Hook Your Readers from the Get-Go

by Memoir Mentor on June 1, 2009

lincoln-33I just returned from a week in Illinois, where I attended a conference in Springfield and had the good fortune to visit the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library. It was fabulous. I have been to a number of presidential libraries, but none so beautiful, interesting, and inspiring.  You should all put it on your “Places I Have to Visit before I Die” lists.

This post is not about the library, however, but a book I read on the airplane going and coming. It’s called Hooked, and it was written by Les Edgerton. The subtitle is “write fiction that grabs readers at page one and never lets them go.”  Yes, the book is directed toward fiction writers, but its principles apply equally to memoir writers.

Edgerton discusses the kind of first page and first chapter errors that keep a book from getting published.  Even if you’re not planning on publication, these same errors will keep ANYONE but the most loyal relative from reading beyond the first page.  Here are Edgerton’s bugaboos…

·     Beginning with back-story rather than action or conflict.  Most of the time readers don’t need the back-story, he says.  If there are some details that need to be known to flesh out the story, reveal them later. Most of the time, though, the reader “gets it.” We often don’t give the reader enough credit.
  ·       Beginning with description of character and setting.  Authors could do this a century ago, but as we all know, today’s readers have shorter attention spans. They need to get into the story on page one and don’t have the patience to wade through long descriptions before the real story begins.  
Edgerton says the best opening chapters begin with a problem or conflict that is presented through a scene rather than a description of the problem.  A scene draws readers into the action and lets them watch the conflict unfold. Edgerton says, “Summary doesn’t convince anyone of anything. Your goal is to evoke an emotional response that hooks the reader, and telling absolutely won’t get it. The reader must live through that opening scene right along with the protagonist. This is the only way the reader will really believe it and, more importantly, feel it.”hooked-22

As I say in my book, Breathe Life into Your Life Story, middles and endings make better beginnings. When you’re pondering how to begin your memoir, consider some of the problems you’ve grappled with during your life. They could be ongoing conflicts—addictions, relationships, health, and so on. Maybe you’ve struggled with conflicting attitudes or values. Have you had some long-term goal or mission in your life that you’ve strived to obtain? What challenges have gotten in the way of accomplishing that goal? Once you’ve settled on something, think of one specific incident that illustrates that issue and re-create it as a scene that opens your memoir.

If you’re having trouble coming up with an interesting beginning, don’t stew about it. Just keep writing. Sometimes we don’t understand what our life has been about until AFTER we’ve written our story.  But don’t even THINK about beginning your story with “I was born on….  Meanwhile, buy Edgerton’s book. It will be money well spent because it will expand your vision of how to approach your memoir. I’ve barely scratched the surface here.


{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Les Edgerton June 2, 2009 at 12:36 pm

Sorry I don’t know your name–I looked and couldn’t find it here–but I just wanted to thank you for all the lovely things you had to say about my book “Hooked.” It made my day! It’s a great feeling when a fellow writer not only “gets” what I was trying to do with this book, but reveals that it has helped you with your own writing. We’re the greatest community in the world–writers–and my own efforts would have been miserable without the help of a great many writers who gave me advice and help in their books.

Best of luck with your own writing!

Blue skies,
Les Edgerton

2 carol enos July 20, 2009 at 8:06 am

Hi Dawn,
A good reminder–you’ve told us before. It helped with a project I’m mulling.

Also Frank McCourt’s death reminds us of much, including “If I wasn’t true, it should be.”

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