Great Beginnings Has this ever happened to you?



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Great Beginnings

Has this ever happened to you?

  • You pick up something to read, peruse a paragraph or two, and then decide to put it down. Of course it has, we’ve all had that experience. Readers can be fickle. They don’t want to waste their time reading something that doesn’t interest them. And the way most readers determine their level of interests by reading and seeing if they like it.

Catch the reader’s attention

  • Somewhere in your first paragraph, maybe even in the first sentence, you’ve got to come up with something that hooks the reader, something that says “Hey, this is a good piece you’re readily going to enjoy!”

Make the reader want to read more.

  • It’s not enough just to hook your reader’s you’ve got to reel them in and get them to read the rest of your piece. Your beginning has to have something in it that makes them curious about what's coming next.

Appropriate to purpose and audience

  • Readers want to feel like the beginning of your piece is an invitation to an interesting and enjoyable experience. You don’t want to start your piece in a want that makes people feel disrespected. They also don’t want to feel that you’re wasting their time or being silly

1. Interesting description

  • Ashes filled the air when I was around the camp fire. Crackle, Crackle it went.
  • In this beginning to a story about a camping trip, the writer begins with an interesting description of a camp fire. The writer using sight and sound details that we might not normally think of and this is what makes the beginning effective for me.

2. Start with a sound

  • Boom! The trunk slammed. Bang! The car door slammed as we got out of the van.
  • Starting with a sound is a simple but effective way to get your reader’s attention. In this beginning, the writers uses two sounds and simple repetition to make the beginning even more interesting.

3. Start with the past in the present

  • It is April 10, 1912. The Titanic is going to travel all the way from England to America.
  • In the history piece, the writer is writing about the past but using the present tense. This pulls the reader into the story by giving it the feeling that the action is happening now.

4. Start with an exclamation.

  • “Yeah! We’re going to Disneyland tomorrow! Yeah!” I yelled about as loud as I could.
  • Readers can’t help but get a bit excited when the first thing they read is an exclamation. Usually the exclamation is a single word followed by an exclamation mark. “Cool!” or “Awesome!” or “Ouch!” Etc. Then, the next sentence or two tells the reader what is being exclaimed about.

Start with a thought.

  • I’m in big trouble now, I thought to myself.
  • If you start your piece with someone thinking about something, your reader will almost always want to know why someone is thinking about it. In this lead, don’t you want to know what kind of trouble the person is in?

Start with a complaint

  • It seems like we never go swimming at Fife pool.
  • In the beginning, a second grader is complaining to her parents that her family never gets to fo to the pool where she like to swim. She’s expressing strong feelings here and that almost always draws the reader into the story. Of course, if the whole piece was cranky like this, it would get old pretty fast. But for one-sentence lead, it works well.

7. Start with a surprise.

          • Wow! I was doing my back hand-spring and I landed it!
  • Chances are that if the first line of your piece begins with some kind of surprise, your reader will be surprised , too. This beginning also starts with an exclamation and that helps convey the writer’s feeling in a strong way the reader will be able to relate to.

8. Start with a question.

  • Have your ever been Editor-in-Chief? Well I’’ tell you, it’s a big job!
  • If you ask a question at the beginning, your readers will find themselves wanting to answer it, and this will draw them in. Sometimes, as in this case, you don’t actually answer the question at the at all. In other situations, the writer may choose to answer gradually throughout the piece. This is one of the easiest leads to come up with. But you can’t use it too often because it will lose it’s effectiveness.

9. Start with a sound. Start with a repetition. Start with a simile

  • Screech, Screech, Screech! The first time we tried to play the recorders it sounded like a lion running his claws down a chalkboard.
  • This short lead actually combines three different strategies into one. It starts out with the sound of third graders making awful sounds in music class on their recorders. The sound is three times for emphasis. Then, the writer uses a simile so we can understand just how annoying the sound really was. Any one of these three strategies can be used on their own to make a great beginning. Starting with a simile can be particularly effective.

Start with an exclamation. Start with a repetition. Start with a strong feeling.

  • Chores! Chores! Chores! Chores are boring! Scrubbing toilets, cleaning sinks, and washing bathtubs take up a lot of my time and are not fun at all.
  • Using the similar pattern, but using a strong feeling is used. Expressing feelings about something at the beginning of a piece usually does a good job of getting a reader’s attention and drawing them into the piece.

