Ten Ways To Open Your Essay
Set the Scene & State the Theme
Learn How To Create Effective Opening Paragraphs
Study & learn these tried and true techniques for writing opening paragraphs
“It is not the size of the house;
it is the size of the door.”
Imagine being introduced to someone who acts like a complete jerk to you. Add on to this that the kid is a complete know-it-all who doesn’t know when to shut up; plus, he thinks you are a total moron and treats you like you are an idiot. Try to imagine yourself going home and saying, “Hey Mom, I met this really cool guy today. I think we are going to be good friends. Can he come skiing with us tomorrow so I can listen to him all the way up to Quebec and back? He’s really interesting. He told me so.”
The reality is that this kid might get your attention, but I doubt he would be able to keep your attention because you might not be so eager to hear all he has to say.
When writing, don’t be that kid!
The opening paragraph introduces not only your topic but it also introduces you. If the reader likes and respects you they will keep reading even if your main thesis is lost in a jumble of irrelevant details. By the same token, if you capture their attention and engage their senses–see, feel, touch, hear, smell and taste–in a meaningful and relevant way they will want to read what you have to say; they will give you, the writer, the benefit of the doubt. A good opening paragraph gets you in the door. A good writer gets to stay in the house!
Think of a TV drama, a documentary, or a sitcom. There is always a short scene to start the show. Its sole purpose is to make you curious and interested enough to wait through two minutes of commercials before the real show starts. The opening scene should not give away the ending but rather prepare you for the show itself; it points the reader in the direction your story or essay is going and hints at how it might unfold–but make sure you get where you intend to go. A family flying to Disney World for winter break might be disappointed if they ended up in Newfoundland–be as clear and concise–and specifically focused–as you can be. Don’t try to “sound smart” and promise anything that you don’t intend to deliver.
Let your thesis (stated as the last line of the opening paragraph) be as narrow and specific as what you intend to write about. Always go back to your thesis when your writing piece is finished and be sure it is clear, concise, memorable and compelling and captures what you wrote about in your body paragraphs.
#1: Set the Scene, and State the Theme
Set the Scene, and State the Theme
This can be an actual physical happening or even a scene from a piece of literature. Paint a vivid and compelling picture of that scene; attach a few pithy and interesting thoughts then end the paragraph by stating your theme.” The thesis can be either a statement or a question that needs to be answered. Here is an example by a noted author speaking without the “I” in his voice. Be sure to include plenty of images and actions and be sure the scene includes the who, what, when, where, and why details your reader needs to read.
Every day at 10:30 AM it’s the same: Kids dressed in pressed pants and Abercrombie shirts whip lacrosse balls at a shell shocked youngster in front of an oversized net. Their language would make a sailor blush. The smallest kid out there raises his middle finger behind the back of the large and lurking “upper schooler”–the obvious bully. Far off to the side two teachers are lost in conversation, oblivious to the teasing, taunting and mayhem going on in front of them. All of this is happening at one of the most prestigious prep schools in the country. It has to make you ask: who are these schools hiring, and are they qualified to teach our most precious resource–the children of America?
[The setting of the scene is in normal font. The stating of theme is bold.]
This is a great technique because it works so well. It piques the reader’s curiosity to hear more of the story–and it gives a hint that some greater moral will be explored!
But there are other equally compelling ways to begin your essay…
#2: The World of Imagination...
Allow Your Reader to Enter
the World of Your Imagination.
