“Always grab the reader by the throat in the first paragraph, send your thumbs into his windpipe in the second, and hold him against the wall until the tagline.”― Paul O’Neill
Readers want you to grab their attention and never let it go. If you write fiction, they want to feel dread, anxiety, love, or fear. They want their gut to wrench and their breath to shorten. They want to laugh or cry. More than anything else, they want to know what happens next. Give it to them, and they’ll keep reading until they reach the end of the story.
There is no less of an expectation for writers of non-fiction. Unless you are writing a technical manual or scholarly textbook, your readers want you to compel them to keep reading. They want to enter the lives of historical figures. They want to vicariously experience real life events. And they want to know what happened to a crime victim.
How to grab your reader by the throat in the first paragraph
People have an attention span of 8 seconds. For the average reader, that’s 17 words. So if you can’t get your reader’s attention within the first 17 words of your story, there’s a good chance they’ll never finish your story. Here are 3 ways to grab your reader by the throat in the first sentence.
Make a bold declaration in the first sentence of your story
Do not write timid openings! Trying to ease your reader into your story is a mistake. As a writer, if you aren’t confident in your topic, don’t write it.
Think of a woman texting as she walks into a crosswalk against the light. She’s distracted and doesn’t realize there’s a truck coming fast. You have exactly 8 seconds to save her life. Do you say in a soft voice, “Ah excuse me? I think you should return to the curb because there’s a truck coming.” Or do you scream, “STOP! THERE’S A TRUCK!”
Stephen King gets away with writing low and slow openings to some of his stories and books. It’s part of his ability to build an ominous opening. After reading his books, King’s readers know that he will deliver. So, unless you are Stephen King, be bold. Scream “STOP! THERE’S A TRUCK!” to open your first paragraph.
Use a dramatic quote to set up your story
People love quotes. Even if they don’t know who’s being quoted, they enjoy learning what someone has said. Quotes are also good because they give you a jumping-off point.
Here’s a tip if you’re feeling stuck. Find a quote you like and open your story with it. Seeing your story started will help get your creative mind working.
Here’s a tip to make a powerful opening. Use a quote, then follow it with a strong declaration sentence.
Ask a thought-provoking question that people want answered
Readers are curious. So use their curiosity to suck them into your story by using pertinent questions. But don’t use obvious questions. If you ask, “Do you want to die tonight?” You will lose your reader. No one wants to die. The answer is an obvious attempt to draw a reader. Instead, ask a question that you have asked yourself. I could have opened this story with the question, “How does Stephen King grab his readers’ attention?” If someone is curious about the topic, they’ll pause. You want your reader to think, “I don’t know. How does he do it?”
How to send your thumbs into your reader’s windpipe in the second paragraph
Increase the pressure on your reader in the second paragraph. If the first paragraph’s job is to draw your reader into your story, the second paragraph is used to seal the deal. If your reader stays with you through the second paragraph, there’s a good chance they’ll read your story to the end.
Use the fear of loss to keep your readers reading
People fear losing out. Take advantage of that fear. Give them a few hints about what’s coming. But subtly let them know if they stop reading they’ll miss out on some secrets only you can give them.
Use the hope of gain to keep your readers reading
As much as people fear loss, they hope to become a winner. Tell your reader you’re going to deliver a lot of great content that will change their life.
How to hold your readers against their will until the tagline
Make your story irresistible by delivering a lot of useful content.
Use subheadings that are titles to draw your reader down the page
Subheadings are vital to keep your readers reading. Some people will start at the top of your story and read to the end. Other readers will scan the article to see if there’s anything for them in it. If you use one- or two-word subheadings, people won’t know what the section is about. Don’t let them stop reading. Give them subheadings that are titles.
I could have titled this subheading, “Use subheadings”. But I want my readers to know what this section is about. A second benefit is the search engines may index your subheading titles. It’s another chance for more readers to find your story.
Over-deliver in your story by giving your readers more than they expect
Anything that you give your readers that they don’t already have will endear them to you. Because you’ve helped them, they’ll want to read more.
- If there are online tools that will help your reader do a better job or do it easier, give them a link to the tool.
- If you’ve read books that have helped you succeed, share them with your readers.
- When sharing tips that you’ve learned or developed, give them the tip, and tell them how to use it.
When writing, be bold. Timid statements don’t grab a reader by the throat. Give them a reason to read your story. If you can find a quote that fits your topic, use it. People love quotes. Questions are another great way to pull your reader into your story.
Use the fear of loss or the hope of gain to make your reader feel your story is worth the time to read.
Subheadings are as important as the title of your story. Look at subheadings as supporting titles. It’s a good Search Engines Optimization (SEO) technique, and it benefits the readers who scan your article prior to reading it.
If your reader thinks you’re promising 2 great tips, give them 3. Over-deliver on your writing, the story idea, and tips or warnings.
Write stories that grab your reader by the throat, and they’ll beg you to write more.
Now get writing.