Writers Workshop: The Introduction

Dr. Hook, Sometimes You Win

This article is primarily directed to  nonfiction writers, although it also applies to some fiction works. I’m thinking here of that strange invention often called “fact-based fiction,” a hybrid combination of genres. In either case, the Introduction (call it “Prologue” perhaps) is critical to the construction of your entire story line. Without a captivating Introduction, you will lose your readers quickly and, sadly, sometimes forever.

The most important element of the Introduction is “the hook.” Its purpose is to grab the reader’s attention so firmly that he or she must move on to the meat of your story. Without the hook, your reader can easily succumb to that blank stare, yawn state that all writers hate to see. You must set the hook quickly and firmly to keep your readers as happy and interested as possible.

Creating the hook has a few elements that are critical to success.

First, the Introduction must leave your reader with questions, unresolved issues that absolutely must be answered. At the end of the Introduction, your reader must be a little dissatisfied with what he or she has learned. Now, this is a tight line to walk. You can’t really pose these questions directly. Rather, you must use enough subtly and tact to let these questions arise naturally in the reader’s mind, to come about of themselves. This kind of reader participation (interaction) is what moves them to want more. Each writer will probably approach this element in a different way, according to his or her own style. This is a good thing because style counts. Style is what readers appreciate most, sometimes more than the story line. But, the bottom line is that you must offer a mild itch that only you can scratch throughout the remainder of your work.

One of the ways of achieving “the hook” is to interject a bit of speculation into the Introduction. In other words, pose a “what if” element or two in your presentation but simply don’t bother to answer the speculation. These kinds of “what if” elements need to be sufficiently broad to accommodate the majority of readers but they must also be credible in the context of your entire work. Readers like speculation, so long as it sticks to the reasonable side of your genre. There is one exception here that must be acknowledged. If you are writing in the humor genre, let your speculation go as wild as you feel. Crazy speculation is regularly appreciated by readers who thrive on humor.

The second element of a good Introduction is to keep it short. Most readers want to get to the meat of your words. They will tolerate a bit of an introduction because they want to get a feel for what is to come. However, they don’t want an epistle at this point in their reading experience. They want a taste, not the entire meal. That comes later.

The third element of the Introduction should be a “tight summary.” Give your reader a quick, powerful overview of where you are heading. You want to put your reader on the same path as your story line but you always want to keep them moving ahead. Show them the head of the trail but don’t go so far as that first big turn. Give them a step or two along your story line and let them know, indirectly, that they are in for a fascinating journey. My preference is to never allow an Introduction to go on for more than two finished pages. Personally, I try to keep it as close to a single page as possible.

The final element is to keep your “I” in your back pocket and far away from your Introduction. Unless you are writing in the first person, the use of “I” in your Introduction can be a real turn-off for many readers. At the opening of your work, at the Introduction, your reader does not yet know where he or she is going. You are the guide at this point. Like any good guide, you need to focus on the journey that lies ahead and on those who will walk with you. So, keep those personal views and opinions in your back pocket. There will be time enough later for this kind of writing.

If you try to stick to these few hints you will find that your Introductions become more fluid, more interesting and more meaningful to your readers. From your point of view as a writer, that first step into your word journey must be fascinating and compelling. If it’s not, the rest of your words may lie sleeping on the page.

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2 thoughts on “Writers Workshop: The Introduction

  1. I have to be honest, I’ve never heard of fact-based-fiction. What are some books included in the genre so I can get a feel for what it is?
    “Like any good guide, you need to focus on the journey that lies ahead and on those who will walk with you.” Brilliant! This is much of what makes up my own personal writing aesthetic. I value clarity against overly showy, and for that reason must mildly disagree with your thought “Style is what readers appreciate most, sometimes even more than the story line.” I would agree if we could find a middle ground, such as when style and story mesh for the reader.
    Anyway, great post. I loved thinking along with you! Thanks!

  2. Thanks for your comments. Here is a link to give you some idea about fact-based fiction: http://www.goodreads.com/shelf/show/fact-based-fiction. It’s an interesting way of creating a story line, and one that I’ve used myself. There is not a single, consensus definition, in my view.

    As to style, sure, you’re right. There is always a middle ground on views like these. For example, I like spy stories but have always gravitated to Le Carre, almost exclusively. He has written some fine books and some that are not so fine. Still, for me, I always enjoy the way he creates and enhances his characters. Others would say that Le Carre gets too carried away with details. I view this as a matter of style (and taste). So, I go with his style even when his story line is not the strongest. However, in general, I agree with you. Style, real style, needs no flashy presentation. It just creeps out at you from the words and sentences, a little at a time, until you recognize it and begin to like, or hate, it.

    Thanks for stopping by and your thoughtful comments.

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