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The Writer’s Life: Writing a Beginning or Lead

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November 2012
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By Dave Hood

The beginning of a poem, short story, personal essay, article must arouse readers curiosity and inspire them to read your work. Otherwise, readers will quickly become bored and stop reading.

In the splendid book “On Writing Well,” a text on how to write creative nonfiction, William Zinsser, suggests that when writing creative nonfiction “the most important sentence is the first one. According to  Zinsser, a good lead or beginning does the following: It grabs the reader’s attention and inspires the reader to read further. This is called a hook. And it tells the reader what the writing is about. It also tells the reader why the piece is important to read.

In this article, I’ll  explain what a beginning must accomplish and how to write it. This will apply to poetry, short stories, personal essays, and articles. Keep  in mind that for each genre, there are countless ways to begin. And so, I will identify some, but not all, of the most common techniques.

What Must the Beginning Accomplish

Many writers get stuck when they begin writing. Essentially, they don’t know how to write a good opening. I often find it the most difficult part of writing. Frequently, I am unsure about the method to use. Should I begin with a question? Fascinating fact? In the middle of the action? Usually, the type of writing determines how to begin. For instance, to write a meditative essay, I usually begin with a question, and then answer this question in the body of the essay or article.

If you desire to find a way to write an opening, following these suggestions: First,  it must introduce the topic you are writing about, whether a poem, short story, personal essay, article. In other words, it must tell the reader what you are writing about–life, death, winter, summer, a person, place, thing, event, experience. Secondly, the beginning must tell the reader why the topic is important. (This does not apply to poetry.) Otherwise, the read might believe that the story or article or essay is not worth reading—It won’t satisfy their informational needs. Thirdly, you must capture the reader’s attention–inspire them to read your piece  of writing.

There are many ways to begin a poem, short story, personal essay, and article. Each of these genres has its own methods.  For instance, a narrative poem might begin at the beginning of the story, a short story might begin in the middle of the action, a meditative essay might begin with a question.

Sol Stein who wrote the splendid book, “Stein On writing,”  suggests that the first sentence and paragraph must do the following:

  • Excite the reader’s curiosity
  • Introduce the setting
  • Lend resonance to the story

To achieve these purposes, a short story or novel must often begin by shocking, such as someone getting murdered;  surprising, such a character doing something strange or bizarre;  or sharing something unusual, such as the character making an odd comment. The writer can also share surprise, something unusual, something shocking by beginning the story in the middle of the action, with a scene, with dialogue, and much more.

Here`s how fiction writer, Ray Bradbury,  begins his short story, The Veldt:

“George, I wish you`d look at the nursery.”

“What`s wrong with it.”

” I don`t know.”

Here`s how, fiction writer,  Raymond Carver begins Cathedral: This  blind man, an old friend of my wife, he was on his way to spend the night.

Here`s how writer Adriana Barton begins the article, “The Habits of Resilient People,” in the November 19th  edition of the Toronto Globe and mail: Among the thousands of people whose houses were destroyed, some are already bouncing back.

In each of these examples, the writer arouses the curiosity of the reader.

There are no rules about what type of beginning to use. Nor are there any rules how long the beginning should be. Some beginnings are short, only a few sentences. Other beginnings are only a sentence in length. Still, others are longer, taking several paragraphs. The length of your beginning and the method you use to begin will depend on whether you are writing a poem, short story, novel, personal essay, or article.

How to Write the Beginning

In journalism, many writers use the inverted pyramid. In the opening, they write the lead, followed by important points, and then less important points. The lead includes the conclusion and omits background information and context. This is often confusing for readers.

In creative writing, you don’t use the inverted pyramid to begin a poem, short story,  personal essay, and so on. Instead you can use other methods or techniques.

A beginning should tell the reader what the piece of writing is about, why your piece of writing is important to the reader, and inspire the reader to continue reading. Essential, a beginning introduces your writing and gives it focus.

