So I’m reading a book or an essay or a story or a poem and I get to the end of the first page and I still don’t know what’s going on. Who are these people? Where are we? Is the narrator male or female? Is it modern times? Are we on earth? At that point, if I’m not required to keep reading for work purposes, I’m going to quit. If I’m wearing my editor hat, I’m going to mark it with a big fat “no.”
I’m all for catchy openings and a reasonable amount of suspense, but as writers we have a duty to orient the readers. Get as weird as you want in the opening line. Do whatever you have to do to draw readers in, but then, very soon, like by the third paragraph, you’ve got to tell us who, what, where, when and why. You don’t have to tell everything, but do tell enough so the reader won’t give up, saying, “I can’t figure out what’s going on.” It’s a mistake I’m seeing all the time, and I just want to say, “Stop it.” Give me some facts to hold on to. Maybe you know what it’s all about, but we the readers don’t unless you tell us.
You know how in some movies they flash words on a screen, such as “Bombay, 1915” or “Five years later”? You can do that too. It doesn’t take a lot of words, just a few key sentences to clue us in. Set the scene so we can be there with you as we transition from the catchy opening into the meat of the story.
In journalism, the paragraph orienting the reader is called a nut graf (“graf” being newspeak for paragraph). It’s called the nut graf because, like a nut, it contains the “kernel,” or essential theme, of the story. Read this great article about the nut graf by Chip Scanlon. Jack Hart writes in his book A Writer’s Coach: An Editor’s Guide to Words That Work, that “the nut graf answers questions such as ‘What’s it mean?’ ‘So what?’ and ‘Who cares?’ It tells readers why they should bother investing their time and effort in reading the story.”
Take another look at the beginnings of your pieces. Does the lead grab one’s attention? Great. Does what follows tell us what’s going on? If not, fix it.
End of sermon. Now let’s go write.