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Serve a great opening

Grab readers’ attention right from the first bite

The chief concern of a successful chef will be to make you fall in love with the first meal you order and treat you so well that you are compelled to come back and tell everyone about your experience.

A great writer is like a great chef, serving readers a wonderful, literary meal right from the first bite. Get your opening right and readers will want more.

To write an opening that grabs readers’ attention, you will need to:

Create suspense

Novels don’t have to open with a dead body or a gun going off to have suspense but three ingredients are required:

  1. Sense of impending danger or consequence for the character(s).
  2. Escalating tension.
  3. Situation or character that generates empathy and concern from readers.

The opening of Ancestral Sacrifice by Kaakyire Akosomo Nyantakyi, a novel that is often prescribed reading in Ghanaian high schools, is a great example:

‘Mrs Little woke up late. She was disturbed. A deep sense of fear flashed through her heart like sickness and a strange stirring enveloped her. It wasn’t for lack of money. She had all the money she needed. Her husband had left her an estate house and a handsome amount of insurance. She commanded some respect also. She was the leader of the Catholic Women’s Fellowship and an important figure in the church. She had two sons: Fred Little, a 30-year old British-trained doctor, who had his own clinic in Accra, the capital city, and Bob Little who had dropped out of high school shortly before he turned seventeen because he wasn’t able to keep up with the other students.’

Readers would want to know what could be wrong with Mrs Little and would wonder why she seems to have everything that humans crave for yet feels disturbed. It is subtle but chilling.

Pose a question

Another approach to writing a strong opening is to ask an interesting question, one that hits readers so hard that skipping your piece becomes impossible.

Ayi Kwei Armah uses this approach to open Two Thousand Seasons in an intriguing way.

‘We are not a people of yesterday. Do they ask how many single seasons we have flowed from our beginning till now? We shall point to the proper beginning of their counting. On a clear night when the light of the moon has blighted the ancient woman and her seven children, on such a night tell them to go along into the world. There, have them count first the one, then the seven, and after the seven all the other stars visible to their eyes alone.’

What sort of seasons is the writer referring to and who are ‘they’?

I hope this will inspire you to read the rest of the book and find out.

Paint a vivid picture

Painting a strong mental picture in your opening can be powerful because it helps readers to get a clear understanding of what you are trying to get across.

Bessie Head painted a clear picture in her novel Maru in her very first paragraph:

‘The rains were so late that year. But throughout that hot, dry summer those black storm clouds clung in thick folds of brooding darkness along the horizon. There seemed to be a secret in their activity, because each evening they broke the long, sullen silence of lightning across the empty sky. They were not promising rain. They were prisoners, pushed back, in trapped coils of boiling cloud.’

Suspense, intriguing questions and vivid imagery form a powerful recipe.

Whenever you write a story, always remember the successful chef’s chief concern.

Open stories in a way that will make readers want more and make every bite as great as the first.

About Solomon Mensah

Solomon Mensah is a Ghanaian journalist and writer. He writes the columns ‘Talking Drum’ and ‘International Dialogue’


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