11. Start with extremely strong feelings

  • The very first time I saw asparagus I hated it! I had never even tried it before, and I still hated it.
  • This writer obviously has strong feelings about asparagus. What I also like about this lead is that she’s sort of poking fun at herself when she says that she hated asparagus even though she’d never even tried it before. She knows she’s overdoing it and that’s what makes it sort of funny.

12. Start with a series of questions.

  • Touch of flu? Egg in the hair? Poor Raymond!
  • This is the opening line to a book review of one of Beverly Cleary’s “Ramona Quimby” books. In addition to using the two questions in a row, what makes this lead work so well is that the writer seems to be commiserating with the character in the book.

13. Start with a scary, exciting, or intense moment.

  • …I tried to run, but I couldn’t. The monster seemed like it was growing by the minute! And then, the most horrible thing was about to happen----I screamed and sat bolt upright in bed. I gasped swallowing huge amounts of air.
  • This writer is starting her piece with the end of a nightmare. Her use of the ellipsis at the beginning tells us that we’re in the middle of something. Then the dash at the end of the dream signals the interruption of her waking up. It’s a good description of the intensity everyone feels when they awake suddenly from a bad dream

14. Start with your main idea

  • I will always love my grandparents’ beach house. The way the waves role over the goooey sand the way the sand weaves in between your toes. The way we pick up barnacle-covered rocks and watch the sand crabs scurry away. The way we dig for clams and end up knee deep in the never ending sand.
  • This is the beginning of a descriptive essay about a family vacation spot. The writer just starts right off with the one most important thing she want you to know: “I will always love my grandparents’ beach house”. But then she gives you some nice description to go with it, a few sentences that show your what she loves about it.

15. Start with a hint of something interesting to come.

  • It all started on an average day. I didn't think anything unusual was going to happen, but boy was I wrong!
  • One of the best was to hook your readers is to give them just a hint of something interesting without telling them what it is. This lead does a nice job of that. We can’t help but wonder what unusual thing happened that day.

16. Start with an interesting conversation

  • “We’re moving. That what she told me. I couldn’t believe it! I had just made the basketball team and was making more friends.
  • “What?” I exclaimed.
  • Most of us can’t resist listening in on a good conversation. That’s why most readers like dialog so much. It’s even better if your introduce a conflict like the one the writer sets up her. I like how sparse the dialog is; it’s just three words. But the writer gives us a great sense of how final the decision is the parent obviously doesn’t want to discuss things; the decision has been made) and how frustrated the kid is.

17. Start by revealing something unusual.

  • “Company halt!” yelled the drill master. My mom stopped and went into position. Her dog tags climbed as she moved.
  • I don’t know about you, but when I hear a drill master say, Company halt” I don’t expect to find somebody’s mother in the ranks. Of course, there are many women in the military, and many of them either are or will be mothers, but the writer is playing on a prejudice that he knows most readers will have, a prejudice that makes his lead more effective because it reveals something unusual about the story.

18. Start with an upsetting description

  • A flash of lightning illuminates the harsh emptiness of the night. In an orphanage children cry mournfully. They are starving.
  • Sometimes the best way to get a reader’s attention is to show them a picture of something they probably don’t want to offend anyone or make them feel so uncomfortable that they stop reading. But this sixth grade writer is clearly in control of her language and that’s what makes is so successful

19. Start with an unusual image of a character.

  • Simon Wilken was snacking down on a plum with great gusto.
  • The thought of a guy tearing into a plum is just strange enough to get your attention. Now, of course, the writer will have to keep it going by continuing with some equally compelling description. There’s great word choice her in the verb phrase “snacking down” and in the adverbial phrase “with great gusto.” The strong verb and thoughtful modifier gives us a very specific sense of how this person is eating.

Start with an interesting anecdote.

  • On a dark December night in 1776, as he led a barefoot brigade of ragged revolutionaries across the icy Delaware River, George Washington said, “Shift your fat behind Harry. But slowly or you’ll swamp the darn boat.
  • In addition to exhibiting some nice sentence fluency, this lead ends with something we just don’t expect to hear from the Father of Our Country. It’s funny and it also serves as a good example of the writer’s thesis in this research paper. An anecdote is a little story within a larger piece that serves as an example of an important point.

