How to Make a Burrito Or, Advice About Introductions

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For the next five minutes, I’m going to be your fifth grade English teacher. We’re learning the one thing that makes readers actually read: introductions. More commonly known as “some writing before all your other writing,” your introduction will make or break. If it sucks, no one is going to read the rest, let alone your kick-ass conclusion.

There… an introduction. They say “show don’t tell,” which is a golden nugget of advice. We’ve all learned the sandwich formula for arguments and research papers: introduction sentence, a sentence for each paragraph and then your final sentence that grown up’s define as a thesis. Our fifth grade formula and lunch plans are down.

For fiction, creative non-fiction or even personal essays the outline is murkier. One might call it more of a burrito. You have to kill ‘em with the first sentence, what those people in charge call “the hook.” An example: “For the next five minutes I’m going to be your fifth grade English teacher.” You probably pause and asked, “what the hell is this?” This is known as the classic humor approach, leaving you with the impression the rest of my piece will be funny, too (obviously it is; you’re laughing hysterically as we speak).

Note: just because you want to catch a reader’s attention, doesn’t mean you can mislead them. Opening with, “The jaws of the monster closed around him, and she fell to the floor desperately sobbing,” then going on to write in extreme detail about why grass is green is just cruel. I may keep reading, but I would hate the writer, and no one wants to be hated.

The first sentence doesn’t have to be dramatic, either. The first sentence of Jane Eyre reads: “There was no possibility of taking a walk that day.” Really, we’re being eye-catching by talking about weather? Yet all those people back in 1891 kept reading when it first came out. A spark of curiosity kindled is just enough to get them to read the second sentence, and eventually the entire introduction.

Stories and metaphors uses tons of parts of the brain: Your story activates the learning part of your brain and the area related to the story you are telling. If it’s about doing jumping jacks, the part of your brain for motor action is excited. If the story focuses on feeling how soft your snuggie is, the part of the brain for touch wakes up. The same is true for metaphors. The more active the readers’ brains are, the more interest they will have in your writing, and the better your ratings.

The rest of the introduction should be the meat of the burrito, as your writing moves toward the backbone of your intro. End with an outright statement or reference to the person, place or point that you’re writing about. Not exactly a thesis, because this isn’t an argument about whether or not Othello was about racism; still, you have to get to reach a point. If it’s a personal essay about someone in your life, introduce them to your amazing mother. If it’s a theme throughout your short story, hint that it’ll be a tear-jerker.

At this point, we’ve just about finished our burrito. Now just two words: curiosity and significance. After the first sentence you want them to read more to bring in the point, but then you just need something to get them to care. Maybe you’ve started with a character and they’re basically a more intense reincarnation of the Dursleys. Maybe you’re offering advice and you’ve proved it’s important (ahem). Maybe you’re Victor Hugo and you have a thousand pages left to prove the significance of his miserable characters in miserable France. Still, he included enough detail and tension to make us care about poor Jean Valjean from the start–just enough Guac and spicy salsa to make it delicious.

Regardless of what you’re writing, you can be Hugo: get readers to read, and get them to care. They’ve already clicked or picked up your piece because of your title. Prove to them that what you wrote was worth the click. And then I want a phone call and some royalties because I’m not writing this out of the goodness of my heart.

A senior at Boston College and an English major with an addiction to fantasy novels and chocolate.

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