When you buy a novel, you’re paying for a story. That’s why storytellers drop readers into the deep end. Never keep a customer waiting.
Nonfiction isn’t much different. Readers buy books to reap benefits — whether it’s to be entertained, learn how to pray, or understand another culture. They want to go somewhere, and your introduction is the entrance ramp to that highway.
The next time you’re ready to write an intro, consider these five guidelines:
1. Create thirst, don’t slake it.
Feed them pretzels and point to the water.
“My fear of conflict was so severe it made me physically sick when conversations turned testy. Then, I watched a woman on the subway calm an angry young man in less than a minute. Her approach has changed so many of my relationships I’m eager to share it with you.”
2. Offer samples.
Delight your readers up front with a few surprises and they’ll want more.
“The journey back from despair, from crippling stress and exhaustion, often begins where you least expect. For me it began with a difficult decision. I decided to get up an hour earlier. Not to get a jump on the day — I’d been doing that for years. This decision went deeper. Let me tell you about it.”
3. Keep it timeless.
If you’re rushing a book to market on an explosive event, go for the moment. But if your theme is timeless (e.g., prayer), resist the urge to anchor it in today’s news. Todays news is tomorrow’s old newspapers. Rather, elevate our thinking. Bring transcendence.
“The community at First Church kept everyone guessing. They never fell victim to popular culture. Quite the opposite — they redeemed it, with grace and winsomeness. This first-person account tells how they did it.”
4. Skip the obvious, and never condescend.
Even if we’re unhappy with the way things are, we don’t need to be told we’re unhappy. It’s obvious. Take us beyond. Walk us through the woods and reveal the scenic vista. And never assume a handwringing reader. Even concerned readers are seldom quaking in their boots. More often they’re exploring what others have to say. Always write to a reader more intelligent than yourself. That person wants to know what you think.
5. Make it personal without making it all about you (unless your book is about you!).
Readers welcome a companion. Especially one who shares colorful or valuable experience. But they seldom tolerate egotism. Intros that are all about the author leave no room for the reader. Unless . . . your story is what they paid to read. David Ogilvy’s Confessions of an Advertising Man begins with eleven paragraphs about himself. Here is one of them:
“My boyhood hero had been Lloyd George, and I had expected to become Prime Minister when I grew up. Instead, I became an advertising agent on Madison Avenue; the revenues of my nineteen clients are now greater than the revenue of Her Majesty’s Government.”
I stayed with him through all eleven paragraphs — and the eleven chapters that followed.
This isn’t a comprehensive list, but a nudge toward effective first impressions. Jerry Jenkins recently blogged about first lines. They’re worth every hour it takes to craft them. So are intros. Entice, amaze, whet, and compel. Guarantee a hearing. You’re making new friends, and you want them to stick around.