21. Start by describing the setting.

  • The deafening crowd was packed into the Kingdome on sold-out Buhner Buzz-Cut Night. Hundreds of people, outfitted in brand new buzz-cuts, were enjoying the Mariner game.
  • You can always start just by setting the scene. It’s one of the easiest strategies to use. But use good descriptive language when you do it. A phrase like, “The deafening crowd was packed into the Kingdome” with a nice adjective (“deafening”) and a strong verb (“packed”), paints a good picture in the reader’s mind and reinforces the feeling of an important night at the ball park.

22. Start by addressing the audience.

  • You all know Bill Gates. When you hear that name you think “Billionaire” or “Lucky Guy,” but you haven’t really looked deep enough.
  • One way to get your readers’ attention is just to talk to them directly. Here’s another way to do it.
  • You walk into the dentist’s office. You sit down. You try to read a magazine. But it’s no use. You’re scared and there’s nothing you can do about it.
  • You don’t want to use this technique too much. You can easily overdo it. You can annoy your reader and you really don’t want to do that do you?

23. Start by “showing” how someone feels.

  • I sat in my desk, sweat dripping down my face. I shut my eyes tight, then opened the. I looked at my watch, 11:27. Three minutes! Until I heard a sound, a sound that would set me free for three months of total nothingness.
  • This is a great description of a kid who can’t wait for the school year to end. But rather than just say something like, “I couldn’t wait for the school year to end,” the writer gives you an extended description that “shows” you how he feels.

24. Start by telling in a comic way.

  • “Oh my God I exclaimed, What’s John doing out there? Why is he on his hands and knees, Mom?” I looked out the big kitchen window wondering if my eight-year old brothers was all right. He was looking distressed. The he threw up.
  • Let me be the first to say that throwing up is not exactly a barrel of monkeys. Under normal circumstances, this is not the kind of beginning I would encourage. But is so well written. The key is sentence fluency. The writer starts out with some long sentences that set up the scene. And then, as she gets to the “punch line,” she uses two very short sentences that give the whole thing a funny, matter-of-fact quality, as though her little brother does this kind of thing all the time. This in another use of “anecdote strategy.

Start by challenging the reader.

  • Colin Greer, the President of the New World Foundation, a civil rights organization in New York, has something to say about your character.
  • Another way to get your readers involved is to challenge them in some was. Here, the writer is suggesting, without really saying it, that I might have something wrong with my character and that this guy, Colin Greer, some New York hotshot from some big foundation, knows how to fix my problem. HMMMMM…. This kind of lead is sure to get a reaction but sometimes it’s a bad one, so be careful when you do this. This idea is to challenge your readers, not pick a fight with them.

26. Start by focusing your audience’s attention on something important.

  • In my old, battered, black wallet I carry many things. A letter from a friend. My lunch ticket. My social security card. Many other tidbits and items as well. There is one thing however, which I prize above all my possessions. It is a photograph.
  • This whole piece is about a photograph that is very important to the writer. So, to get us started, he leads us on a little trip through his wallet that ends with a very short sentence about the thing he wants us to think about. Many writers will set up their first paragraph this way. They’ll start out in one place and lead you around for a little while until they end up, in the very last sentence, by telling you exactly what the piece is about.

27. Start with a list

  • The sweat on your brow. A layer of dust on your face. Out in the woods. Somewhere. And on a horse. Of all the places in the world, I feel best on a horse.
  • This is a similar in effect to the previous lead. Here, the writer just gives us a list of descriptive elements without any real context. We’re left guessing about the topic. Each item in his list is a sentence fragment, and that adds to the feeling we get a wanting more information. Finally, he tells us what he’s talking about and, thankfully, gives us a complete sentence so we can feel that the trail of ideas has cone to a proper stopping point.

28. Start with a scenario.

  • Right now I want you to pretend you are in a store. As you walk around, you see that some products are much less expensive. Now, look at the labels on the cheaper items. You will probably notice that many of these labels say “Made in China,” or “Made in Honduras.” Have you ever stopped to wonder why products made is these countries are so much more affordable than the things manufactured right here on American soil?
  • In the beginning, the writer puts us in a made up situation for the purpose of having us experience a problem he wants us to know about. Like the other ‘you” leads, this one will work as long as your don’t overuse it.

