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Writing Lame Introductions…

Image from "Capture the Castle", by Dodie SmithThat’s what you usually do.  Of course, it’s not your fault (until now).  School trained you to start with mind-numbing generalities when you wrote essays.  Sentences like “Everyone in the world needs to breathe.”  Or “We all have to die sometime.”   This advice told you to start with a surprising fact, definition or a quote.  And then they only let you write essays.  No wonder few people love writing and everyone struggles to do it.

 

Look at these introductions:

 

“They shoot the white girl first.”  – Toni Morrison, Paradise (1998)

 

“I write this sitting in the kitchen sink.”  – Dodie Smith, I Capture the Castle  (1948)

 

“Vaughan died yesterday in his last car crash.”  – J.G. Ballard, Crash (1973)

 

“My butt itches.”  – Mr. Box, 9th grade English teacher, Wichita Falls, TX

 

All of them get people’s attention and make them want more.  That’s all your first sentence has to do.  Create an image so powerful they can’t focus on anything else.

 

Just One Image

So many of the students I teach in my workshops try writing powerfully by writing a lot.  But the sentences I just showed you limit themselves to one, powerful image.  Or as I’ve heard people say, “You don’t have to make them eat the whole, chocolate cake in one bite.”  If the taste of writing you give them is good enough, they’ll crave the rest of your cake.

 

Limit Your Adjectives

Notice how simple and few adjectives the above sentences use.  The biggest ones are “last” and “white”.  Large adjectives make your audience feel like you’re proving something to them, rather than letting them decide for themselves.  Sentences like, “This is the most incredible story…” ring hollow.  Sentences like, “Out of the lightning my brother whispered…” actually sound incredible.

 

It’s the Verbs

Notice how the verbs grab you: “shoot”, “write”, “sitting”, “died”, “itches”.  Each one creates a scene by itself.  “Shoot” makes your imagination fill in the gun, bullet and person.  “Write” gives you the pen, the hand holding it and the paper for the ink.  None of these intros contain being verbs.

 

Can you use a verb like “is” or “was” in your intro and have it be good?  You can, but you better have some other compelling words surrounding it.  Make it something like…

 

“It was a pleasure to burn.”  – Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451 (1953)

 

Familiar + Unexpected

Finally, notice the collision of either an unexpected noun or adjective with the active verb.  “White girl”, “kitchen sink”, “car crash” and “butt” are all familiar words that create one, single object in our minds.  But when you combine those images with an unexpected verb:  “…shoot the white girl…” evokes racism.  “…write… in the kitchen sink” just sounds weird and makes us wonder how small the person is.  “died… …his last car crash” makes us feel like the story’s already over at the very beginning.  “Butt itches” is simply an image we don’t normally want to think about.

 

My fellow Wizard of Ads partner, Jeff Sexton, prefers to call this “Known Scenario + Trouble“.  Not only does it work for introductions, it will plop eye-popping blog titles and newspaper headlines in your lap.  If you want to be a seriously good writer (and improve your vocabulary), study everything he says.

 

Wait ’til the End

Don’t worry about crafting the most powerful introduction until you’ve finished writing.  Once you know what you’re writing about, write fast and let your imagination take over.  You can look back and see if your first sentence truly is the most interesting one you’ve got.  If not, change it to make it better, or cross out all your boring sentences until you come to the one that captures your attention.  Those first sentences aren’t wasted.  They got your thoughts moving.  Sometimes you have to get out the poop to get to the good stuff.

 

Now Go Do It

If you continue writing awful introductions, it’s no longer anyone else’s fault but yours.  So practice.  Write 5 introductions right now.  Put them in the comments section below this post.  Keep practicing, and not only will your introductions hook more readers, the rest of your writing will scratch the itch they’ve had for powerful words.

 

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