When you buy a novel, you’re paying for a story. That’s why storytellers drop you right into the action. Never keep a customer waiting.
Nonfiction is different. Readers buy books to reap benefits — whether it’s to learn something or gain expertise. They want to go somewhere, and your introduction is the entrance ramp to their 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.
2. Offer samples.
Delight your readers with a few surprises right up front and they’ll want more.
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. Bring transcendence instead.
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. We know that already. Show us some light. Walk us through the woods and reveal a scenic vista. And don’t assume we’re wringing our hands. 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 about you (unless it’s a memoir!).
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.”
These two sentences — both about the author — so intrigued me I stayed with him through all 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.