Category Archives: Introductions

Masters of introductions

Are you looking for good ways to start novels?  If so, here are some great models.

If you want to foreshadow:

A crisis in a marriage caused by a man’s casual affair is how Leo Tolstoy begins Anna Karenina, a novel whose introduction is considered by many to be the best ever written.  Ultimately, the  couple reconcile, with their affair acting as a comparison to Anna’s affair later in the novel.  Because the comparison is not a direct, and because it involves Anna’s brother, it is all the more compelling.

If you want to highlight a first person point of view:

Start with a character who reveals his personality with a bang, such as Holden Caufield in The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger. “If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.”  From this first sentence we know this is a kid with an attitude, and we are hooked.

Or how about Huck Finn’s opening comment in Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn? “You don’t know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain’t no matter.”  The poor English hints at Huck’s lack of education and perhaps backwoods roots.  So much is revealed about the protagonist in one sentence.

If you want to capture tone:

If the tone is satirical, start with a satirical statement, such as Jane Austen does in Pride and Prejudice. “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a large fortune, must be in want of a wife.”  Must be?  Acknowledged by whom?  We can expect wit, comic characters and a happy ending–a marriage.  This introduction is considered a classic.

If the tone reveals the misery of life, layer it on as does Frank McCourt in the third paragraph of Angela’s Ashes. “People everywhere brag and whimper about the woes of their early years, but nothing can compare with the Irish version:  the poverty; the shiftless loquacious alcoholic father; the pious defeated mother moaning by the fire; pompous priests; bullying schoolmasters; the English and the terrible things they did to us for eight hundred long years.”

If the tone is mystery, Edith Wharton in Ethan Frome nails it.  “I had the story, bit by bit, from various people, and, as generally happens in such cases, each time it was a different story.”  Not until the second last word of the sentence do we realize where the author is going, and we are hooked.

If you want to focus on an important symbol or motif:

Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 immediately talks about fire, but with a twist.  “It was a pleasure to burn.”  This seems like a contradiction.  Is the narrator an  arsonist?

If you want to describe a character:

Joseph Conrad, in Lord Jim, starts with a powerful character sketch. “He was an inch, perhaps two, under six feet, powerfully built, and he advanced straight at you with a slight stoop of the shoulders, head forward, and a fixed from-under stare which made you think of a charging bull.”

If you want to rattle the reader:

See how L. P. Hartley does it in The Go-Between. “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.”  Comparing the past with a foreign country provokes thoughtfulness, but then the writer compounds the mystery with the second clause.

Or see how Charles Johnson does it in Middle Passage. “Of all the things that drive men to sea, the most common disaster, I’ve come to learn, is women.”  A woman is a disaster?  Even if you disagree, you want to find out why the narrator believes this is so.

What does teaching revising mean?

What could teachers do to help students revise?

When the essays are complete, teachers could reproduce a few sample student essays (with the students’ permission) and ask the class to analyze them. Teachers could ask:  Is there a thesis?  Do the topic sentences in the body support that thesis?  Is the thesis repeated in the topic sentences?  Is the thesis well supported in the body or is more information needed?  Does the information in each paragraph support the topic sentence of that paragraph?  If not, what should the writer do with that off-topic information?  Is the information presented logically?  Does the information in the introduction lead into the thesis?  Does the conclusion return to the ideas presented in the introduction?

Teachers could write and show their own response to the  prompt to offer an example of a well written response for the students to model.

Teachers could give students more time to improve their essays after they have analyzed other essays.

Teachers could have students read their essays to a partner for feedback before turning in their essays.

Before grading the essays, narratives, summaries, etc., teachers could return the writing marked with one idea for improvement.   Yes, the teacher would need to read each essay more than once.  But for the initial read, the teacher would need only to identify one glaring error which the student could then fix before receiving a grade.  Or if there is no glaring error, the teacher could suggest one idea for improvement (“How about turning this section into dialog?” Or “How about turning some compound sentences into complicated simple sentences?”)

