One of my favorite lessons about writing introductions brings me back to a distinct moment in a cramped airplane seat …
My eyes started to gloss over. Maybe a sip of water would perk me up? Then my mind started reviewing the next day’s to-do list as I fidgeted a bit.
Pause. I couldn’t watch another minute of the laborious movie on the screen in front of me.
It was a 10-hour flight, though, so I had to find something else to do …
Working overtime on writing introductions
I was on my way home from two weeks in Japan and ready to wrap up my trip. Since writing is a daily habit I’ve worked on for 20 years, I don’t like taking too much time away from it.
I had relaxed enough on vacation and just wasn’t in the mood to passively watch something on my return flight. My writer instincts must have sensed I’d be back to work soon, because my brain felt lazy and wanted a challenge.
After pausing the movie, I had this idea next, related to a classic writing introductions tip:
As an exercise, go back to the movie you were watching and see if you paused it at 20-minutes in.
When written well, the first 20 minutes of a script can go by quickly for a viewer. Conversely, a poor introduction can feel more like an hour.
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The 20-minutes-in theory
I know I’m not the first, and I won’t be the last, fickle-flyer movie watcher, so I returned to In Search of Fellini.
Two options flashed on my screen:
- Resume Playing
- Start from the Beginning
I tapped “Resume Playing.”
How much of the movie do you think I watched?
To my delight, I had paused the movie at 20 minutes and 33 seconds.
And it wasn’t because the plot was getting boring at this point — it was actually getting interesting — but the prior 20 minutes of backstory were dull.
So here’s my bold claim:
The first scene should have been the one the writer placed at 20 minutes into the story.
In this case, the first 20 minutes of the movie felt more like an hour.
Why does that sometimes happen when writing introductions?
All talk, no action
After watching 20 minutes of backstory about Lucy, a young adult, and Claire, her mother, I didn’t care about either of them at all.
I wanted to care about them. I wanted to be pulled into the richness of their world. That’s why I turned on the movie in the first place. I was looking for entertainment.
And I would have had a greater chance of caring about them if the film began with Lucy returning to a busy city street to find her vehicle towed from the spot where she had parked.
Then, while at a loss for what to do, a scantily clad, black-bearded man commands her attention and lures her into a Fellini film festival.
That’s the scene 20 minutes into the movie … it happened way too late. For the writer’s characters to hold my attention, I needed to see action immediately. Writing introductions need to transport us to interesting worlds to see unfolding stories in motion.
By the time the action started in In Search of Fellini, the only action I wanted to take was … turn the movie off.
Precise placement of backstory in your writing introductions is a skill
Once I was engaged in Lucy’s bizarre journey, I would have been curious to find out all of the details the screenwriter bores us with at the beginning of the movie.
Details like she’s:
- Twenty, but acts 13
- Sheltered and naive
- Attached to her mother, Claire (who was recently diagnosed with a terminal illness)
No one cares about any of that until you give them a reason to care. (You also don’t care that Lucy’s a homebody and really likes watching movies. Who isn’t into watching movies?)
All of those ideas make the story more dynamic, but you have to insert them with care and precision in your writing introductions.
Too early on isn’t terrible — it makes good sense to “start at the beginning,” but gripping creations often transcend “good sense.”
Writing practice doesn’t only help you with fundamentals; it helps you uncover your style and the elements that make your writing satisfying.
Try this challenge for better writing introductions
I loved how this experience reminded me of a tip for beginner writers: the importance of action in our writing.
Backstory in your introduction is often unavoidable in your first draft and it can help shape the structure of your writing. It’s better to over-explain and write too much when outlining your story. It can ensure that you have an organized and logical narrative.
But if you want your content to be intriguing and keep readers closely following along, give them action as fast as possible and strategically weave in your background information as needed.
Oftentimes, you’ll find too much backstory simply weakens your writing and you don’t need it to complete your content.
Today’s writing introductions challenge:
Ready to try something new when you write?
Before you publish your next article, pinpoint the “action” you offer in the first five paragraphs.
“Action” in your writing will hook your reader on your content. You might notice your text looks similar to some of the lessons in Brian’s tutorial on how to write a blog post introduction.
How do you prioritize entertainment? Where are the parts that get the reader invested in your subject?
Compare those first several paragraphs to the rest of your text. Is the “action” too far off from the beginning of your content?
Then, rearrange and/or rewrite your introduction until it contains the parts of your story that engage, rather than just explain.
When you engage in your writing introductions, rather than just explain, you create an experience that isn’t easily duplicated in other content, which positions you to stand out from competitors.
Don’t save your best part for “20 minutes into your article.”
What “action” do readers need to see now that will allow them to care into the future?