Writing Workshop: Less Hideous Introductions

An infamous introduction:

“It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents–except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.”

Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, Paul Clifford (1830)

There is more than one way to do an effective introduction to an essay, just as there is more than one way to do a poor one. That’s lesson number one. Lesson number 2 is the focus for the workshop in class. A good way to improve upon the kinds of introductions (and related to these, the conclusions) you write is to think about writing more than one. Experiment with a different way of getting the reader into your essay, your argument, your narrative. Think of film as a relevant analogy: all films need to introduce and set up and even establish, so to speak, a thesis; but there are different ways to do it. And I would suggest, as with film, the way to find out how best to do the introduction is to have more than one to select from. Explore alternatives.

One basic way to introduce: begin generally and move toward your more specific focus and thesis statement. This establishes the context for the reader. The trick here is that you need to be careful not to be too general, too broad in your beginning. Context helps; generality hurts, distracts. For example, starting with sentences like this:

There are many films. Some are made from novels while others are not. Blade Runner is an example of a film. It is not made from a novel, but it can be viewed in relation to one….

A related danger is that in this introduction, you wander so far into generality, even when you think you are stating a thesis, it comes off as not specific. Something like: Blade Runner has lots of ideas that are also in Frankenstein (which, based on the last project, doesn’t directly answer the question given).

An antidote to being too general and vague is to start from the reverse position: challenge your reader directly with a close-up, something so specific it is not clear (yet) where the essay is going. Then back out to a middle-distance, where you state your focus and your thesis. In the case of an essay on Blade Runner, this would be to start in directly with an image or scene, then offer what the Graffs call ‘meta-commentary’: “What does this eyeball have to do with my focus?As I will argue in this essay, the eye…” I think of this as the ‘in media res’ approach: starting in the middle of the story, as it were, and using the specificity to focus your reader’s attention. This is also a way to borrow some rich, vivid imagery and language from your text and put it to work in your introduction, engage your reader with it.

Another option would be to do some combination of the two, the close-up and the distant/general view–to stay with film terminology, this is a tracking shot: where you follow a character into or out of a situation. This strategy provides context for the overall focus of your writing, but does so by also moving directly toward some specific points and questions. It locates your reader in the context of your argument before you get them to your specific statement of the argument. I found an example of this in a recent book review by Elizabeth Kolbert in ‘The New Yorker’ (a review of Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer).

Americans love animals. Forty-six million families in the United States own at least one dog, and thirty-eight million keep cats. Thirteen million maintain freshwater aquariums in which swim a total of more than a hundred and seventy million fish…[continues with several more sentences about pet-related expenses]

Americans also love to eat animals. This year, they will cook roughly twenty-seven billion pounds of beef, sliced from some thirty-five million cows. Additionally, they will consume roughly twenty-three billion pounds of pork… [more statistics]

How is it that Americans, so solicitious of the animals they keep as pets, are so indifferent toward the ones they cook for dinner? The answer cannot lie in the beasts themselves. Pigs, after all, are quite companionable, and dogs are said to be delicious. This inconsistency is the subject of Johanthan Safran Foer’s “Eating Animals.”

In addition to the structure of your introduction, you can and should also consider other poetic and rhetorical  issues–that is, your use of language to create and convey. Thus, consider being specific with your language; consider also using variation of your sentences, shifting from long to short deliberately. On that score, consider this example, the opening of a recent essay about Rwanda by Philip Gourevitch. Notice how the shift from longer to shorter sentences conveys the argument–that Rwanda has shifted, has changed. This rhetorical strategy (a matter of his style) thus also helps introduce his essay effectively. In this sense, he can show us what he is writing about.

When I began visiting Rwanda, in 1995, a year after the genocide, the country was still pretty well annihilated: blood-sodden and pillaged, with bands of orphans roaming the hills and women who’d been raped squatting in the ruins, its humanity betrayed, its infrastructure trashed, its economy gutted, its government improvised, a garrison state with soldiers everywhere, its court system vitiated, its prison crammed with murderers, with more murderers still at liberty–hunting survivors and being hunted in turn by revenge killers–and with the routed army and militias of the genocide and a million and a half of their followers camped on the borders, succored by the United Nations refugee agency, and vowing to return and finish the job. In the course of a hundred days, beginning on April 6, 1994, nearly a million people from the Tutsi minority had been massacred in the name of an ideology known as Hutu Power, and, between the memory of the slaughter and the fear that it would resume, Rwanda often felt like an impossible country. Nowadays, when Rwandans look back on the early years of aftermath, they say, “In the beginning.”

On the fifteenth anniversary of the genocide, Rwanda is one of the safest and the most orderly countries in Africa. Since 1994, per-capita gross domestic product has nearly tripled, even as the population has increased by nearly twenty-five per cent, to more than ten million. There is national health insurance, and a steadily improving education system. Tourism is a boom industry and a strong draw for foreign capital investment. In Kigali, the capital, whisk-broom-wielding women in frocks and gloves sweep the streets at dawn. Plastic bags are outlawed, to keep litter under control and to protect the environment. Broadband Internet service is widespread in the cities, and networks are being extended into the countryside. Cell phones work nearly everywhere. Traffic police enforce speed limits and the mandatory use of seat belts and motorbike helmets. Government officials are required to be at their desks by seven in the morning. It is the only government on earth in which the majority of parliamentarians are women. Soldiers are almost nowhere to be seen…. And Rwanda is the only nation where hundreds of thousands of people who took part in mass murder live intermingled at every level of society with the families of their victims.

For some additional suggestions and strategies on introductions (and conclusions), check out this previous post.


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