Whetting reader's appetite

PUBLISHED : Friday, 27 November, 1998, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 27 November, 1998, 12:00am

How many times have you started a story and not read any further than the first page? My guess is that you will have done that on many occasions. Similarly with television programmes. There have probably been many occasions when you have started to watch a programme, only to lose interest after a while and then turn off the television set.

That proves to us the importance of a good opening to a story. Start with a bang! That is the way to grab the attention of your reader and persuade her to stick with your story and read it to the end. There is never any absolute reason why anyone should read a story that you have written. It is up to you to persuade them in your opening sentences that you have written something interesting and worth their while reading.

It is very dull, for example, to open a story with the words, 'This is a story about . . .' It is also dull to produce a list of your main characters in the first paragraph, with a few details about each one. You need to find better ways of grabbing your reader's attention and giving her plenty of reasons of continuing to read your story. Here are some ways of doing just that.

You might start by plunging your reader into the middle of a tense, dramatic situation: 'Nobody moved when the gun went off. It lay in the black-gloved hand, deadly and smoking.' This is like walking into the middle of a film. We are given no build-up to the characters and events. Instead, we see action. There are lots of unanswered questions in our minds. Who is in the room? Who has fired the gun? Why? All these questions give the reader a reason for continuing to read the story. They provide the suspense. The reader is caught up in the action and the drama, and wants to carry on reading in order to find the answers to the questions which have been raised.

A similar sense of drama and immediate action can be achieved by opening with a line of speech: 'Mary, I told you that this would happen if you continued to disobey me.' Again, there are many questions raised here. What has Mary done? What will happen to her now that she has done this bad thing? There is immediate suspense, and we want to find out the answers to these questions.

On the other hand, also notice that some information about the characters is indirectly implied by even these few words. This is obviously not the first time that Mary has disobeyed. Whoever is speaking has some kind of position of authority toward Mary - her parent, or teacher or boss. The speaker clearly feels that he or she knows best! Descriptive writing can also create drama and suspense. Here is a piece of description which is creepy and haunting: 'The tall church spire cast a long shadow over the gloomy churchyard. The beams of the moon glinted on the white headstones, and somewhere in the distance a dog barked.' How does it feel as you read this description? It should make the hairs prickle on the back of your neck. It starts to build up the impression that something terrible is going to happen, but we have no idea of what that might be. Again, we read on to get the answers to these questions. We know we are in a churchyard. It is dark, so we do not know what - or who - might be hiding in the shadows. We are afraid that shadows hold surprises. The reader wants to know what those surprises are! In all these situations we are only giving the reader part of the necessary information. We are whetting the reader's appetite for more . It is like the first course of a meal. We want to give the reader something to tempt them and keep them at the table.

The same principles apply when you are writing a piece of argument. Do not start with something obvious such as: 'This is an essay about pollution. I am going to put the points in favour of industry. Then I will put the arguments against, and then I am going to draw a conclusion.' This could have been written by anyone on any topic. There is nothing particular or exciting about it. Instead try starting with an unusual fact: 'Every day, a city produces enough rubbish to fill 50 jumbo jets.' Or start with a statement which is challenging and controversial: 'I firmly believe that Planet Earth will be destroyed within the next century unless action is taken immediately to limit the effects of pollution.' The reader might disagree strongly with this view, and so want to read on to find out your evidence. He might be made angry, and be desperate to prove your arguments wrong. He might agree, and so be excited to read someone who thinks in a similar way. He certainly cannot just ignore what you say - he will want to read on It is difficult to win a race if you start badly. Similarly, a good start to a piece of writing gives you a headstart. If you start well, then the rest of the piece will follow easily. Do not forget to finish strongly as well - but that can wait until another week.