“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” It doesn’t matter if you are writing the Great American Novel, or as in Dickens’ case, the Great British Novel, or your nonfiction book, you need to have a good kickoff.
Opening lines reel them in.
“I wish Giovanni would kiss me,” writes Elizabeth Gilbert in Eat, Pray, Love. Hmm, maybe Giovanni will kiss me too. In The Four Agreements, Don Miguel Ruiz, says, “What you are seeing and hearing right now is nothing but a dream.” What does he mean? I’ll read on. Napoleon Hill in Think and Grow Rich opens with: “When Edwin C. Barnes climbed down from that freight train in Orange, N.J., he may have resembled a tramp, but his thoughts were those of a king.” Hmm, a story. Tell me more.
Your catchy title gets readers to open the book. (Titles can be a discussion for another day.) When your peep flips to page one, you gotta engage them right away.
Jim Collins in Good to Great writes: “Good is the enemy of great.” That’s a strong line, makes me curious to see how he backs up his point. Seth Godin in Tribes writes: “Joel Spolsky is changing the world.” Who the heck is Joel Spolsky and what the heck is he doing? I want to read more. Gay Hendricks in The Big Leap writes: “The One Problem That Holds You Back: I call it the Upper Limit Problem, and I haven’t met a person yet who didn’t suffer at least a little bit from it.” What’s the Upper Limit Problem and do I suffer from it? I’m intrigued.
Curiosity did not kill the cat. Curiosity lights up the cat and keeps him turning the page.
Start off with a bang. Grab them, pull them in, and deliver. Don’t start off with who you are and why you are writing the book. That will come as you go. Back story is called back story for a reason. Your expertise, your experience, your wisdom is indeed what you are sharing, but your stories are how you convey it and how you keep your reader engaged.
Dr. Earl Henslin, a counselor and an academic, and author of This is Your Brain on Joy, writes the opening line: “I come from a family of Minnesota dairy farmers, the population that served as fodder for Garrison Keillor’s hilariously stoic Lutheran characters in the famed Prairie Home Companion skits.”
His book focuses on brain research and how ailments, like addictions, ADD, and eating disorders, are actually brain problems and he advises what one can do to treat those issues. It’s a technical book, but it’s readable and engaging because Dr. Henslin understands the importance of story telling.
If he had opened with, “Many people unknowingly trigger cognitive inflexibility or mood problems by eating diets that are low in L-tryptophan,” I would have thought this book was not my thing. Yawn. He shares his research, knowledge, and solutions because he keeps the reader engaged with stories, and not just pure factual information.
This is not Dragnet. Readers want more than just the facts, ma’am.
Sometime we are so eager to share our expertise that we forget to first whet the appetite of our reader. A reader wants to know, like, and trust you, and you establish that from the start with kicky sentences and stories.
Show your personality, your flair, your style. You be you. Tell your stories your way. Share your nitty gritty information in the same way.
Creative nonfiction is called that for a reason. Just because you are telling the essential details of weight loss, or business, or relationships, or parenting, or whatever your area of expertise is, you can tell it creatively and compellingly.
That begins with the opening line.
Grab me, baby.