Will the Opening Line of Your Non-fiction, Fiction, or Presentation Grab Your Audience?

“The beginning is the most important part of the work.” —Plato

by Melodi2
by Melodi2

Why should I care about what you have to say? Sounds rude, doesn’t it? But that’s what many people in your audience think when they approach your work.

So, how much time do you spend on the opening of your speech, sermon, non-fiction book, children’s book, play, activity, novel, song, blog, or magazine article?

Study these first lines quoted from various types of writing. Notice how they set the tone, attitude, purpose, or genre of the work.

  Non-Fiction

  • by Andalusia
    by Andalusia

    “The water was so hot, it was almost burning my face—but I could barely feel it.” —Dave Ramsey’s Complete Guide to Money by Dave Ramsey

  • “The Kings Gambit, the darling of the romantics, is a swashbuckling opening synonymous with attack, sacrifice, and an exciting open game.” —Modern Chess Openings by Walter Korn

Speeches

  • “Presumption is one grand snare of the devil, in which many of the children of men are taken.” —Sermons of John Wesley – Sermon 86: “A Call to Backsliders”
  • “My fellow Americans, I come before you tonight as a candidate for the vice presidency and as a man whose honesty and integrity has been questioned.”  — United States Senator, Richard Nixon’s “Checkers” speech

Picture Books

  • “The night Max wore his wolf suit and made mischief of one kind and another his mother called him ‘WILD THING!’ and Max said ‘I’LL EAT YOU UP!’ so he was sent to bed without eating anything.” (3 pages before a period) —Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak
  • Image courtesy of Ambro / FreeDigitalPhotos.net
    Image courtesy of Ambro / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

    “Chimps don’t wear glasses and zebras don’t cook and you won’t see a kangaroo reading a book.” (3 pages before a period)  —Chimps Don’t Wear Glasses by Laura Numeroff and illustrated by Joe Mathieu

 

Children’s Books

  • “There was nothing Otis Spofford liked better than stirring up a little excitement.” —Otis Spofford by Beverly Cleary
  • “A wild, ringing neigh shrilled up from the hold of the Spanish galleon.” —Misty of Chincoteague by Marguerite Henry

Young Adult Fiction

  • “There is no lake at Camp Green Lake.” Holes by Louis Sachar
  • “One year ago my mom got traded in for a newer model.” So Not Happening by Jenny B. Jones

Novels

  • “She didn’t know how far she’d driven—all she knew was that it wasn’t far enough.” Abomination by Colleen Coble
  • “He always said if I left he would kill me, but there are far worse fates than death.” Wings of Glass by Gina Holmes

Short Stories 

  • Image courtesy of Pong / FreeDigitalPhotos.net
    Image courtesy of Pong / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

    “With the many interruptions to her already loaded schedule, when would she find the time to kill Rita?” —“Plotting Murder” by Zoe M. McCarthy

  • “A steady ticking awakened Murdoch.” —“The Ticker” by Dori Renner in Writer’s Digest, July/August 2013

Articles

  • “One day, a funny thing happened: An unknown, frustrated writer named Joe Hill got an envelope in the mail.” —“The Once and Future King” by Zachary Petit in Writer’s Digest, July/August 2013
  • “Here’s an oxymoron for you: Cancer = Renewal.” —“An Unexpected Gift” by Nina Fuller in WHOA Magazine for Women, Spring 2012

Tweetable

  • Study the first lines of these writings and learn how to hook your audience.
    click to tweet

Which, if any, of these first lines made you want to read or hear the work? Why?

5 Cautions in Adding Humor to Your Creative Works

Alpine Cow“The secret to humor is surprise. — Aristotle

We know humor adds much to engaging an audience. This is true whether our works are art pieces, presentations, dramas, novels, short stories or non-fiction. But we also know humor, unlike other elements in our creative works, has a greater chance of falling flat.

Here are tips that will make your humor less likely to produce deadpan stares or full-blown cringes.

Caution 1. Don’t keep trying to make something funny that’s resisting you. A good reason most likely lies behind the roadblock. The idea could be offensive or hurtful. The idea may need extensive background or setup and risks losing the audience. Or it may not be right for the setting of your work. Some ideas are too outdated to tickle current audiences.

See what you think of this example:

ID-10062080A 1958 film, Mon Oncle, won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film and other awards. It had audiences rolling, especially the kitchen scene. (I remember.) Here’s its IMDb blurb: “Monsieur Hulot visits the technology-driven world of his sister, brother-in-law, and nephew, but he can’t quite fit into the surroundings.” Check out this short clip and decide. Timeless or passé humor?

Caution 2. Don’t overdo the humorous moment in length or drama. But do give the moment what it needs to be recognized as a humorous tidbit. Look for a balance.