Take your on a journey through your thought process and subtly invite them to join you on this journey. In this type of writing, you need to include the “I” in your voice because you are asking your reader to join you–you in all your glory and decadence. Here is how Thoreau invites his readers to speculate on buying a farm. It is certainly not easy reading. Thoreau had no interest in writing to a lazy audience; he challenges us intellectually, socially, politically and philosophically. As a willing reader we know and respect that there is more than ever meets the eye on his writings:
AT A CERTAIN season of our life we are accustomed to consider every spot as the possible site of a house. I have thus surveyed the country on every side within a dozen miles of where I live. In imagination I have bought all the farms in succession, for all were to be bought, and I knew their price. I walked over each farmer’s premises, tasted his wild apples, discoursed on husbandry with him, took his farm at his price, at any price, mortgaging it to him in my mind; even put a higher price on it–took everything but a deed of it–took his word for his deed, for I dearly love to talk–cultivated it, and him too to some extent, I trust, and withdrew when I had enjoyed it long enough, leaving him to carry it on. This experience entitled me to be regarded as a sort of real-estate broker by my friends. Wherever I sat, there I might live, and the landscape radiated from me accordingly. What is a house but a sedes, a seat?–better if a country seat. I discovered many a site for a house not likely to be soon improved, which some might have thought too far from the village, but to my eyes the village was too far from it. Well, there I might live, I said; and there I did live, for an hour, a summer and a winter life; saw how I could let the years run off, buffet the winter through, and see the spring come in. The future inhabitants of this region, wherever they may place their houses, may be sure that they have been anticipated. An afternoon sufficed to lay out the land into orchard, wood-lot, and pasture, and to decide what fine oaks or pines should be left to stand before the door, and whence each blasted tree could be seen to the best advantage; and then I let it lie, fallow, perchance, for a man is rich in proportion to the number of things which he can afford to let alone.”
~Henry David Thoreau, Walden: “Where I Lived, and What I lived For”
[The setting of the scene is in normal font. The stating of theme is bold.]
This opening paragraph takes us all over the place–but ultimately it states a clear and concise theme that Thoreau then goes on to develop in a detailed way through the rest of this chapter (which is an essay!) of Walden.
Thoreau’s good buddy, Ralph Waldo Emerson, takes this technique a new level in technique #3…
#3: The Intellectual's Journey
Engage Your Reader
in an Intellectual Journey
If you are excited by the possibilities of your essay, the odds are there are readers out there who will be excited as well. In this approach, which is best suited to a lengthy and complex essay, use a series of questions or statements or speculations that make your reader want to answer, question, or ponder them with you. In the opening below, we see Ralph Waldo Emerson (another Concord writer!) introducing his legendary essay, “Self Reliance” in which Emerson invites us into his intellectual world—first by the selected quote and then by letting us in on his philosophical explorations of what it means to be a true and original thinker and why it is important to be “self-reliant.”
“Ne te quaesiveris extra.”
“Man is his own star; and the soul that can
Render an honest and a perfect man
Commands all light, all influence, all fate;
Nothing to him falls early or too late.
Our acts our angels are, or good or ill,
Our fatal shadows that walk by us still.”
Epilogue to Beaumont and Fletcher’s Honest Man’s Fortune
Cast the bantling on the rocks,
Suckle him with the she-wolf’s teat,
Wintered with the hawk and fox,
Power and speed be hands and feet.
ESSAY II Self-Reliance
I read the other day some verses written by an eminent painter which were original and not conventional. The soul always hears an admonition in such lines, let the subject be what it may. The sentiment they instill is of more value than any thought they may contain. To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men, that is genius. Speak your latent conviction, and it shall be the universal sense; for the inmost in due time becomes the outmost, and our first thought is rendered back to us by the trumpets of the Last Judgment. Familiar as the voice of the mind is to each, the highest merit we ascribe to Moses, Plato, and Milton is, that they set at naught books and traditions, and spoke not what men but what they thought. A man should learn to detect and watch that gleam of light which flashes across his mind from within, more than the lustre of the firmament of bards and sages. Yet he dismisses without notice his thought, because it is his. In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts: they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty. Great works of art have no more affecting lesson for us than this. They teach us to abide by our spontaneous impression with good-humored inflexibility then most when the whole cry of voices is on the other side. Else, to-morrow a stranger will say with masterly good sense precisely what we have thought and felt all the time, and we shall be forced to take with shame our own opinion from another.
~Ralph Waldo Emerson
[The setting of the scene is in normal font. The stating of theme is bold.]
Notice in this opening that almost the entire opening paragraph is a stating of the theme. Emerson is writing to a pretty narrow audience–namely readers who are unafraid to tackle a complex and dynamic theme in a lengthy and erudite essay. There is a lot that Emerson introduces us to in this paragraph; likewise, the essay that follows is many pages long, but well worth the journey!
In the end, if your open works for your intended audience, it is a good open. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.
But essays are no longer the exclusive domain of words etched onto a page. The video essay introduces a whole new ball game into the essay world!
#4: Engage & Redirect...
