In the world of journalism, every story starts with a lede (that’s how we spell it in the news business). Us reporters are taught that without a compelling lede, no one will read your story. The lede is what initially grabs the audience and yanks them into the piece.
Writing an essay is no different. Your opening can be thought of as a news lede. Its intention is to grab the audience and yank them into the story. Every sentence or paragraph after the opening should serve to continue to compel the audience to listen, but it’s the opening that gets their initial interest.
There is no right way to write an opening. In fact, every story has probably a million ways you can start it. But there is certainly a wrong way to write an opening.
A couple bad openings
1. A boring opening: There’s pretty much nothing worse than starting with an opening that is just an instant snooze fest. Think about it. You’re going to have to work to jostle the audience awake after lulling them to sleep. Why not just start with a bang to get their interest out of the gate?
2. A meandering opening: This can also be a boring opening, but it doesn’t have to be. Some meandering openings are quite entertaining. The problem is, they usually are representative of the writer’s inability to self-edit and to write concisely. These openings wander around until the writer hits on the topic he actually wants to talk about. Often they are full of grandiose statements that aren’t really rooted in plot, e.g., “Life is pretty crazy. We all start as fat little babies and end up as meals for the worms. Makes you think, right? So one day I was walking to the bus stop when…”
Sometimes the meandering opening works. But more often than not, it doesn’t.
Personally, I like two kinds of openings: the “in media res” and the “seemingly absurd statement” (these terms were formed in my butt from which I pulled them out)
The in media res opening is the kind that starts in the middle of the action. It plops the audience right in the middle of the story. Boring exposition must then be subtly massaged into the piece by a clever writer. Starting with a solid line of dialogue is a great way to execute this kind of opening, e.g., “Put down that knife,” my mother said. Immediately I’m asking who has a knife? What are they going to do with it? Is my mother in danger? See how interested the audience is already? Of course, you don’t have to start with a quote. A statement works fine too, especially if it’s fairly novel, e.g., The man at the counter stared at me, as if he’d never seen a man in a bunny suit. Where are you? Why are you in a bunny suit? I’m interested from the get go.
The seemingly absurd statement kind of overlaps with the last example. It’s an opening that taken out of context seems incredibly bizarre or novel. I recently started a story like this, “I was 8 years old when I decided to become Santa.” This story was about the first time a child in my family gave a gift to a parent. Simple enough. But the opening conveys this in a less straight forward way, which is more interesting than just saying, “I was 8 when I decided to buy my mom a present.”
The main point is that your opening is the first thing your audience hears and thus should be the most compelling part of your piece. Take some time to work a good opening. Test out different lines until you know you’ve found the right one for your piece.