I began my writing avocation, years ago, as a journalist. Or, rather, a journalism student. It was the late seventies; I’d grown up with Watergate and I’d read All the President’s Men. I wanted to be an investigative journalist. Just like everyone else. I’d even worked for a local paper while I was in high school, writing sports stories. I had a dream.
The dream lasted through my first year at college, when I looked at the competition in The School of Journalism, the job market, and what journalism jobs I’d likely find once I graduated. That and the fact that I really liked reading novels, poetry and short stories more than magazines and newspapers.
My sophomore year I switched to literature and creative writing. The rest, as they say, is the history of underachievers.
However, my time studying and writing with a journalistic goal were not entirely wasted. I learned several rules that applied just as much to imaginative writing as it does to classic reporting. Chief among these is the need to start strong and there are three tools we can use to accomplish this.
The headline (title).
One of the first things a budding reporter learns is that people almost never read the entire newspaper (or magazine, or website) word-for-word. Few people even attempt to. Rather, people scan the page for headlines that catch their interest. Only then do they read more of the story.
In much the same way, folks looking for a new book, short story, or poem to read don’t generally start at one end of the bookstore or collection and read everything. (Much as some of us would like to, there simply isn’t enough time to read everything). They generally find the section in the bookstore with their favorite genre and scan the titles. The same with a collection of poetry or short stories. If you want people to read your work, it is of the utmost importance to create a good, eye-catching title that intrigues readers and arouses their curiosity.
That, however, is only the beginning.
The first sentence.
In journalism, the standard is to include all the relevant information in the first line, because a large percentage of readers won’t read any further. They teach the student reporter to answer the who, what, where, and how in that first sentence for just that reason. The reader can grasp the basics of what happened just by reading the first line. If she wants more details, she can keep reading.
In fiction and other creative writing, it is somewhat different. We don’t necessarily need to include all the pertinent information so much as we need to build upon the interest we’ve awakened with our successful title. We need to get the reader involved right now. Many people, when deciding on a book (or story, poem, essay, etc.) will open the book and read the opening. This includes agents, editors, and publishers. So the first sentence has to be as good and intriguing as the title. It has to persuade the prospective reader that it’s worth their time to keep reading.
The first paragraph (first page).
Once the basic information is revealed in the first sentence, the hope is that the reader will be interested enough to continue reading because they will want to know the details. That is when the reporter begins to flesh out the details of the story, including things such as background information, eyewitness reports and quotes from people involved. This is the real meat of the story, but unless it fulfills the promises made in the first line and the headline many people probably won’t read it to the end,.
The same rule applies to the rest of our creative writings. We have an intriguing title and a first sentence with more hooks than a bass fisherman, now can we keep the reader engaged through the first page? Is something interesting happening? Is the character in question facing an immediate conflict? The goal is to build upon the momentum built up through the title and first sentence. If readers like everything through the first page, they will usually go ahead and read the work.
But the reverse is also true, fail on one of these elements and risk having the reader move on to the next title that catches their eye. And if they do that, they will never read your story’s magnificent climax.