The time to teach writing is not after the writing is graded but before and during the writing process while there is still time for the student to learn.  This is the time when students are most receptive to ideas which will help them become better writers.

What does revising mean?

In working with a middle grades student recently, I mentioned that, based on my experience, many English teachers don’t teach revising of essays.  “Not mine,” said the student proudly, opening his computer and pulling up a page called “Revising” written by his teacher.  “Read it,” he said.  I did.  Here is the gist of it.

  1. Find instances of the verb “said” in all its forms, count them, and replace ¾ of them.
  2. Identify pronouns, count them, and replace half with nouns.
  3. Identify certain “boring” words (from a list given by the teacher) and change 99% of them to  more detailed vocabulary.
  4. Make sure your writing follows your organizer.

One of the problems with these instructions (aside from their usefulness) is what is missing about revising.  Little or none of the advice deals with developing a thesis or main idea, organizing it, developing and sequencing ideas, writing logically, creating tone and voice, writing with varied sentence structures, or writing introductions and conclusions.  Yet these are far more important areas of writing than identifying the verb “to say” or replacing pronouns with nouns.

Students today are poor writers for many reasons.  Lack of practice, poor modeling, and little teacher intervention until the writing is being graded are a few.  But so is poor or little advice on how to revise, and the kind of teacher training which largely ignores research.

I suspect the teacher who composed the above revising instructions, like most teachers, is well-intentioned.  But she is probably not an experienced writer.  If she were, she would know that the verb “said” should not be replaced with words like “reported,” spoke,” “advised,” or “shouted.” Those synonyms draw attention away from what was said to how it was said, diluting the message.  Pronouns should not routinely be replaced with nouns.  At first reference, a noun should be used, but in subsequent referrals in the same paragraph, a pronoun should be used. Yes,  “boring” words should be replaced, especially verbs, with more precise vocabulary.  And yes again, first drafts should follow an organizer.

Two out of four are good advice.  50%.  This is  reason why students today are poor writers.

How to show students how to incorporate backstory into action

I would find a well-known story—fairy tales are perfect—which begin with backstory.  Either give each student in the class a copy or show a copy on the overhead projector.  For example, here is a version of a famous fairy tale:

Once upon a time there lived a king and queen who were very unhappy because they had no children. But at last a little daughter was born, and their sorrow was turned to joy. All the bells in the land were rung to tell the glad tidings.

The king gave a feast so grand that the likes of it had never been known. He invited all the fairies he could find in the kingdom—there were seven of them—to come as godmothers. He hoped that each would give the princess a good gift.

But there came into the hall a mean old fairy who had not been invited. She had fled the kingdom in anger fifty years before and had not been seen since.

The evil fairy’s turn came to give a gift to the baby. Shaking her head spitefully, she said, “When the princess is seventeen years old, she shall prick her finger with a spindle, and-she-shall-die!”

Ask the students to read the fairy tale opening several times, and then identify what you mean by backstory–the king and queen being sad they had no children, the bells ringing, the feast, the fairies invited, the old fairy not invited.  Explain that together you are going to rewrite this beginning in such a way that these events are written into the action.  Suggest that the place to begin the action is where the mean fairy is about to cast a spell on the infant.  Ask the class for ideas how to begin.

If this is the first time you have done this with a group of students, you might not get a response.  Or you might get a response that is more backstory.  So you might need to model how to approach this problem.  You might think aloud how you would write this story opener, accepting some of your own ideas and rejecting others.  Let the students hear how you would go about writing a more interesting beginning.

You could say and write,

Once upon a time, a mean fairy strode into a king’s and queen’s ballroom, glaring at the invited guests until the royal court, the king, the queen, and the tiny baby princess grew still.  Even the castle bells stopped ringing.

Ask students if they recognize that his story is a fairy tale.  Ask how they know.  These questions keep them involved.  Now continue thinking and writing aloud.

“Since you have waited 17 years for a daughter,” the mean fairy said, staring at the king and queen, “I will protect the princess for 17 years.”  The king and queen rose to their feet and clapped, as did the other fairies and guests.  Even the baby kicked her tiny feet in approval.

