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ServiceScape Incorporated

Capture Their Attention in Your Introduction


"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times." With those words, Charles Dickens begins one of the most well-known introductions in all of literature. If you're an aspiring novelist, perhaps you dream that one day your words will be as memorable, and remembered, as Dickens' opening words in A Tale of Two Cities.

If the extent of your writing consists of research papers and other technical documents, you may not feel that your opening lines matter very much. While it's true that there are clear stylistic and format differences between a novel and a technical document, they do have something in common. Whatever you write, you want someone to read it. A good introduction will make them want to do so.

Your introduction serves several purposes. First, it serves as a way of introducing yourself. It's been said that you never get a second chance to make a first impression. This is your chance. Your readers will view your introduction as a sample of your writing style and, for non-fiction, your knowledge of the subject. Will you impress them? Or make them wonder if you know what you're talking about?

Second, your opening paragraph, or page, introduces your subject. In non-fiction, your introduction will probably explain why you are writing. It will mention the topic that you are writing about and why you feel that it is important. In many forms of non-fiction, such as research papers, it will discuss what has previously been written about the subject and how what you have written differs. It might provide an outline of how you are going to proceed with a discussion of the subject and how the reader will benefit. Likewise in fiction, your introduction introduces your readers to your subject. Usually, this means introducing your protagonist. Herman Melville took this idea literally. In Moby Dick, he has his protagonist introduce himself with the famous words, "Call me Ishmael." A more common way of introducing the protagonist is to depict a scene that allows the reader to see what kind of person they are through their interactions with others.

The third purpose for your introduction is related to the other two: you want your readers to continue reading. For some forms of writing, such as technical manuals, your readers may not have a choice; the job or task that they are trying to perform requires that they read what you have written. In most forms of writing, you won't have such a guaranteed readership. If your readers don't like you, or your subject, they may stop reading. Unless you are a well-known author (in which case, I can't imagine why you're reading what I've written) or you are writing about a very popular subject, your readers will make their decision based, in large part, on your introduction. So, how do you capture their attention?

There are several ways that you can capture the attention of your readers in your introduction. In fiction, your goal is to get your readers emotionally involved in the story. As quickly as possible, you want them to identify with your protagonist. Action scenes are an effective way of doing this. They help the reader to immediately identify what kind of person the protagonist is and what problems they are going to have to face and overcome, later in the story. All of us have probably had the experience of thinking about a character in a book, movie, or television show as a real person (rather than a fictional creation or an actor playing a part). This happens because the writer (and the actor for a movie or television show) has done their job well. They've portrayed a three-dimensional character with strengths and weaknesses, likes and dislikes. Your challenge as a writer is to convince your readers, in the first few paragraphs, that the person you are writing about is real. Only if you do so will they care what happens to them in the rest of the story.

What about non-fiction? How do you capture the attention of your readers? Asking a question can build anticipation for what is to come, but only if it's the right question. If it's a question that they already know the answer to, why should they continue reading? Even if you are writing about a familiar subject, you can make them eager to continue reading by asking a thought-provoking question, a question that shows that you are going to be discussing an aspect of the subject that they've never considered.

An interesting anecdote is another way to capture the attention of your readers. Perhaps in your research, you came across an exciting or pivotal event in the history of your subject. Why not recount this briefly in your introduction? Then, after you've hooked your readers, you can go back and start at the logical beginning of the subject, fleshing out the opening anecdote when you get to it.

For some forms of writing, an illustration might be appropriate. This is especially effective when the subject, or its seriousness, is not readily comprehended by your intended audience.

Your introduction is the first thing that people read, but is it the first thing that you write? Since the introduction directs attention to the main body of what you have written, many writers prefer to wait until the rest is written before they tackle the introduction. They feel that this gives them a better idea of what they are introducing. Of course, if while researching your subject, you are inspired and the ideal scene, illustration, or anecdote comes to you, write it down. After all, you can always change it later.

So why should you care about your introduction? Because if you don't, your readers may not care whether there's anything after it. Whether you care about it or not, your introduction will introduce you to your readers. It will give them an idea of what they can expect if they continue reading. If you show them why what you have written is important to them, you will have captured their attention in your introduction.

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