Thursday, 4 July 2013

The importance of starting well: How essays can benefit from a good opening line

Graham Gooch: A good opener


I have often emphasised to my students the importance of a really good opening sentence.

Beginning a piece of writing with a short, snappy opening line can grab attention. Beginning a piece of writing with a snappy opening that is at the same time provocative is even better. You not only grab attention, but you create questions in the mind of the reader that they will want to find out answers to.

Don’t believe me? Well, think about the opening lines of some of the most famous novels ever written.  Think about how they provoke questions, stimulate curiosity and arouse interest in what the rest of the story will say:


One morning, as Gregor Samsa was waking up from anxious dreams, he discovered that in bed he had been changed into a monstrous verminous bug. (Franz Kafka, Metamorphoses)

'What was that?' You might ask.  'Did he say a bug?  Changed into a bug?  What, like, really changed into a bug?'  Kafka has begun with a bold, strange statement, which he will then go on to explain.  The statement itself is so unusual, that the reader really wants to find out how Kafka is going to pull this off...

Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. (Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita)

'Light of my life' sounds find.  Quite a standard expression of love and romance really.  However, 'fire of my loins'?!  Holy moley, I gotta see where this is leading...

It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen. (George Orwell, 1984)

'Thirteen'?  How can a clock strike thirteen?  Something clearly strange is going on in this bright, cold April morning.  What is going on here?  I should read on to find out...

Marley was dead, to begin with. (Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol)

Hold on.  He's dead?  Stories don't normally start with a death - they end with one.  But Dickens is saying here that death is a beginning!  Am I going to discover what comes after death then?  Or about what is more important than death?  Or what good can come from death...?

And the rule doesn’t just work for fiction. Think about the opening lines used by some of the best political speech-makers of all time?

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. (Abraham Lincoln)

Given that this speech was given at the end of a civil war over the issue of slavery, it is difficult to imagine a better opening line anywhere.  'This war' Lincoln is saying, 'was not futile.  It was a war fought over the very nature and moral foundations of this nation'.  Of course, if the nation was founded on a proposition of equality, the victory of the North was a victory for the nation.  It is because you know exactly where the speech is going from the opening line, that it has power and purpose.

Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation. (Martin Luther King)

King's opening words are a direct reference to Lincoln, and by invoking Lincoln's expression of the moral foundations of the country King immediately discomforts his listeners.  After all these years, the equality which Lincoln fought for was still foreign to America.  It is an opening line which does nothing fussy, nothing emotional - but through subtle insinuation shames a nation.

Tonight is a particular honour for me because, let’s face it, my presence on this stage is pretty unlikely. (Barak Obama)

Obama the orator, accepting his party's nomination for the Presidency.  A seemingly innocuous opening.  'It's an honour to be here'.  Standard.  Except - 'my presence on this stage is pretty unlikely'.  Why?  Because Obama is black?  With a disarmingly conversational tone Obama achieves two things: He invokes the heritage of political voices which had fought and died for equality, while at the same time re-assuring his mostly-white audience that he is one of them.  His achievement is their achievement.  The history he is making, is a history made also by them.

Starting well is important.

Notice that in order to start well, all of these masters of language had to know beforehand how the rest was going to go.  The opening sentence is a trailer.  It tells you what the rest of the story / speech is going to be about.  In order to be focused, deliberate and convincing, all they need to do is fulfil the promise of their opening sentence.

The opening line of an essay can use this.  The opening line of an essay should contain a seed from which the rest of the essay can grow.  The opening sentence should be provocative.  It should make the reader wonder what is going to happen next - but it should also make the reader feel confident that the writer already knows how the story ends.

For example, consider this opening to an essay on Laurence Sterne:

Laurence Sterne was born in 1713 in Ireland, but within six months he was living in Yorkshire - which would be his home for much of his later life.

Ok.  Nicely-written.  But there is nothing unfamiliar here.  There is nothing which raises questions, or provokes interest.  There is nothing which tells us what the essay is going to be saying.  Compare it with this opening:

Andrew Sanders may have written that Sterne is famous for being free of "linearity" in his narratives (2004, p. 321), but it is possible to argue that in his obsession with how narratives develop Sterne is one of the most linear novelists of all time.

Notice the difference?  The opening sentence here establishes immediately what the essay is going to be about.  Not simply 'Sterne', but about the linearity of Sterne's narratives.  It does more though: It provokes thought by blatantly contradicting a received wisdom.  'Everyone associates Sterne with non-linear narratives' it says, 'but I think everyone is wrong...' The reader is immediately interested, because they want to know just how the writer is going to pull this off.

Add into the mix here the short reference to Sanders (which adds an immediate scholarly tone, establishing right from the beginning the sense that the writer has read widely and knows what they are talking about), and you have pretty much a model opening sentence.

One of the great things about an opening like this, is that it builds the confidence and faith of your reader - and this can make a real difference in how your work is graded.  Remember that your markers are going to be reading countless essays - many of which are going to be pretty similar.  A provoking opening sets your essay apart.  It makes the marker immediately warm to you - and that warmth is something which it is always easier to maintain than it is to build.

Start an essay poorly, and you are going to have to work very hard to win over your reader.  Start an essay well, and your reader is going to be more forgiving of minor lapses later on.

Like the speed of a car, the good will of a reader is always easier to maintain than it is to build up to - and it requires less fuel too.