How to Write  an Opening for Creative Nonfiction: There are many ways to begin writing a meditative essay, personal essay, or opinion essay. William Zinsser, in “On Writing Well,” identifies a few of them:

  • Ask an intriguing question. Begin with a question that answers `What is the article about. `Example: How can the federal government reduce unemployment? Basically, you are asking a rhetorical question–because you already know the answers.
  • Make a thought-provoking statement. Example: The owners have locked the players out because of “greed.”
  • State a compelling or fascinating Fact. This type of beginning shares a provocative fact or figure. Example: The unemployment rate is 10%, the highest since the Great Depression.
  • Write an anecdote. Write a vignette or story that is related to your topic in the first paragraph. In the second, tie the story or vignette to your topic.
  • Use a provocative quotation. Write an interesting quotation from an interview or one that you discovered when you conducted research. Where to find a quotation? The Internet is one place. I like to use “The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations.”
  • Write a summary lead. It compresses the article or essay into a few sentences. Tell the reader what your article is about, summarizing the main points.
  • Use a combination lead. This method requires you to use a couple of methods. For instance, you might begin with a question, and then add a quotation from a well-known person.

There are other ways write an opening for a piece of creative nonfiction, such as an essay. Often a personal-narrative essay, for instance, begins with an angle, or controlling idea that tells the writer how to focus and tells the reader what the personal essay is about. This angle is an approach  or perspective. It is a way for the writer to approach the subject, to find a path in. There are many types of angles, such as a contrast of points of view, an unlikely comparison, a dream versus reality,  contrast of people or categories.

How to Begin Writing an Opening for a Fictional or True Story: Writer/Instructor Laura Oliver, in her splendid book, “The Story Within,”  provides several other suggestions to begin a fictional or true story. Here is what she suggests. You can begin:

  •  With a list. Example: Here are the reasons why President Obama won the election.
  • With a personal reflection. Example: As I recall….
  • With a reminiscence. Example: I have fond memories of my childhood.
  • With something you didn’t know. Example: Prior to reading the article, I didn’t know how use the comma. This learning experience taught me…………
  • With a portrait in words. Example: When I image dad, I see a man who is smiling and laughing…
  • With an assertion. Example: I don’t believe that God exists.
  • With a mystery. Example: I don’t know how I crashed the car…

Asking Journalistic Questions: You can also begin by asking journalistic questions. You can also use these questions to explore an idea or topic, and to organize your work. Before I write a beginning for a piece of writing, I like to pose and answer these journalistic questions:

  • Who?
  • What?
  • When?
  • Where
  • Why?
  • How?

Answering these questions often provides me with the answer for how to begin. These answers also tell me how to organize and explore what I will be writing about.

How to Write an Opening for a Poem: There are many ways to begin a free-verse poem. It all depends on the language of poetry you intend to use. If, for instance, you are writing a blank verse poem, your first sentence would require iambic pentameter–five feet of unstressed/stressed units. If you are writing a meditative poem, you might begin with a scene. If you are writing a narrative poem, you might begin with an observation, event, image. Or a provocative comment by the speaker. Here`s how poet, Charles Bukowski begins `The Way it Is Not as follows: “I tell you, I`ve lived with some gorgeous women..” There are countless ways to begin a poem, such as a description of a setting, person, event.

The Epigram: Many writers begin by an epigram. It is a statement or  brief saying in prose or poetry, in which there is an apparent contradiction. It might be a very short, satirical,  witty poem. It can also be a compelling, provocative, short quotation by some famous person. Example: “What is an epigram? A dwarfish whole, its body brevity, and wit its soul.”(Samuel Coleridge) I have read where writers have used the epigram as an opening for poetry, fiction, personal essay, and articles. The epigram gives a piece of writing some context and helps to introduce the topic.

Final Words: I’ve learned that there are many ways to begin a poem, short story, personal essay, or article. Most often, the genre you are writing and the nature of the piece of writing determines how to begin. Whether you write poetry, short stories, personal essays, or articles, the beginning must grab the reader`s attention and introduce the idea you are writing about. It should also tell the reader why your piece of writing is important to read. The first sentence and first paragraph must surprise, show, or arouse curiosity in the reader, or you risk having have your piece tossed away like an old newspaper.

For more information on how to write a beginning, read the following:

  • On Writing Well by William Zinsser
  • The Story Within by Laura Oliver
  • Writing Your Way: Creating A Writing Process that Works for You by Don Fry
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