Make the Opening to Your Memoir A Must-Read: Part 2 of 2

Guest post by Linda K. Thomas. 

Originally posted January 17, 2019, on her blog, Spiritual Memoirs 101. Used by permission.

If you don't get this right, you'll lose readers.
Linda K. Thomas

After dismantling your scaffolding, it’s time to design a catchy opening for your memoir.

(You did remove your scaffolding, didn’t you? If not, you should! “Don’t think the reader will be patient with you until you can get around to the actual story,” writes Matilda Butler. If you need to brush up on what scaffolding is, click on Whether you’re building a castle or a memoir, the scaffolding must come down.)

Today we’re talking about leads, a term I use because of my journalism background. Sometimes the lead is called a narrative hook, or simply a hook.

The lead is the first thing people read. It catches their attention. You hook readers by making them curious and drawing them in. A well-crafted beginning motivates people to (1) buy your book and (2) read it all the way to the end.

A captivating lead is a crucial component in newspaper and magazine articles.

It is a must for blog posts, sermons, talks, and devotionals.

A top-notch lead is vital for a memoir (and for each chapter as well).

Think for a minute about your memoir. When people consider buying it, they’ll check out your opening.

Does That Make You a Little Nervous?
If so, get used to it: Readers will compare your beginning to those of other writers.

After all, when you browse the shelves looking for a good book before you purchase it, you open it and read the beginning, right?

Before you order a book from Amazon, you click on the “Look Inside” feature to see how it begins, right?

And if the opening doesn’t grab you, you don’t buy it, right?

It makes sense, then, that when people consider spending money on your memoir, they’ll check out how it starts. That’s why you need to craft a humdinger of a beginning.

So, let’s look at openings. But first, a word of clarification: Writing a memoir is not the same as writing a paper in Composition 101 in college.

Do you remember Comp 101?

If not, here’s a reminder of what your professor drilled into you:

Paragraph One is your introduction—a few sentences familiarizing readers with your topic. Here’s an example of a topic: How you decided to work as a nanny in Scotland.

In English Comp format, you follow the intro with the main body: Paragraphs Two, Three, and Four, each explaining one step in your decision-making process.

Then in Paragraph Five, you write your ending, your conclusion—you more or less rephrase your introduction.

Forget English Comp
But in writing your memoir, do away with the English Comp 101 format. Instead, begin by intriguing readers with your lead, your hook.

Today we’ll look at two types of leads—and in coming days we’ll study even more kinds—so be sure to come back!

The Quote Lead: Use a quote, poem, or proverb to make people curious about your story.

For example, you might use this Martin Luther King, Jr., quote: “There comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but he must take it because conscience tells him it is right.”

Here’s another example of a quote lead, this one by Elisabeth Elliot: “When you’re in a dark place, you sometimes tend to think you’ve been buried. Perhaps you’ve been planted. Bloom.”

The Scene-setting Lead: Describe your story’s setting so your reader feels she’s standing beside you, hearing, seeing, tasting, feeling, and/or smelling the place or event.

For example: “Suited up in a knee-length tuxedo jacket, 15-year-old Nathan Heintz bowed slightly to the seated girl, held out a corsage and asked, ‘May I have the next dance?’ With a fur stole flung across her shoulders and legs daintily crossed at the ankles, Lindsey Ingalls, 16, smiled and nodded her acceptance. It was enough to make Miss Manners blush with pride.

“With a rustle of gowns, tugging of gloves and twitters of laughter, dozens of teens and pre-teens gathered Thursday night for a winter ball. . . .” (by Hope Brumbach in The Spokesman-Review, January 13, 2007).

Your job is to write a strong first sentence. And powerful first paragraphs. And a brawny first chapter. Otherwise, you’ll lose readers.

Photo courtesy Linda K. Thomas.

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