It is a truth universally acknowledged that over 98.276% of all first draft beginnings could be improved dramatically. Okay, I made that up, but whether you’re writing an article, short story or a novel, the beginning has to hook your reader and draw them into your piece. If you don’t do it at the beginning, the reader won’t be bothered to find out what happens next. And don’t forget, the first reader who sees your work is an editor or publisher. So if your writing doesn’t grab them by the scruff of the neck, then it won’t even get the opportunity to do so with any other readers. Here are five ways to strengthen your beginnings:
1. Cut the first two paragraphs.
When writing that first draft, it can take a few sentences to get things sorted out as to what it is we want to say. Even if we’ve planned an outline, those first few written phrases are merely us finding our way into our thoughts.
I’ve read many short stories where writers begin with a description of their main character, or travel articles that begin with deciding what to pack in one’s suitcase. For first drafts, this isn’t a problem, but the editing process is where you need to take a closer look at what you’ve written. Does the opening sentence grab your attention? Does it hold it all the way through to the end of the first paragraph? If not, drastic action is needed. Try cutting the first two paragraphs. Now start reading your piece. It’s surprising how often paragraph three works brilliantly as your opening paragraph. Try it!
2. Use a startling statement.
A great way to grab a reader’s attention is to begin with a startling statement or fact. I began this post by claiming that 98.276% of all first draft beginnings could be improved dramatically. This isn’t a fact, but I bet it made you stop and consider whether it was true or not. The statement still grabbed your attention, and (if you’ve got this far) it made you read on to find out more. Here’s a published example of an opening sentence designed to make the reader think:
The first time an English archer fought against a fellow English archer in battle was on 21st July 1403, in a field outside Shrewsbury.
I used this opening in an article for BBC Countryfile magazine, because I wanted readers to imagine in their minds two soldiers, each pulling on a bow and arrow pointed directly at their opponent. Then I wanted them to consider that English soldiers were on opposing sidesInteresting facts work by making readers question the statement. Is it true? The only way to find out is to read on.
3. Use a quote.
Dialogue adds life and interest to a piece of text, so this is a great way to start. Here’s an example of an opening sentence where I used dialogue to open one of my published articles:
“I want Julia Bradbury’s bottom,” said the woman, as she puffed her way past me.
I went on to explain that the woman was a walker, who thought that the television personality, Julia Bradbury, had a nice-looking bottom, and Julia had obviously achieved this by all the hillwalking she’d undertaken for a couple of BBC2 television series. But it could have been interpreted in a few different ways, so the reader is almost forced to read on to find out what the woman really meant. And by then, hopefully, they’re caught up in my article enough to find themselves reading to the end.
Dialogue works well for beginning fictional pieces too:
“It’s a good life, if you don’t weaken.”
Every time my George utters those words, my resolve to kill him strengthens.
This was the opening to one of my short stories, which was published in the UK and Australia. It was about a husband who said the same phrase every time his wife, who spent all day looking after him, wanted to stop for a five minute rest. It seemed appropriate to begin the story with these words, because it was the theme of the tale, and I also finished the story with this phrase too.
Dialogue helps draw us into a piece, because it’s as if that person is talking directly to us, rather than the writer reporting what was said.
4. Scene setting.
Occasionally, publications prefer a scene-setting style opening: one that asks the reader to paint a picture in their imagination. This technique is frequently used for travel pieces.
Rhythmically rocking from side to side, we’re suddenly pitched into darkness as the screech and clatter of bogies against rails assaults the ears and gritty smoke plumes into the carriage.
I used this opening sentence to draw readers into a feature about travelling on preserved steam railway lines. See how it sets the scene by using the senses? There’s the feeling of rocking from side to side, the loss of sight when we plunge into a tunnel, the noise heard by our ears of the wheels on the track and the gritty smoke entering the carriage and our nostrils. Using your senses in the opening sentence gives the reader much more to work with in their imagination. It encourages them to draw upon their own experiences, which then makes them feel part of the piece right from the start.
Start at the point of action – when something exciting is happening.
“Earthquake!” shouts a young lad to his geology classmates. Playing for laughs, he falls off a small rock and collapses into fits of laughter. His friends join in with their own mock-tremors, but soon get back to their lesson, standing beside the crisp, cool waters of the stream.
See how something is happening here? Hopefully, the reader will picture the scene of the schoolboy mucking about in the stream, balancing on a rock and then falling off, while his friends then copy his actions. This is how I opened an article in Country Walking magazine to illustrate the point that the place I was writing about is popular with schoolchildren studying geology. But instead of telling readers that this place is a popular destination for geology field trips, I decided to show them, by constructing and painting a scene where some action was taking place.
Notice, too, how several of these beginnings comprise more than one of the above elements. My action piece above includes dialogue, and the scene setting piece also has action.
If you find writing beginnings difficult, then don’t worry about them to begin with. There’s no law that says you have to write the perfect beginning before you can move onto the main body of your piece. Just write anything that enables you to get started. But you must go back and perfect it afterwards. Sometimes, it’s not until you’ve finished writing the first draft that you realise what would work better at the beginning. There may be a great fact, or an unusual quote, which would work better. Whenever you start reading something new, spend a minute analysing the opening. Did it work? Did it make you want to read on? Why? What was it about the opening sentences that hooked you?
Beginnings are important. It’s worth investing time working on them. There’s no point having a fantastic middle and an earth-shattering ending, if the beginning fails to engage your reader. Without a decent beginning, you have no reader.