Engage & Redirect:
Adding an Ironic Twist
This technique is a way to trick your reader into following an essay in a direction that is not obvious (and may seem contrary–hence, ironic–to the original direction of the essay. It works because it engages and interests your reader in what is ultimately only a sub-plot to a greater theme or thesis. This technique often takes up a significant part of the essay before there is a dramatic shift in the tone, content and direction of the essay.
John Breslan, a fantastic creator of video essays, accomplishes this with great effect in his essay “The Seinfeld Analog”
Check it out! It’s pretty amazing…
#5: The Power of Reflection...
The Power of Reflection
I’ll admit that most of my own essays openings fall into this category, probably because most of my essays are born in my journal entries, which are often simple musings that somehow start with my rambling on about some something or other in an honest and reflective way, but which evolve and narrow down into some sort of narrow theme. It usually takes several paragraphs before any succinct and unified theme–or as is usually the case– a number of themes are developed.
Wendell Berry, a noted poet, novelist, and prolific essayist illustrates this technique in the opening of his essay “FEMINISM, THE BODY, AND THE MACHINE”.
Some time ago Harper’s reprinted a short essay of mine in which I gave some of my reasons for refusing to buy a computer. Until that time, the vast numbers of people who disagree with my writings had mostly ignored them. An unusual number of people, however, neglected to ignore my insensitivity to the wonders of computer enhancement. Some of us, it seems, would be better off if we would just realize that this is already the best of all possible worlds, and is going to get even better if we will just buy the right equipment.
Harper’s published only five of the letters the editors received in response to my essay, and they published only negative letters. But of the twenty letters received by the Harper’s editors, who forwarded copies to me, three were favorable. This I look upon as extremely gratifying. If these letters may be taken as a fair sample, then one in seven of Harper’s readers agreed with me. If I had guessed beforehand, I would have guessed that my supporters would have been fewer than one in a thousand. And so I suppose, after further reflection, that my surprise at the intensity of the attacks on me is mistaken. There are more of us than I thought. Maybe there is even a “significant number” of us.
Only one of the negative letters seemed to me to have much intelligence in it. That one was from R. N. Neff of Arlington, Virginia, who scored a direct hit: “Not to be obtuse, but being willing to bare my illiterate soul for all to see, is there indeed a ‘work demonstrably better than Dante’s’. . .which was written on a Royal standard typewriter?” I like this retort so well that I am tempted to count it a favorable response, raising the total to four. The rest of the negative replies, like the five published ones, were more feeling than intelligent. Some of them, indeed, might be fairly described as exclamatory.
One of the letter writers described me as “a fool” and “doubly a fool,” but fortunately misspelled my name, leaving me a speck of hope that I am not the “Wendell Barry” he was talking about. Two others accused me of self-righteousness, by which they seem to have meant that they think they are righter than I think I am. And another accused me of being more concerned about my own moral purity than with “any ecological effect,” thereby making the sort of razor- sharp philosophical distinction that could cause a person to be elected president.
But most of my attackers deal in feelings either feminist or technological, or both. The feelings expressed seem to be representative of what the state of public feeling currently permits to be felt, and of what public rhetoric currently permits to be said. The feelings, that is, are similar enough, from one letter to another, to be thought representative, and as representative letters they have an interest greater than the quarrel that occasioned them.
In the essay that follows Berry’s opening reflection is an erudite examination of marriage, households and the inherent fallacies of of political or personal dogma superseding and informing critiques of lifestyle choices. It covers a lot of ground, but the good reader is ready and willing to join in, agree or disagree–but to relish the challenge of being intellectually challenged and to encourage reflective thought from the reader.
Getting a Laugh While Making a Point
Years ago I dutifully followed my friend, eponymously named “The Rogue,” to an endless series of comic showcases in Boston where he was creating, testing, and polishing his craft in front of crowds in any venue that would listen to him. He plied his trade with the intent focus of a craftsman who somehow had to make his monologues of wit and wisdom resonate immediately with an always critical and rowdy audience. He didn’t have the luxury of a mere writer who (like me) could winnow his words in his own time at his own pace in obscure publications. His trade (and livelihood) required his audience to laugh–the hardest skill in any repertoire–right then and there in the moment. More than any writer I know he worked doggedly to craft and reshape his words to achieve not only laughs but a deeper understanding of the intersection of the universal and parochial themes of life in a way that a wildly diverse audience could appreciate in the moment and, hopefully, in a deeper and more profound way.
