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In the workshops I teach on writing lead paragraphs, I try to bring home the notion that how you write the start of a query, article, essay, short story, or novel may mean the difference between a sale or the slush pile. My students always seem sceptical at first, accustomed to coming up with an idea and looking at the big picture, not just focusing on the first one to three sentences. They fill the seats in my four-week session more out of curiosity, wondering how anyone can talk about an itty bit of something for such a long time.
They soon find out.
I tell them that busy people have little time to pay attention to all of the entertainment options out there, such as magazines, television, computers, books, videos, just to name a few of the options vying for attention. It is imperative then to hook a reader from the beginning. Hook them so intensely that they donít turn on that TV or play that computer game. Make them, no, force them to read until they see the words "the end." The same goes when selling your work to publishers, editors, and agents. You canít afford to bore them before theyíre done reading the first page. If you do, expect that rejection letter.
It sounds simple, but it takes creativity to come up with that lead paragraph, sculpting it to perfection, and allowing it to be the springboard to the rest of your written piece. It doesnít have to be shocking or unusual. But it should have the reader wanting to find out what will be happening next or yearning to know more about a character or situation. For instance, you can start a piece of writing with a quote. But it shouldnít be just any quote. It should be strong on its own, without the reader knowing who said it or what it actually means. Whether you are writing a magazine piece or a short story, make sure that quote is captivating and can transition smoothly to your next paragraph.
Another technique, particularly effective for magazine articles or queries, is the anecdotal lead. This type of lead begins the article in storytelling mode using fictional elements that may relay the actions of a person in a particular situation. This kind of lead immediately places the reader in the scene and "hooks" them so they continue reading. As with the quote, the anecdote must be interesting and come alive for the reader.
You can also begin with a descriptive lead that points out the details of people, places, and things. For instance, describing a subject who is inappropriately dressed at a formal occasion will tell the reader a lot about this subject. Choose your adjectives carefully and make sure that every detail contributes to the focus of your story.
To grab the readerís attention and embroil them from the start, use the direct address lead. Direct address leads sound like you, the writer, are having an up close and personal conversation with the reader in some small coffee shop or living room. Itís taking the reader by the hand and saying "Look, I want to tell you this story, so listen and understand what I am saying." Now, itís not those words exactly, but thatís the feeling you want to convey Ė that itís for their ears and eyes only.
One of my favourite lead types is called delayed revelation. This technique withholds some key fact such as a person's name or place. These leads replace those names with a pronoun such as "she" or "it" within that first paragraph. The identification referred to in the lead is then revealed in the next paragraph or soon after the introduction.
Finally, note the lead sentence of this how-to article. Did it make you want to read on? Did it surprise you? Make you wonder what this article was about? This technique is called the startling statement, and it is exactly that Ė a startling statement. It should pull readers in, perhaps shock them, but at least make them want to find out what lies beyond that startling fact, statistic, or idea.
I tell my workshop students to browse through books, magazines, and journals, read only the leads, and get a sense of how other writers form their opening paragraphs. Write the lead as a separate section. Donít think about the middle or end of the story, just focus on the beginning. If the lead is strong enough, the rest will follow.
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