They’re going to ignore you.
A thousand careful words, sculpted from the deepest roots of your hard-won experience and wisdom.
All wasted, of course – because you didn’t know how to hook ’em.
I’m not going to regurgitate statistics about the first few seconds. And I’m not going to waffle on about how first impressions count.
Because the reality is much simpler than that:
People just aren’t that interested in reading other people’s stuff.
You need something that grabs them from the first line. You need something that says ‘Hey. This is worth it. Keep going and you’ll see.’
And no one knows this better than fiction authors.
They spend entire careers being routinely ignored and rejected – by literary agents, magazines, publishers, and the millions of readers who have thousands of other things to read.
So if anyone knows how to grab people by the eyelids, it’s fiction writers.
Here are 5 of the simplest ways they do it:
1. Start with a juicy bit
‘They set a slamhound on Turner’s trail in New Delhi, slotted it to his pheromones and the colour of his hair. It caught up with him on a street called Chandni Chawk and came scrambling for his rented BMW through a forest of bare brown legs and pedicab tyres. Its core was a kilogram of recrystallised hexogene and flaked TNT.’
– Count Zero, William Gibson
I have a friend whose dad was a fiction author. And he used to say this:
No one starts eating a slice of cake at the crust. They go straight to the middle to get the best part first.
In academic circles, they call it starting in media res (‘into the middle of things’). And in the case of Count Zero, William Gibson doesn’t muck about.
Before you’ve finished the third sentence, there’s already a kamikaze cyborg dog hunting down the story’s hero and blowing him to pieces.
If that doesn’t make you want to read more, I don’t know what will.
So what’s the lesson?
When you’re writing a sales page or an article, there’ll never be anything as exciting as a kamikaze cyborg.
But that doesn’t mean you can’t skip most of the exposition and jump straight into something interesting.
There is something interesting in your content at some point, right?
Good. Now put it front and centre – why were you making people work for it?
Forget the meek and humble introduction.
Forget the bit where you welcome your visitors, and forget the bit where you lay down context like a teenager writing a padded-out essay.
Cut straight to the chase, and throw your readers into the action from the very first sentence.
Less of this:
‘In recent years, many smartphone users have begun to move away from established premium products (like the iPhone) towards more affordable alternatives from overseas – such as the latest offerings from Chinese manufacturers, Huawei.’
And more of this:
‘We all saw it coming. The iPhone is dead.
But we never thought Huawei would be the ones holding the pillow.’
2. Start with a twist
The first time Yossarian saw the chaplain he fell madly in love with him.’
– Catch-22, Joseph Heller
There’s a reason why people get sick of reading blog posts and web pages.
They’re predictable and formulaic – so much so, that you could probably guess the second sentence after reading the first few words of the opening line.
With Catch-22, Joseph Heller starts with something simple, mundane and cliché. But by the second line, he’s already completely subverted our expectations.
It wouldn’t work today, of course. There’s nothing unusual about men falling in love.
But back in 1962, that would have been a jarring juxtaposition to start a mainstream novel with. And you can apply the same theory to your own content.
How does it work?
Except it’s not. (What a twist!)
But really, it is.
Start with a straightforward first line that puts your readers into one mindset.
And then follow it up with something that’s completely at odds with that mindset:
‘Looking for a web designer?
You’ve come to the wrong place.
Our customisable site builder gives you the power to create your own unique website – even if you have no idea what you’re doing.’
3. Start with a weird word
‘Limp, the body of Gorrister hung from the pink palette; unsupported – hanging high above us in the computer chamber; and it did not shiver in the chill, oily breeze that blew eternally through the main cavern.’
– I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream, Harlan Ellison
Just try and find another short story or novel that starts with the word ‘limp’.
Go on, I’ll wait.
We’re so used to the conventions of speech and narrative that we expect any piece of writing (whether it’s fiction or marketing) to start off with words and phrases like these:
- When I
- There’s a
- It was a
- Back in the
When you start with basic phrases like these, you’re already nestling your readers into a familiar and comfortable position.
Sometimes that’s a good thing: it can help to ease your readers in and gently set the scene.
But when every blog post starts in the same predictable way, their minds begin to wander, and they lose interest.
How can we make it work?
If you try to start every bit of content by shoehorning in a word like ‘limp’, it’s going to feel forced.