We are “all” born to laugh, and we need to laugh–and laugh heartily! Knowing and discerning how to achieve those laughs is an ace in the hole for any good writer, for it breeds a respect for wisdom, and it engenders and perpetuates a bond with an audience who somehow feels intimately connected with the words and the ways those words are shaped and presented in a performance–and an essay is and always will be a performance of some kind!
When writing a humorous essay, the opening is the essay: no reader will labor through a mediocre opening in hopes that it will get funny at some point later on. To be effective, a humorous essay needs to know its audience and its leanings, but like any essay it needs to develop and deliver in both tone and content a unified theme in a funny way.
I am not by inclination a humorous writer, but I am by nature a humorous person. Much of my life is spent on stage performing as a folksinger. By hook and crook I’ve learned that winning over a crowd with some laughs is often is critical to the success of what I vainly consider my best work.
This short essay of mine was my attempt to inspire my students to rethink and retool the drudgery of writing a 500 word required essay explicating themes in The Odyssey. For the small and narrow audience I wrote it for, it worked! It got across its main point–that essay writing can be a mind-numbing and confusing process, but it can also be fun….
Why am I the poor smuck saddled with a teacher who insists on finding meaning and metaphor in everything we read? Like The Odyssey: I mean, the book is full of random everythings. Like, just when Odysseus starts to figure something out (and I have a half a clue what is going on) he breaks of into some wild story with a hundred new characters. “Oh,” says my teacher, “that is a literary technique used to build the scope and sweep of the poem. It is the hallmark of an epic literary work.” If that is the case, then I have a crazy old uncle—a guy who never knows when to stop talking—who is probably a direct descendant of Homer. Yeah, from now on I’ll call him “Uncle Epic.” The only reason I half like the book is because I actually believe that I’m supposed to like it—or at least appreciate it.
I can’t imagine that every English teacher for the last 1500 years or so is wrong. Maybe they’ve all been hypnotized by the Siren’s song of conformity. I liked that part of the book: Odysseus getting his crew to lash him to the mast so he could hear the Siren’s song, but still not do something stupid like get lured away by Siren herself. “Stairway to Heaven” probably had that effect in the 70’s when it first came out. Jeez, I’m as bad as Homer. Listen to me getting off track—and I shouldn’t get off track because this foolish essay is only one of six assignments over the weekend.
Ohmygod…there was that six headed monster in the book, too. So life does imitate art. I’ll keep repeating to myself: “It’s only an epic; it’s only an epic; it’s only an epic;…” And if I don’t do my homework, then I’ll probably have to work in the yard. Oh no! That’s simply a metaphor for the whirlpool that almost sucked in Odysseus’ ship, How does a kid find his way in life? Monsters on the right, whirlpools on the left; so many Gods plotting how to make every day miserable. My teachers think they’re Gods sometimes.
Or at least they act like Gods.
Oh, for one bright-eyed Athena of a teacher to understand…
God, I’m probably going to fail this essay because I’m using the “I” in my “voice!” Not to worry. I’ll just rant and rage and think and write, THEN I’ll go back and change everything to the third person—you know, the guy we never really get to meet. Really, it’s like going on a date with a mannequin.
Somewhere in here is my thesis statement. I hope my teacher finds it. I hope I find it. I wonder if I just write what I know he wants to hear if he’ll go easy on me. It works you know; I tried it once. [Actually, I just looked and I couldn’t find my thesis statement. But, if he read this far and hasn’t flunked me then maybe he’ll read more. That would be kind of fun: Write something that keeps looking like it’s leading somewhere wicked profound and then say “April Fools” at the end.]
I wonder if my teacher would find meaning and metaphor in that?
I love these short paragraphs. I’m already well over the minimum of five paragraphs. I really wonder who the first teacher was who ever coined the term “Five Paragraph Essay;” There’s probably a statue somewhere. Ha, and the statue is holding a copy of The Odyssey in one hand and a gradebook in the other. LOL:) (Sorry, I thought I was texting…)
O.K. time to start writing: The Odyssey survives not because of what it is, but because of who it is. Figure that out for yourself my dear teacher—my teacher, who at this very moment is leaving to visit the New Bedford Whaling Museum for a day of “much needed” rest and relaxation, while we slave like oarsmen in a tempest over his stupid assignment.
