchhiking,” which I discussed before, offers a unique example of seducing the reader by slightly confusing the reader and creating atmosphere. It begins like a dream: a series of sentence fragments separated by ellipses listing names, substances, dangerous behavior. The first paragraph: “A sleeping salesman who shared his liquor and steered while sleeping… A Cherokee filled with bourbon…a VW no more than a bubble of hashish fumes, captained by a college student…” Dot, dot, dot — very nontraditional. Rather than try to hook readers with a dramatic question such as “with all these intoxicants, will someone get hurt?” Johnson provides the answer in the title, “Car Crash While Hitchhiking.” In doing so, he replace the question of a cataclysm with new questions: how will the crash happen, and when? Seducing readers alongside the dramatic questions is his prose style, the shear oddness of it and the whole first page. It hooked me and kept me reading until there was no more story to read ten pages later.
Long, climatological beginnings were once popular in literature, as recently as Hemingway and Faulkner’s days. I can’t say with certainty how many modern literary writers begin in a slow descriptive manner, but I can say that it is not a noticeable trend. What is a trend is delivering a hook, be it with voice, humor, conflict and/or immediate action. Gone are the days when books began with lengthy, detailed images of weather and houses, where it seemed that the scene had to be set first, the physical world on which all story would occur, before the author could introduce the characters and the action.
“It was a dark and stormy night.”
This line, like no other, has come to represent a dated style of literary introductions. And worse, the clichéd symbol of amateur writers’ attempts at creating cinematic images, tension and tone in melodramatic ways — the classic maudlin beginning. The phrase originally appeared in Victorian novelist Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s 1830 novel Paul Clifford, the full line being: “It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents, except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.”
To my modern ear, that introduction not only sounds corny, it fails to capture my interest. First, the verb that greets readers is a passive form of to be; maybe my subconscious somehow perceives that as bland. Mostly though, it’s the lack of immediate action and dramatic questions that make the passage feel lackluster. (And I’ve also heard it so many times, it’s no longer fresh.) Reading it now, I don’t care what happens next. Don’t care if the rattling housetops blow off, if the scanty flame of the lamps go out. Why? Because there are no people, no characters upon which this dramatic storm is acting. So the flames go out, big deal. Give me “Frederick III was standing in a rain storm on a dark and stormy night,” then I might care.
Maybe the pendulum of literary taste will one day swing back in this previous direction, returning us to the use of intros dark and stormy. For now, those days are gone. The whole enterprise of modern introductions might best be summarized by short story writer Steven Millhauser. “The opening line of a story is absolutely crucial,” he said in an interview on failbetter.com. “That first sentence has to excite me into the rest of the story. It has to be so seductive that I can’t bear not to continue.” A bit dramatic, but after reading innumerable first lines in Powell’s for six years, I have to say I wholeheartedly agree.
Here’s another activity that’s fun to try: write three to five introductory paragraphs all in one document, and then dissect them to see what they’re made of. How do they work? Why or why not? What are they trying to do? The intros don’t have to be real or part of any longer story. They just have to be intros.
You can also try this: take a draft of a current story you’re working on, and write a different introductory paragraph. Does it work better? Why or why not?
All this intro talk makes me nervous about how I started this piece. I can’t remember. I’m going to check. This ending certainly isn’t anything to remember.