29. Start with fantasy or fairy tale-type language.

  • In yesteryear, when Moby Dick was just a tadpole, and the seas rolled and thundered over the jetties and onto the shore, I searched for my first sand dollar still hidden somewhere in the ever stretching Long Beach Peninsula.
  • This is the beginning to a simple essay about a kid finding sand dollars on a vacation. But the beginning really stands out because he writes it up as though it happened long, long ago in fairy tale time. It’s a true story, but this type of beginning fictionalizes it just a bit and that makes it sound like it’s going to be more fun than the typical “When I was a kid, I used to find sand dollars at the beach” story. This style of beginnign gives the story a child-like, mystical quality that fits the subject matter perfectly.

Start with a simple action that leads to a complex realization.

  • I walk up the hill with my friends, then turn into our cul-de-sac, go to the front door, put the key in the lock, turn, and step in. The house breathers a spooky hello as I se my books down and go to the kitchen where the inevitable note is waiting: “Have a snack. Be home soon. I love you.”
  • This is how a lot of good movies begin. In this piece, the author starts by describing a simple walk home from school. But as the kid enters the house, things change just a bit. And finally, when he reads the note from his mom, and realizes he’s alone again, that causes him to have a whole bunch of complicated feelings which he spends the rest of the piece telling is about. This kid is writing about what it’s like to be an only child when your parents work and you’re left alone. This beginning does a good job of leading us into that feeling without actually telling us aout it.

31. Start with a startling statement.

  • A great crime was committed against a people in 1942. This was the signing of Executive Order 9066 by Franklin D. Roosevelt which called for the eviction and internment of all Japanese Americans.
  • This is a great start to a research paper. It draws our attention to the subject matter by casting it in a horrific light. We can’t help but have questions like “What crime?” or “Which people?”

32. Start with your thesis

  • Education is a key element in developing the skills necessary for a successful life. Too often, students are more involved earning a paycheck than spending time on their academic studies. Students need to realize that their high school classes will prepare them for a brighter future.
  • This is the beginning of a persuasive essay that discusses the pros and cons of high school students having part-time jobs. She’s obviously against it. So, she starts off with her thesis statement around which the rest of the essay will be based. This is not flashy or unusual was to start a piece. But often, it’s very effective, especially if you feel your readers are not in the mood for anything clever or complicated.

33. Start with something outlandish, eccentric, flamboyant, fantastical.

  • I am a dynamic figure, often seen scaling walls and crushing ice. I have been known to remodel train stations on my lunch breaks, making them more efficient in the area or heat retention. I write award winning operas. I manage time efficiently. Occasionally, I tread water for three days in a row.
  • Personally, I find this lead very entertaining. The first time I read it, I almost thought the writer was being serious. Obviously he isn’t This kind of beginning certainly won’t be attractive to all of kind of readers. Some will think it inappropriately silly. It’s unusual, that’s for sure. But the wirter seems to be in control of what he’s doing. He’s doing something unusual in a way that works---at least andI see it---and that’s what counts at the end.

34. Start with fast action.

  • I raced inside, slamming the front door behind me. I plopped my backpack on the floor and dashed for the kitchen. Our cat, asleep in the hallway, quickly awoke and scurried out of harm’s way. I knew I only had a few precious seconds before my brother, coming in through the back door, beat me to the kitchen and nabbed the last of mom’s brownies.
  • You can’t lose with a good action sequence. One of the secrets to a good action writing is the use of interesting verbs (“race, plopped, dashed, scurried, nabbed”) Strong verbs make for strong writing. In this case, they make the lead sound more dramatic, more intense.

35. Start with a saying.

  • It was Ralph Waldo Emerson who said that “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of simple minds.” He said it almost 200 years ago, but perhaps it bears repeating today to our senators and congressman wo act as though our country can continue to spend money it does not have.
  • So many smart people have so many smart things. Why not let them speak for you? A common technique is to use a famous saying to make a point. As long as your readers are somewhat familiar with the quotation and its context, this typle of beginning works well.

Tips for Good Beginnings

  • Start with the models
  • Try several beginnings for each piece
  • Reread, Rethink, Revise
  • Variety is the spice of life
  • Start with your own collection


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