New Bedford Whaling Museum! If he comes to class on Monday and even mentions Moby Dick, I’ll quit school. I swear I will. I really don’t need him. I can make my own journey through life—and all because I read The Odyssey in 8th grade English class.
Where was I? This has got to be at least 500 words!
#7: State the facts...
State the Facts
#8: Pose a Series of Questions...
Pose a Series of Questions
#8: Compare & Contrast...
Compare & Contrast
#10: Make a Bold Statement...
Compare & Contrast
How do I know what I think until I see what I say?
Men do what is called a good action, as some piece of courage or charity, much as they would pay a fine in expiation of daily non-appearance on parade. Their works are done as an apology or extenuation of their living in the world. I do not wish to expiate, but to live. My life is not an apology, but a life.
~Ralph Waldo Emerson, Self-Reliance
The drama of the essay is the way the public life intersects with my personal and private life. It’s in that intersection that I find the energy of the essay.
I undertake the same project as Montaigne, but with an aim contrary to his own: for he wrote his Essays only for others, and I write my reveries only for myself.
You have to make choices even when there is nothing to choose from.
~Péter Zilahy, Drei
Some more cool tips & tricks to help you write well…
Fitz's Quick Essay Formula
Fitz’s Reflection Formula
Set the scene and state the theme.
Say what you mean, and finish it clean!
One of the hardest parts of writing is finding a way to make sense of what you want to say, explain, or convey to your readers–especially when facing an empty page with a half an hour to kill and an entry to write (or a timed essay or exam writing prompt). Here is a quick formula that might help you when you need to create a writing piece “on the fly.” At the very least, it should guide you as your write in your blog, and at the very least, it will reinforce that any essay or reflection needs to be at least three paragraphs long! I’ve always told my students (who are probably tired of hearing me recite the same things over and over again): “If you know the rules, you can break them.” But you’d better be a pretty solid writer before you start creating your own rules. The bottom line is that nobody really cares about what you write; they care about how your writing affects and transforms them intellectually and emotionally as individuals. If a reader does not sense early on that your writing piece is worth reading, they won’t read it, unless they have to (like your teachers), or they are willing to (because they are your friend). Do them all a favor and follow these guidelines and everyone will be happy and rewarded. Set the scene; state the theme; say what you mean, and finish it clean is a simple rubric for writing to keep in your head as you reflect upon life and express your thoughts with written or spoken words.
- Set the Scene and State the Theme: Use your first paragraph to lead up to your theme. If the lead in to your essay is dull and uninspired, you will lose your readers before they get to the theme. If you simply state your theme right off the bat, you will only attract the readers who are “already” interested in your topic. Your theme is the main point, idea, thought, or experience you want your writing piece to convey to your audience. (Often it is called a “Thesis Statement.) I suggest making your theme be the last sentence of your opening paragraph because it makes sense to put it there, and so it will guide your reader in a clear and, hopefully, compelling way. In fact, constantly remind yourself to make your theme be clear, concise and memorable. Consciously or unconsciously, your readers constantly refer back to your theme as mnemonic guide for “why” you are writing your essay in the first place! Every writing piece is a journey of discovery, but do everything you possibly can to make the journey worthwhile from the start.2. Say What You Mean: Write about your theme. Use as many paragraphs as you “need.” A paragraph should be as short as it can be and as long as it has to be. Make the first sentence(s) “be” what the whole paragraph is going to be about. Try and make those sentences be clear, concise and memorable (just like your theme) and make sure everything relates closely to the theme you wrote as the final line in your first paragraph. If your paragraph does not relate to your theme, it would be like opening up the directions for a fire extinguisher and finding directions for baking chocolate chip cookies instead! And finally, do your best to balance the size of your body paragraphs. If they are out of proportion to each other, then an astute reader will make the assumption that some of your points are way better than your other points, and so the seed of cynicism will be sown before your reader even begins the journey.3. Finish It Clean: Conclusions need to be as simple as possible. In conversations only boring or self important people drag out the end of a conversation. When you are finished saying what you wanted to say, exit confidently and cleanly. DON”T add any new information into the last paragraph; DON’T retell what you’ve already told, and DON’T preen before the mirror of your brilliance. Just “get out of Dodge” in an interesting and thoughtful (and quick) way. Use three sentences or less. It shows your audience that you appreciate their intelligence and literacy!
