What to do when your intro just isn’t working

In the coming weeks, I’ll share tips for self-editing. To start us off, here are two ideas to consider when your introduction isn’t working.

1/ In medias res: In medias res means “in the middle of things.” An action scene or a scene that sparks curiosity can quickly pull the reader into the narrative. In medias res is an alternative to the slower build that can come from telling a tale in linear fashion. Neither option is good or bad; they are just different approaches, and they both offer opportunities to show, not tell. I often suggest this approach when editing fiction, and it’s also common in creative non-fiction. The opening of Breaking Bad is a classic example of in medias res: Walter White and Jesse Pinkman are in the desert with their broken-down RV and they’re obviously in trouble, but we don’t yet know why. The setup of The Night of the Gun, an investigative memoir by David Carr, is another way to use this technique. Carr employs an opening question as in medias res: what led us from there to here? More specifically: what led a reporter to pull a gun on his friend?

How to use it: If you feel like your story is slow to build, try pulling a scene from later in the book. This scene could be shocking, funny, or evocative. You don’t need to explain what’s happening. You just need to hook the reader. The rest of the book will explain the scene. You might come back to this scene, maybe halfway through or at the end of your book. The scene you pull forward might be the most important one in the book, and it won’t lose its impact when repositioned. You could consider positioning just one piece of the scene at the start, and then play out the full scene for us later. So, for example: a key sliding into a rusty lock on a treasure chest could open the book, and later in the narrative we could read about what’s actually inside the chest (if the character manages to open it).

2/ Swap your introduction and conclusion. I have used this “trick” many times when editing non-fiction. Sometimes writers worry their readers won’t read past the introduction, so they pack it with a summary of their book’s main points. Or they wait until the conclusion to finally say “and that’s what this book is about.” A funny thing about writing is that we don’t always know what we’re writing until we write it, and the ending can become the beginning. (I know, it’s meta. Fred Rogers said, “Often when you think you’re at the end of something, you’re at the beginning of something else.”)

How to use it: Figure out if you’re repeating yourself in the intro and conclusion and decide if that repetition works for the reader, the genre, and the length of book. It might, and there might be a new way you can repeat this info that isn’t obvious. Then, try swapping the intro and conclusion and see if it improves your pace and tension. You might find you need only one of these sections.

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