Thursday, 18 September 2014

The Eight Openings and the Blank Page Trauma

Are you familiar with the terror of the blank page in the exam room?
Do you experience a sense of writer's block in this situation?
Are you just unsure about your technique in starting an essay?

In fact, there are many tried and tested openings that will get your writing off to a confident and winning start. Although there are infinite possible ways of leading into an essay, blog, or news article, there are some common opening gambits that writers rely on (as in a game of chess). After a strong opening you will be ready for a winning middle game.



Before outlining the Eight Openings, here are some points to think about:

Is your aim to engage the reader by being relevant, creative, and original?
Are you trying to arouse curiosity or to meet expectations?
Are you explaining what’s on offer (like a menu), or offering a taster session?
In a promotional sense you want to encourage the reader to come through the door: to enter your mental world. Some readers are reluctant, suspicious people who need to be coaxed into your space.

Remember that your aim is a happy relationship between writer and reader; not a divorce.

Sometime it is helpful to signal or summarize what your topic is, and how you will be approaching it (methodology). In academic essays there is often a well-crafted thesis statement that encapsulates the main argument in one sentence.

1. The Quoted Opening

"As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect." Franz Kafka, The Metamorphosis (1916). My transformation happened over three lazy weeks, but it was not any less wonderful... Begin with an impressive quotation from someone who will be recognised by your reader. A well chosen quotation can also have the advantage that it provides an unusual angle on your content. Also, it may hint at the tone and approach you are taking to your topic. In academic essays marks may also be gained for evidence of research. Disadvantages: quotations can be over used (clich├ęs); you are relying on someone else’s work at the outset.

2. The Story Opening

"I write this sitting in the kitchen sink."  Dodie Smith, I Capture the Castle (1948). A story has a universal appeal and everyone wants to know what happens next if there is an element of intrigue. This opening plays on the art of the unexplained: look where I am; how did I arrive at this point. This approach also involves the art of delayed resolution (ending) that we find in jokes or anecdotes. A story that is relevant to the reader also plays on empathy.

3. The Headline Opening
The Times Of India: “We saw the sea coming, we all ran. But God saves little”

This approach keeps coming back to the essay title or the newspaper heading, but offers more detail or clarity. Again the emphasis is on focus and relevance. This technique works well where the eye-catching headline is not a ready-made statement, or the solution to an issue. 

4. The Shocking Opening

Shock tactics may fit well with an eye-catching sensational opening. Often the trick is to reverse normal expectations, turning the world upside down. The element of surprise can be very effective, but it may be difficult to sustain after the initial impact.  Build your special effects using rhetorical drama (pattern, pace, rhythm, alliteration) and memorable literary devices (such as simile or metaphor).

5. The Interrogatory Opening

This opening relies on asking questions that engage the reader. This may involve empathy (Don’t you just hate daytime marketing calls? Why do we want to laugh in a moment of crisis?); or it may interrogate the title/heading in a curious or surprising way (Why do most disasters happen on Thursday mornings?). But too many questions leave the reader frustrated or perhaps impatient to hear the answers. Avoid this problem by asking unusual, thought-provoking questions.

6. The Summary Opening

This opening offers a preview of the remainder of the essay. It’s rather like a menu that explains what to expect and offers an insight into your approach (how the steak will be cooked; is the food spicy). The risk is that you give away all the surprises at the outset. So try to avoid going into too much detail at this stage. Better to give a sense of the general scope of your project, rather than trying to tick every box.

7. The Strange, but True, Opening

This is also known as the newsworthy or factual opening. ‘In Great Britain in 2012 it is reported that 3,678 babies swallowed an iPhone. All but one survived. This is his story...’ Common features of this approach deploy data, or statistics, but also develop a human angle on the arithmetic. Again, eye-catching news reverses expectations: the "Man Bites Dog" Rule.

8. The Connoisseur Opening

This opening does not fit any of the above categories, or it is a hybrid strategy that deploys several styles of opening. Sometimes it is a low-key opening that marks the innovator. In 1913, Marcel Proust began his epic novel sequence, "For a long time, I went to bed early." Swann's Way. (tr. Lydia Davis).

Tips to Develop Your Style:
Use a notebook, or simply cut and paste opening sentences and paragraphs which in your view are engaging and appealing. Also note down why you think they are effective. It’s also useful to make a list of your own categories of opening. For instance, what are the differences between factual items and literary fiction? What else is required in an essay for school or college? Why are some openings longer than others?
It is worthwhile examining existing models of great writing, but with practice you will craft engaging openings that bear your personal stamp of creative genius.



Dr Ian McCormick is the author of
also available on Kindle, or to download.