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1)establish the scene
2) introduce the main character
3)let readers know what the character wants or needs - what the character will be reaching and struggling for that determines the action and direction of your story.
If you’re writing non-fiction much the same applies. Your beginning should be as clear, concise and straightforward as possible and it will still have to accomplish the three things that fiction must do:
1) it needs to establish the scene, but in this case instead of creating a fictitious scene your job is to report the scene - to ground readers immediately so they’ll know the who/what/why/when/where of what you’re writing about.
2) non-fiction often has a main character, a protagonist who will be featured in your work. As with fiction, you’ll want to introduce this person early on. That introductory hook you need could well be an image of your protagonist at some dramatic moment. It could be:
a president being sworn in
a prospector discovering a big vein of gold
a scientist receiving the Nobel Prize
a woman giving birth
a man dying
a lost child finding its home
3) such an image is an excellent way to start a story that will be about the protagonist’s long hard struggle to the point of success. There are essentially eight different types of openings for either fiction or non-fiction.
The first of these is the SUGGESTIVE SETTING:
If you’ll be working with a setting that lends itself to a vivid opener, start with a description of it. This will set the tone and mood of your work and give readers an immediate mental picture to get involved with:
It is still dark outside her window. But she has been unable to sleep. Her fear is now a continual inner roar. "I don’t want to die," she thinks. She cannot see the flag outside, drooping in the dark, but she knows it is inscribed, "Central Vermont Medical Center." She knows every detail of the view from her window, every item in her room....
Does this sound like an interesting fictional opening? Guess again. These are the opening lines from "The Quality of Mercy," an article about nurses who practice compassionate medicine. The article appeared in the April 1998 Smithsonian magazine.
Let’s look at what this opening accomplishes:
We are put inside the heart and mind of the woman in the hospital room ~ seeing what she sees and remembering with her what she cannot see in the dark. We are grounded, knowing we are in the Central Vermont Medical Center, and we are intimately aware of her fears. Of course she doesn’t want to die. Now that we’re there with her, we don’t want her to die, and we want to know what this threat to her life is. So we read on, hooked by the somber setting.
This opening has accomplished the three main jobs of an opening:
1) It establishes/reports the scene
2) It introduces the subject character at a dramatic moment, grabbing readers’ interest
3) it informs readers what that character wants -- to live! — which is such a universal longing that we are immediately in empathy with her situation.
This is a wonderfully successful lead-in. Having gotten our minds and emotions into the character’s situation, the article then explains how such thoughts and feelings are dealt with through compassionate medicine.