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Opening lines – make ’em work

by Shari Graydon

“No one who had ever seen Catherine Morland in her infancy, would have supposed her born to be a heroine.”

“Tap-dancing child abuser. That’s what The Sunday New York Times from March 8, 1993, had called Vivi.”

“But, you may say, we asked you to speak about women and fiction.”

Are you intrigued by one or all of these sentences? Does your mind immediately respond “Why not?”, “Did she deserve the label?”, “Well, what are you going to speak about, and why are you departing from the assignment, anyway?”)

These opening lines by, respectively, Jane Austen (Northanger Abbey), Ann Brashares (Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants), and Virginia Woolf (Room of One’s Own) do a good job of  engaging readers’ imagination, and inciting a sense of wonder. (And, courtesy of Stylist, you can peruse a subjective listing of literature’s other “finest first words” here.)

Sometimes in an attempt to establish the relevancy of the topic they’re addressing, aspiring op ed writers will start their pieces with an unassailably true declarative statement that everyone will recognize as such. (“The population is aging.” “Wait list lines are too long.”)

This is not a good strategy. What’s the incentive to read further when the opening line tells us something we already know? “News” is, ahem, new.

In contrast, beginning with a provocative, contradictory or counter-intuitive claim is much more likely to pique curiosity and encourage people to keep reading — if only to find out how the hang you can justify your opening line. On the Resources section of the Informed Opinions site, we’ve devoted a page to offering examples of different approaches to the lede. (For more examples and an explanation of the spelling of “lede” — no that’s not a typo — see earlier posting.)

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