Alfred Hitchcock and Stephen King have appeared in films of their works for a bit of humor. You decide whether the film professionals gave their appearances the appropriate length and drama for the work. Here are YouTube clips showing Hitchcock’s cameo appearances and one of King’s.

Image courtesy of Tina Phillips at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Image courtesy of Tina Phillips at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Caution 3. Don’t create humor that’s complicated and makes audiences work hard for their laugh. Many enjoy slapstick because it’s easy to “get.” Others prefer wit and humorous situations that lead them to their laughs.

You decide if the table ballets in films, Benny and Joon and in Gold Rush, are simple and humorous (and timeless). See both clips here starring Johnny Depp and Charlie Chaplin.

Caution 4. Don’t repeat witty or slapstick elements for the sole purpose that the humor will work a second or third time in the same work.

Image courtesy of Lavoview at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Image courtesy of Lavoview at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Unless perhaps you’re one of the Three Stooges, repetitions lose the element of surprise and become less entertaining with each re-appearance. Possibly, you can make the idea work again if you’re able to add a fresh angle.

Businessman Stepping on Banana Peel

Caution 5. Don’t include slapstick in writing, drama, or presentations unless it’s well planned and orchestrated.

Slapstick is defined as: “comedy based on deliberately clumsy actions and humorously embarrassing events.” (New Oxford American Dictionary) I think the key element is the humorously embarrassing event. Random clumsy actions alone have no story and can take away from the work. You decide if Mr. Bean, as he paints his room, has an effective embarrassing event for his clumsy actions.

What were your decisions on the film clips? What cautions do you have in using humor?

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The Secret Ingredient to Engaging Your Audience

“Communicating an idea juxtaposed with its polar opposite creates energy. Moving back and forth between the contradictory poles encourages full engagement from the audience.” —Nancy Duarte

Hot Dog and Chopsticks

You step back from your creative work and, no matter how hard you rationalize its appeal, you know in your heart something is missing. The ingredient that takes it from dull to fascinating.

Most of us know the secret ingredient already. Then why don’t we use it? I’ll address reasons why we overlook the secret ingredient after I give you some examples of how it’s been employed.

Secret Ingredient: CONTRAST.

Musical Instrument Keyboard KeysExample 1: My favorite rhythm activity with preschoolers is freeze dance. In Bible Study Fellowship and Sunday school, we danced to music pieces on the small keyboard I carried. Then I’d punch the stop button. The children froze arms, legs, and face expressions. I tried to catch them in a stumbling stop or moving when silence dropped. They enjoyed the dancing, the anticipation, and avoiding getting caught.

The freeze dance provides these contrasts:

  • freely moving bodies vs. rigid frozen bodies
  • doing our own thing vs. obeying the rule to stop
  • anticipation vs. fun result

When we solely put on music and let them dance with scarves, the children didn’t stay engaged very long. Unless they used their scarves as whips (creating their own contrast).

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ID-1002183
Image courtesy of Suat Eman at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Example 2: If you sat in a waiting room with a blue wall in front of you, how long would you stare at the wall with interest? Now, say the wall was white with a foot-by-foot blue square painted on it. Would your eye wander to that blue square now and then? Would you wonder why someone painted a blue square on the white wall? Might you imagine what you would have put on the wall instead of the blue square? Or what you’d add to the blue square?

The contrast of blue and white, big and small, and the why and why not of the blue square creates more interest than a solid blue wall. That’s why artists use light and dark, shadows and highlights.

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Image courtesy of adamr at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Image courtesy of adamr at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Example 3: Would you sit through a movie or play where the actors constantly shouted? Or issued nonstop dramatic emotion—always whining or always blubbering or always laughing? Actors and storytellers know sprinkling subtle and dramatic emotions, shouts and whispers, and movement and stillness engages their audiences.

??????????????????????????Too much of anything gets old and audiences lose interest.

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Example 4: And for me, the greatest contrast of all: Creator and created. If the Bible were only about humans and their sinful natures and fleeting brief lives on earth, our future would be hopeless. But the Bible reveals the nature of the almighty Creator who sent His Son to earth to save us from our sins, give us eternal life in His kingdom, and make us whole.

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Why doesn’t a writer, an artist, or presenter use contrasts? Here’s reasons that came to my mind:

  • He does, but uses less than polar contrasts. The contrasts fall short of appearing different to the audience. The actor reduces his screams to shouts.
  • He fails to put the contrasts he sees in his mind into his work. This is a common problem of novice writers. They imagine a scene and its emotions but fall short of transferring what they’ve created in their minds to the page.
  • He uses an experience in his personal life. His emotional struggles with the experience convince him to avoid one side of the contrast. Contrasting costs too much pain.
  • He thinks the one element that intrigues him is sufficient to attract his audience. He forgets his passion must be related to the audience. Contrasting that element to its opposite helps the audience see his viewpoint.

Can you share an example of how you’ve contrasted elements in your creative work?

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