First words matter. First words grab the audience’s attention and invite them into your world to hear the rest of your story. Or they don’t. It’s an either-or proposition most of the time. You need a strong beginning for your story. Strong story openings convey the storyteller’s urgency and include just enough information to keep the audience’s attention.
Story beginnings introduce the main character, give a sense of place, and establish purpose. The length and detail of a beginning is proportional to the length of the story. Little Red Riding Hood begins with just a few sentences. The film The Lord of the Rings requires half an hour of screen time. In both cases, when the middle of the story starts, the scene is set, the hero leaves home, and the purpose of their journey is clear. The audience prepares for an adventure. But not stories are fictional.
Our books, magazines, and on-line publications burst with compelling narrative non-fiction. Narrative non-fiction combines the art of storytelling with the precision of reporting. Some examples include Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, Erik Larsen’s Devil in the White City, and Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Henrietta Lacks. Each of these works presents a non-fictional account wrapped in visceral storytelling.
Like all forms of storytelling, narrative non-fiction starts with strong beginnings. Reading some of these beginnings gives us a glimpse at how a storyteller can include necessary information about character, setting, and purpose and simultaneously grab an audience’s attention.
“Air-conditioned, odorless, illuminated by buzzing fluorescent tubes, the American supermarket doesn’t present itself as having very much to do with Nature.”
Michael Pollan, The Omnivore’s Dilemma
Michael Pollan’s book The Omnivore’s Dilemma traces Pollan’s investigation into the different paths food takes before it ends up on our plates. In his first sentence, Pollan writes a description of supermarkets that puts the audience in the middle of a giant, soulless supermarket. His supermarket has high ceilings, dead bright light, and aisle after aisle of processed food. This piece of evocative description also introduces the central dilemma the book, the friction between modern eating habits and Nature with a capital “N.” The audience witnesses the beginning of Pollan’s struggle to reconcile these seemingly opposing realities.
“Nearly thirty years ago a police reporter walked into my Northwest Magazine office and pitched a story.”
Jack Hart, Storycraft
The book Storycraft describes in detail how to write great narrative non-fiction. Author Jack Hart is the main character in this introduction. With a brief opening sentence, he establishes his thirty-years of experience, authority, and expertise in the realm of non-fiction storytelling. His first sentence raises more questions than it answers; What story did the reporter pitch? Why is Hart mentioning it here? What has he done in the intervening 30 years? His opening grabs the reader’s attention by appealing to human curiosity and it works.
“The human head is of the same approximate size and weight as a roaster chicken.”
Mary Roach, Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers
Mary Roach writes narrative non-fiction that covers a broad range of unusual topics. In Stiff, she explores what happens to the physical human body after death. This introduction begs one question: how does she know this? The audience learns in the next sentence that Roach has seen a human head in a roaster pan. The story flows from there. This beginning appeals to curiosity with a dash of the shocking to keep the audience engaged.
These three examples of story beginnings draw the audience into three different stories. They avoid direct appeals like a question to the audience yet manage to raise more questions than they answer. They develop out of confidence that the story that follows is worth telling and an urgency to tell it. They also start the work of introducing main characters, setting a scene, and introducing a problem. Pollan stands in a supermarket. Hart sits in his office. Roach gazes at a human head. All of them leave you wondering, “what happens next?”
You are going to tell a story today, perhaps a few. Can you incorporate a sense of place or person in your opening line? Can you convey a sense of motivation? How will your story beginning grab your audience? Will you use one of these examples as inspiration?
If you’re looking for more examples of narrative non-fiction, check Jack Hart’s Storycraft page for links to articles that feature in his book.