Instead, you can try to work a spicy word in at some point during the first sentence. Like this:
‘It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.’
– The Bell Jar, Sylvia Plath
‘When Mr Bilbo Baggins of Bag End announced that he would shortly be celebrating his eleventy-first birthday with a party of special magnificence, there was much talk and excitement in Hobbiton.’
– The Fellowship of the Ring, J.R.R Tolkien
‘The candleflame and the image of the candleflame caught in the pierglass twisted and righted when he entered the hall and again when he shut the door.’
– All the Pretty Horses, Cormac McCarthy
These unexpected words aren’t just there to add artistic flavour. They shock your reader out of their complacency.
They force your reader to wake up and pay attention, and they hint at more to come: more spicy phrasing, more of your lively tone of voice, and more of your unusual perspective on things.
4. Start with a story
‘Once a guy stood all day shaking bugs from his hair. The doctor told him there were no bugs in his hair. After he had taken a shower for eight hours, standing under hot water hour after hour suffering the pain of the bugs, he got out and dried himself, and he still had bugs in his hair; in fact, he had bugs all over him. A month later he had bugs in his lungs.’
– A Scanner Darkly, Philip K. Dick
Most people have limited attention spans.
(Or it could just be that your content is boring.)
Either way, they won’t usually want to plough through your 2,000-word narrative to get a satisfactory conclusion to the topic.
They’ll use your opening lines as a taster to see whether it’s worth reading more. So if you want to give them a warm, fuzzy feeling before they give up, you need to give them a pay-off as quickly as you can.
How does it work?
Just take a shortcut to an early conclusion.
By starting off a blog post or an article with a mini-story, you can give your readers some scene-setting intrigue – and a satisfying resolution – in just a few short lines.
Before they’ve had a chance to get bored, they’re already enthralled. And they’ll be far more likely to give the rest of your article a chance.
You’ll have seen this technique in newspapers and journals plenty of times.
An article about immigration starts with the plight of one particular family of refugees. Or a piece about prison injustice begins with the tale of one particular mistreated prisoner.
It needs to be brief, and it needs to be instantly compelling. There’s no point aiming for immediate satisfaction if you let your introduction stretch to cover half of your article.
5. Start with deliberate mystery
‘The tower, which was not supposed to be there, plunges into the earth in a place just before the black pine forest begins to give way to swamp and then the reeds and wind-gnarled trees of the marsh flats.’
– Annihilation, Jeff VanderMeer
A tower that shouldn’t be there? That needs some explaining.
And how are we going to get that explanation?
By reading further, of course.
Deliberate obscurity has been a staple of suspense in books and films for decades. But it needs to be handled with care.
If it’s too heavy-handed, the attempt at manipulation becomes obvious. And if it’s too subtle, there’ll be no sense of mystery imparted.
Annihilation handles this perfectly. The mysterious clause (‘which was not supposed to be there’) is tucked into the sentence as an aside – as if it’s a throwaway addition to the main thrust of the sentence.
You don’t have time to stop and think about it, because you’re already reading the rest of the sentence.
But the seed has been planted, and it’s had an effect.
So how can you use this?
There are plenty of different ways to add a little intrigue to your opener. You could try:
- Playing the pronoun game – (‘She walks onto the seminar stage with an arrogant confidence. She’s smiling, but we all know she’s just been forced to resign.’)
- Making a bold statement, and delaying the explanation – (‘If you’re an employee anywhere, you’re getting ripped off. You might think that sounds dramatic, but…’)
- Making an enticing promise that you’ll get to later – (‘I can save your business thousands of pounds a month. Now, you’re probably wondering…’)
Are these cheap tactics? Probably.
Do they work? Definitely.
The important part (just like with the Annihilation example above) is that you’re able to handle them carefully.
You need to make it feel natural, and you need to be able to hold your reader’s attention with the rest of your message until you finally reveal the answer to the mystery you’re dangling before them.
Ready for a new beginning?
The first few lines of any piece of writing are crucial.
And with a few of these tricks, it’s easy to start hooking more readers from the first few words.
But if you don’t have the time (or the patience) to craft the kinds of content that gets people reading, don’t worry:
Your friendly neighbourhood copywriter is ready and waiting to help.