Stop Being Boring.

I want to open this week’s nonfiction grid by talking about something both Rowan and I have discussed before: Narrative hooks. Rowan hit on this in her nonfiction round-up last Friday, and I touched on it when I urged you to “start when your story starts.”

It bears revisiting because I’ve been experiencing a little bit of the old eyes glazing over when reading the grid lately. And you never want your reader to be so bored by your opener that they immediately start skimming your story, jumping from paragraph to paragraph in search of something interesting – something to hook them. By that point? It’s too late. That “something interesting” should have hit them over the head in the first sentence. There’s just no time to waste.

Your first sentence should do one or more of the following:

  • Begin right in the middle of the story – called in medias res – pulling us immediately into the dramatic action
  • Take us into another world vastly different from our ordinary experience
  • Give us a reason to escape our own thoughts and concerns
  • Show that you are a master storyteller
  • Offer up something unusual, quirky, shocking, or gripping
  • Introduce a unique character
  • Set a compelling emotional mood or tone, often using setting

How can you do this? There are lots of techniques at your disposal. Make an outlandish statement. Juxtapose unexpected facts in an anecdote. Ask a question. Provide an unusual description of a person, place, or thing. Begin with a vivid memory or anecdote. Drop in a kickass line of dialogue. Write something laugh out loud funny.

Here are some great first lines in creative nonfiction books—and even a blog post—to show you the various ways authors have crafted openers that compel the reader to read on. Because the purpose of your opening sentence? To get the reader to read the next one.

Examples of First Sentences:

  1. Use Setting to Establish Mood: “The village of Holcomb stands on the high wheat plains of western Kansas, a lonesome area that other Kansans call ‘out there.’” ~ Truman Capote, In Cold Blood
  2. Use Metaphor to Probe the Philosophical: “The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness.” ~ Vladimir Nabokov, Speak, Memory
  3. Introduce a Compelling Character: “My mother is standing in front of the bathroom mirror smelling polished and ready; like Jean Naté, Dippity Do and the waxy sweetness of lipstick.” ~ Augusten Burroughs, Running with Scissors
  4. Begin in the Middle: “Then there was the bad weather.” ~ Ernest Hemingway, A Moveable Feast
  5. Ask a Question: “People ask, How did you get in there? What they really want to know is if they are likely to end up in there as well.” ~ Susanna Kaysen, Girl, Interrupted
  6. Tell a Curious Anecdote that Sparks Tension: “When I was three and Bailey was four, we had arrived in the musty little town, wearing tags on our wrists which instructed — “To Whom It May Concern” — that we were Marguerite and Bailey Johnson Jr., from Long Beach, California, en route to Stamps, Arkansas, c/o Mrs. Annie Henderson.” ~ Maya Angelou, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings
  7. Start with Dramatic, Intriguing Action: “Melodramatic maybe, it seems to me now. But then it was like throwing a million bricks out of my heart when I threw the books into the water. I leaned over the rail of the S.S. Malone and threw the books as far as I could out into the sea – all the books I had had at Columbia, and all the books I had lately bought to read.” ~ Langston Hughes, The Big Sea
  8. Offer Up an Unusual Scene: “I was sitting in a taxi, wondering if I had overdressed for the evening, when I looked out the window and saw Mom rooting through a Dumpster.” ~ Jeannette Walls, The Glass Castle
  9. Engage in Wordplay: “We are two middle aged lesbians with two small non-shedding dogs. That is how it began. I was half way out, half way in and this would be my half way house; a place where I could transition from a fraction of a person to a whole.” ~ Bill Dameron, “The Other Bill,” The Authentic Life
  10. Establish Your Literary Conflict: “When it’s two o’clock in the morning, and you’re manic, even the UCLA Medical Center has a certain appeal.” ~ Kay Redfield Jamison, An Unquiet Mind: A Memoir of Moods and Madness

Focus on your opening sentences this week. Rewrite them after you finish your entire post. Rearrange your story if necessary to rethink how you begin. And keep in mind the techniques and examples above to test out your own first sentence to ensure it’s compelling your readers to continue.

Nonfiction Know-How:

Constructive Criticism Part II

Ever hear “it’s better to give than receive?” Well, in the case of criticism, it’s certainly easier to give than receive. For part two of what has now turned into a two part post, we’re going to dive into receiving criticism. Because you know what? It kind of sucks, but it’s good for us as individuals and as a community. Like vaccines. Learn even more from Rowan here.

How to submit and fully participate in the challenge:

Basic YeahWrite guidelines: 1000 word limit; your entry can be dated no earlier than this past Sunday; nonfiction personal essay, creative opinion piece or mostly true story based on actual events.

1. In the sidebar of this week’s post, please grab the code beneath the nonfiction badge and paste it into the HTML view of your entry;
2. Follow the Inlinkz instructions after clicking “add your link” to upload your entry to this week’s challenge grid;
3. Your entry should appear immediately on the grid if you don’t receive an error message;
4. Please make the rounds to read all the entries in this week’s challenge; and
5. Consider turning off moderated comments and CAPTCHA on your own blog.

Submissions for this week’s challenges will close on Wednesday at 10pm ET. Voting will then open immediately thereafter and close on Thursday at 10pm ET. The winners, as always, will be celebrated on Friday.

Thank you for sharing with us your hard work! Good luck in the challenge…

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About the author:

Cindy is an Asheville-based freelance writer, editor, and writing coach. A former attorney, she writes frequently on the topic of criminal justice reform in addition to blogging on her personal site The Reedster Speaks. Her work has appeared on Brain Child, The Huffington Post, the Erma Bombeck Writer’s Workshop, and WhatToExpect.com. She is a four-time recipient of BlogHer’s Voices of the Year award and, here at YeahWrite, acts as its Nonfiction Editor. Cindy frequently speaks on the craft of writing and teaches the creative nonfiction boot camp “What’s Your Story?” through her professional site cindyreed.me.

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