How To Write an Essay Conclusion
How to Write an Essay Conclusion
Cool Tricks for a Better Exit Strategy
You are talking to a man who has laughed in the face of death,
sneered at doom, and chuckled at catastrophe.
(The Wizard in The Wizard of Oz, 1939)
I wish I had a dollar for every time I had to shout at my kids, “Shut the door when you leave!”but usually they just give the door a lazy push that never really closes the door, and so they are halfway to the neighbors yard, and the open door is sucking the precious heat out of the house or letting in all sorts of nefarious insects, and I am all in a furious tizzy about my lazy, good for nothing children. Bad conclusions are kind of like that. They leave your reader feeling cheated and neglected—and sometimes just furious!
But slamming the door too hard is just as bad. So what is an aspiring writer to do?
You take the time to close the door carefully and say a few “thoughtful” words before you leave.
So it is with any writing piece. Good writing is as much a craft as it is an art, so here is one cool way to craft a conclusion to your essay.
- Restate the tone, mood, and direction of your essay while trying to include the added insights of your head and heart into a conclusion that is pithy (meaning clear and concise) and interesting (meaning you don’t simply regurgitate what you have already said) and confident (meaning your tone is direct, assured, and imbued with a sense of finality). To do this we have to learn about a few new writing techniques.
Tri-colon+Parallel Structure+Haiku Sentence= Great Conclusion.
The Tricolon: For some weird and mystic reason, we humans love to hear and read words, phrases, and clauses in groupings of three. (See the Wizard of Oz quote at the top of the page, or simply read my last paragraph–which I think is entertaining, enlightening, and edifying:) The tricolon is one example of what is termed parallelism or parallel structure.
Parallelism: In simple terms, parallel structure is the repetition of a word, phrase, or clause in a series of thoughts. And for the same mystic reason, we also love it when a writer or speaker uses parallel structure or parallelism when trying to create a more powerful effect in a writing piece or speech.
- Parallelism of words:
- I always try to make Fitz’s Famous Fat Flapjacks thick, fluffy, and tasty. [The three adjectives are the same part of speech.]
2. Parallelism of phrases:
- Writing and singing is as fun as listening and grooving. [Here I use two similar gerund (verbs that work as nouns) phrases.]
3. Parallelism of clauses:
- I like scallops; I like shrimp; I like trout; but I love lobster. [The four clauses all follow the same basic pattern.]
Here is a “semi” rubric to help you write a clear, concise, and powerful conclusion using tricolons, parallel structure, and a cool as all get out conclusion:
Use a tri-colon sentence to start your conclusion; add a bit of parallel structure to restate your themes, and then finish finish with a sentence that has haiku like brevity and beauty. It is perfectly acceptable to use the “I” voice if it feels like a better choice for you.
- The Tricolon Compound Sentence: Create a sentence with three “clauses.” Use a semi-colon after the first clause followed by a comma and conjunction before the last clause. This type of sentence is awesome because it allows you to express three related ideas in one sentence—one for each theme of your body paragraphs.
- e.g. The first four books of The Odyssey gives us a glimpse into the life and times of the ancient Greeks; [semi-colon] they give us a lesson in the values and customs during the time of The Odyssey, and [conjunction] and they give us a story told through stories.
- Parallel Structure: Create three or four four sentences (or clauses) that begin with the same type of phrase and which briefly captures the importance of each of the themes you wrote about in your body paragraphs. It should reflect your stating of the theme, but you don’t want to repeat word for word what you already wrote in your opening paragraph when you “stated the theme.”
- e.g. Book I introduces us to….Book II explores the…, while Book III shows…. Finally, Book IV describes the importance of…
- Haiku Sentence: Remember that the term “haiku” means “insightful fun” in the Japanese language, so this sentence needs to try and reflect the totality of your essay with a brief and final burst of insightful fun.
