Opening and closing

Have you ever started an essay with a question?


Imagine you read the first line here and answered: No. Then what? Insofar as what follows will be an argument against starting essays with questions, the whole point will seem irrelevant to you.

Instead, let's imagine you're working on a first line for an essay about how to write essays -- you can imagine I've done precisely this for this course!

Rather than asking a question, start assertive with something like: "Essays should begin with a hook, drawing the reader's interest to a topic or situation." Later in the essay you might argue that "questions are unreliable hooks", from which it will follow that starting an essay with a question is generally a bad idea.

This is the lesson here: questions are poor essay-openers because they're not particularly good hooks.

Symmetric to the hook is the resolution. An essay should conclude by satisfying the hook; there should be a sense of relief or closure. "Resolution", here, does not mean to solve a conflict, for example. Choruses and overtures "resolve", and this is the feeling for which you should strive.

You might think: what about a question as a hook, then, an answer to the question as a resolution. Best answer: yeah, well, sorta. Sure, there might be occasions -- albeit rare -- when this structure works well for the task at hand. And if you find yourself on such an occasion, by all means do it. Always remember: if a rule suggests doing something barbaric, by all means break the rule. This, of course, applies to all the rules I've been collecting here.

The general rule is this: strive for bold opening assertions.

* * *

Literature is full of fabulous opening lines:

"In a certain corner of La Mancha, the name of which I do not choose to remember, there lately lived one of those country gentlemen, who adorn their halls with a rusty lance and a worm-eaten shield, and ride forth on the skeleton of a horse, to course with a sort of a starved greyhound." So begins Cervantes' Don Quixote, rich with irony and wonder at this indisputable kook we're about to follow for 900 windmill-jousting pages around the Spanish countryside.

"It was a pleasure to burn" begins Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451, stoking the fires yet to rage, daring you to look away.

Or perhaps most vividly: "As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into an enormous insect." That's Kafka's The Metamorphosis, and how can you not read the second sentence?

These, of course, are fictional works, which means they enjoy the advantage of not having to argue a particular point. As an essay writer, you must develop preferred methods to hook readers. For example, you might address your topic obliquely, beginning with a related story that gives significance to the argument you intend to make.

For example, in the first topic of this module I related the story of how I worked to improve my writing. I started by stating that I recognised my deficiencies, then figured out practice that seemed to help. I could have started by simply stating that "The Index Card Exercise is a useful method for improving your writing", etc. But that is pedantic, text-book talk. Offering a personal note warms up the reader to sympathise with the need to practice before coldly describing the method.

The next reading, E. B. White's "Death of a Pig", opens as follows:

"I spent several days and nights in mid-September with an ailing pig and I feel driven to account for this stretch of time, more particularly since the pig died at last, and I lived, and things might easily have gone the other way round and none left to do the accounting."

This creates tension. We know that, whatever happens, White will not have it easy, and we want to know how. This is an excellent hook, and it promises a satisfying resolution. (No spoilers!)

Last modified: Tuesday, 7 August 2018, 3:51 AM