Explain to the students that you have just set up the king, queen and royal court–as well as the readers–for what will happen next.

But the mean fairy was not finished.  “On your 17th birthday,” she said, leaning over the baby’s cradle, and touching a finger of the infant, “you shall prick this finger on a spinning wheel.”  She turned around to look at the king and queen before she turned back to the baby.  “And you shall die!”

Next, ask the students to compare the two fairy tale openings, side by side if you can.  Point out that some of the backstory was not told in the second version, but the important parts were.  More importantly, the second version starts with action, with someone doing something. We learn so much from the dialog of the mean fairy:  that there is a king and queen who have wanted a child for a long time, that their longed-for baby is a girl, and that on her 17th birthday she will prick her finger and die because of a spell by the evil fairy.  Aren’t those the essential parts of the backstory in the original version?  And isn’t the longer quote of the mean fairy in the second version more scary and exciting than telling the information as backstory, as in the first version?

When you have worked through this process with one fairy tale, choose another, and another, and another.  Each time rewrite the fairy tale aloud with the students, asking for their input as they grow more capable of writing this way.  Then, divide the class into small groups, and let each group attempt to rewrite a fairy tale opening.  Meanwhile, you circulate to offer help, suggestions or praise.  Ask students to volunteer to read their openings aloud and to talk about how they wrote, explaining their problems and solutions.

Finally, ask students to write their own fairy tale opening, incorporating background information into the action.  Let students read their works aloud.

For all of these exercises, students needn’t write the whole fairy tale.  What you are teaching is how to write better narrative openings, so writing the opening is enough.

 

When you are writing the sentences of an essay, where do you begin?

  1.  with the hook?
  2. with the introduction?
  3. with the thesis or essay topic sentence?
  4. with the supporting topic sentences?
  5. with the conclusion?

The answer is with the thesis /  essay topic sentence.

3rd grader writing an essay.But too many students don’t start there.  They start with a topic—say Harry Potter books—and then focus on writing a hook to get someone to read their essay about Harry Potter books.  When they are writing their hook they have no idea about the precise topic of their essay, just that it has something to do with Harry Potter books.  Wrong approach!

To impress upon my students how primary the thesis is to an essay, I have them write it on their planner before they plan in detail.  Then when they begin to write sentences, I have them skip five or six lines on notebook paper (or on a computer) and write their thesis there, partway down the paper, leaving room to add an introduction later.

The thesis is the anchor of the whole paper.  I have students box that sentence in color for easy referral.

Next, I have the student write the body paragraph topic sentences. This time I ask students to skip ten or more spaces after each body paragraph.  Later they can come back and fill in those spaces with details.

We read over those topic sentences and check out each one against the thesis.  Does the topic sentence support the thesis?  If yes, keep it.  If no, toss it and write another topic sentence which does.

Next, students write the body paragraph sentences with all the details which back up the paragraph’s topic sentence and the thesis.

Now that they know what their essay is about they can go back and write the introduction and the conclusion.

Think of an essay as a wedding ceremony.  What is most important in the ceremony?  Is it the music as the bride walks down the aisle?  Is it the flowers?   Is it the witnesses?  The kiss?  Of course not.  It’s the vows.  The vows are just a few words.  “I take you, Harry, to be my husband.”  “I take you, Meghan, to be my wife.”  Those vows are followed by supporting details like “for better or for worse,” and “in sickness and in health.”

The vows are like the thesis.  “In good times and in bad” and the other details are like the body of the essay.  The music is like the introduction and conclusion.  And the bride’s beautiful dress is the hook.  You can have a wedding without the dress and the music, but you cannot have one without the vows.  The vows are where you begin, just as the thesis is where you begin an essay.

An essay is a planned, organized piece of writing with one overarching idea expressed in a topic sentence / thesis.  Until you know what that thesis is, it makes no sense to write any other sentences because every other sentence must support the thesis.