The first sentence in any work may well be the most important one. It needs to persuade a potential reader to move forward to the second sentence. This is even true of the beginning of a chapter or major section.
By the same logic, the second sentence needs to lead the reader to the third sentence, and so on. This progression of sentences is referred to as the “lead” (pronounced leed, not lehd !).
So, you might ask, “How long should the lead be?” Several sentences? Several paragraphs? The first chapter or introduction? There’s not really a standard length. Maybe the first sentence, by itself, asks such an intriguing question or makes such a provocative statement that the reader is “hooked” from the get-go. Or maybe the author chooses to slowly and steadily ramp up interest over several pages. The length may also depend on the audience or the form of publication. How much space can the lead actually consume?
In any case, today’s readers are after sound-bites, so you need to quickly tell them why they should continue reading. Always remember the call letters of that radio station—WII FM—What’s In It For Me.
In the show and movie, Gypsy, there’s a song called “You Gotta Have a Gimmick”. In order to attract and hold a reader, your text needs to have a fresh or new idea or twist, a problem or puzzle (that you’ll be solving, maybe), something that’s unexpectedly humorous instead of a dry presentation, etc. In short, a style that makes the reader want to read more.
Keep this going through as much of the work as possible. If you start with a great lead, and then fall into a dull middle, you’ll not only lose the reader to boredom, they’ll be disappointed that you appear to have set them up. So, while you may not be able to keep that initial excitement going throughout the book, you need to build your story or your case.
And finally, the last sentence of every paragraph or section or chapter should be a lure or hint about what’s coming next. It’s a great way to move your audience forward. It’s a great place to ask a leading question, insert a quote or some humor, or throw in an element of surprise.
Knowing when and how to end your work is almost as important as the beginning. It requires you to think about the ending, and not just let your work just tail off like many contemporary songs. This is not the time to let your readers see your writer’s fatigue or boredom, or to allow them to lose interest.
So, don’t let the ending just happen. Make the design intentional, with almost as much “bang” as your opening. That means, first of all, knowing when to stop writing—your points have been made, your facts have been laid out, or your plot has been worked through. It may mean having a “killer” last sentence or paragraph. It may even hint at things unanswered or things to come. Or maybe the ending comes as a complete surprise or twist to the reader. Another good way to end is to refer back to the opening and close the loop.
The traditional wisdom is that every work should have a strong beginning, middle, and ending. With rare exceptions, that’s still a good idea. And while the middle should be used to cover the material between the opening and the ending, those two points are the start of a reader’s journey and the end. Your job, as an author, is to make that journey worthwhile.
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