- e.g. If there is anything to learn from these four books, it is true, as Herman Melville once said, that “A mighty book requires mighty themes,” and The Odyssey, so far, is one exciting, memorable, and mighty story! [I added one more tricolon for effect:)]
This is how the conclusion looks when the separate parts are combined:
The first four books of The Odyssey give us a glimpse into the life and times of the ancient Greeks; [semi-colon] it gives us a lesson in the values and customs during the time of The Odyssey, and [conjunction] it gives us a story told through stories. Book I introduces us to….Book II explores the…, while Book III shows…. Finally,[transition word] Book IV describes the importance of… If there is anything to learn from these four books, it is, as Herman Melville once said, “A mighty book requires mighty themes,” and The Odyssey, so far, is one exciting, memorable, and mighty story! [I added one more tricolon for effect:)]
How To Tell a Good Story
How to Tell a Good Story
“Call me Ishmael”
~Herman Melville, Moby Dick
We are born to tell and listen to stories of all kinds, but the most popular and pervasive of these is the narrative story—a story which retells an experience you have had. Every time someone asks you: “how was school? how was your trip? did you catch anything? what do you like about him? “was it a good game”? … and you answer with more than a grunted single-word response, you are telling a narrative story and YOU are the narrator. The only difference between a narrative story and a fictional story is how much you can play with the truth. The art of the story is the same.
Of course, some people tell better stories than other people, but why? The answer is probably because they tell more stories or they read more stories. They are not satisfied with the single grunt because they love and want to recreate the moment as vividly and compellingly as possible, and by the process of elimination and addition they have figured out how to tell a good story. Good storytellers know what goes into a good story, and, just as important, they know what to leave out. They know that a good story, well told, brings great satisfaction to them as the tellers and writers and to their audience as listeners and readers.
Truth be told, if you can’t tell a good story, it will be hard to get people to listen to you when you really want and need them to listen to you, like when you want to get into a certain school, or you want a certain job, or you are meeting new friends, or you are asking someone on a date, or you desperately need to get through that border crossing…really, anytime you are in a position where someone or somebodies want to hear your story, you need to be able to produce—and to produce, you need to practice.
Kind of like I am doing now.
Thankfully, you probably are already a good storyteller, at least in your head. The harder job is to get your mouth to say it like you think it or your hand to write it like you think it—it being the story. Sometimes this means you have to ignore what your teachers may have taught you about writing, for a good story needs to sing and flow with the unique rhythms of your natural way of speaking, which is rarely what a teacher is looking for in your essay. Imagine if your speaking was graded as harshly as your writing pieces? You would barely get out three sentences without being stopped dead in your tracks! Your mouth would be covered in so many red x’s that you probably would never speak again–and that would be the end of good stories. At least from you. (Even now, my grammar checker is underlining way too many phrases and words–even whole sentences–with green scribbly lines asking me to reconsider how I am writing. I just ignore them. For now.)
The irony for you as a writer is that to recreate your inner voice into a story your readers enjoy reading, you have to write deliberately and carefully to be sure that it sounds and “feels” like you, and that (at least for me) takes a good deal of editing and revising and reading aloud–something most of us know how to do. We just don’t do it enough. But if you do, and if you like what you have created: man oh man, what a great feeling!
Hopefully, I have written well enough that you are still with me, and if you are still with me, and if you want to be a better writer and teller of stories, you will “listen” just a bit longer. As Maria sings in “The Sound of Music” when teaching her gaggle of children: “Let’s start at the beginning/ It’s a very good place to start/ When we sing we begin with do, rei, me…”
Rule #1: Get your reader’s attention!
- Your opening line is like the opening whistle in a soccer game, the first pitch in a baseball game, or the kickoff in a football game. It creates excitement and anticipation. No one knows what exactly is coming, but it certainly keeps us in our seats to see what is coming.
- Your opening line (or sometimes even just a word!) should be an expression of your passion for the story you are about to tell. As Robert Frost once said: “If there are no tears for the writer, there are no tears for the reader.” So open with a line that gets you as excited as your reader.
- I enjoy fishing. [NO NO NO: Nobody cares about you!]
- It was a day that every fisherman lives for. [YES YES YES: Every fisherman that has ever fished (or wishes to fish) lives for that day!]
- Sally is a good friend of mine. [Nooooo….]
- A good friend stands by you come hell or high water. [Yessssss! Everybody (especially your readers) wants a friend like that.]
Rule #2: Paint visually rich scenes.
- Your readers need to see and think and feel the way you see and think and feel. They are not in your head, so you need to put them in your head using images and actions, which are created using nouns and verbs, not vague thoughts. Brain studies have proven that when a brain is presented by words representing images and actions, the part of the brain that commands motion is prompted into action. This is a great time to use similes and metaphors to help make your words feel alive and real ad make your reader feel the motions of your narrative.
- The weather was lousy. [NO NO NO: What do you even mean by lousy weather?]
- The clouds cracked open and dropped unending sheets of pelting rain that scattered the screaming children like startled blackbirds from a muddy field. [YES YES YES: Your readers brain is now saying, “Run, run for cover!” and they are now a part of your story, not just a passive onlooker.]
- The game was really long. [Noooooo: what do you mean by long? Everybody has a different idea of what long means.]
- The game dragged on like a dull movie until even the referee was snoring. [Yessss….Now we know what you mean by loooong.]
Rule #3: Weave your thoughts into the story
- Tie your thoughts directly to the images and actions of your story. No one really likes to hear or read a story that is just a bunch of one person’s thoughts. Once your readers are engaged in your story, they will relish your thoughts about what is happening, and, if done well, these thoughts will spark their own thoughts, and not only will they be reliving your story, they will be creating a story of their own; they will wonder what they would think and feel and do in that same situation. The story then becomes their wondrous story, too—not just your story.
- The weather was lousy. I wish I wasn’t there. [NO NO NO: Stating the obvious is not stating much at all. And, oh yeah, nobody cares about you–unless you make them care through the miracle work of words strung like emeralds in the sky.
- The clouds cracked open and dropped unending sheets of pelting rain that scattered the screaming children like startled blackbirds from a muddy field. I could almost hear them thinking “Why did I ever come to this godforsaken place!” In the chaos of the mad cloudburst we must all have been experiencing the same nightmare of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, but at least we were all in it together [YES YES YES: This is not just sorry old you in a rainstorm; it is everybody who has ever been caught in the wrong place at the wrong time—and a universal and vexing conundrum.]
Rule #4: The End is a new beginning
- Your story may seem to end with the last line, but for your readers, the end is a new beginning full of the thinking and pondering and satisfaction that is evoked from a story well-told. No reader wants to hear or read, “That’s it. It’s over. Move on.” We don’t need to be reminded with some pithy summary that your story is over because we know it’s over. If we are reading your story, we can see it ending; if we are listening to your story, we will hear your story drawing to its close. This is not the time to point in the casket and say, “He’s dead,” as if it is a revelation we need to hear. It is a time, however, to more carefully and precisely craft your words into a final gift to your audience—like a parent, friend, or lover pressing a handful of gems into your palm before you leave on a journey and saying, “Here, take these; use them as you need them!” Your final words should read more like poetry than prose—a final reward of the best your head can create because the story is no longer yours: it is ours.
- Not… “Sooo, that’s Johnny Fitz’s story about catching a big fish.”
- But, like Norman Maclean in the closing of A River Runs through It:” I am haunted by waters.”
- Not… “This was an experience no one should have to go through.”
- But like Joseph Conrad in the last phrases of The Heart of Darkness: “The Horror, the horror.”
- Not… “It is important that all of us live and think differently.”
- But like Henry David Thoreau in the last words of Walden: “The sun is but a morning star.”
Every story is ultimately given away. It ends when you abandon it to your audience, and it then becomes a new experience—a new beginning—for your audience, and it is these final words they will mince and chew on through eternity, and so they should be crafted with care; however, remember that you have already given your audience the meat and bones of your story, so you do not need to feed them again with any kind of bland and boring summary.
When I finish reading or listening to a really good story, I get an urge to sit down and think for a really, really long time.
The better the story, the longer I think.
Henry David Thoreau
Write often, write upon a thousand themes, rather than long at a time, not trying to turn too many feeble somersets in the air–and so come down upon your head at last. Antaeus-like, be not long absent from the ground. Those sentences are good and well discharged which are like so many little resiliencies from the spring floor of our life–a distinct fruit and kernel itself, springing from terra firma. Let there be as many distinct plants as the soil and the light can sustain. Take as many bounds in a day as possible. Sentences uttered with your back to the wall. Those are the admirable bounds when the performer has lately touched the spring board.
(November 12, 1851)