March 1, 2024

Essay Writing: Good Opening Lines and Anecdotes

Author: David Hubler
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By David E. Hubler
Contributor, Online Learning Tips

Just about everyone loves to be entertained by a story. From the time we’re young, we relish reading about heroes, mythical creatures and even talking animals. We suspend disbelief when we hear “Once upon a time…” and want to know more.

Professional authors down through the ages have learned the trick of creating a great opening line to lure their readers. Consider these openings:

  • “Sing, Goddess, Achilles’ rage, Black and murderous, that cost the Greeks Incalculable pain, pitched countless souls of heroes into Hades’ dark, and left their bodies to rot as feasts for dogs and birds, as Zeus’ will was done.” (Homer, The Iliad, 1194-1184 BC)
  • “When shall we three meet again? In thunder, lightning or in rain? When the hurley-burley’s done, when the battle’s lost and won….” (William Shakespeare, Macbeth, 1606)
  • “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness….” (Charles Dickens, “A Tale of Two Cities,” 1859)
  • “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 …” (J.D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye, 1951)

Why Opening Lines Arouse a Sense of Curiosity and Pull You into the Story

What do these four classic openings, written millennia apart, have in common? They all arouse a sense of curiosity in the reader. They pull you into the story. For example, these opening lines make readers think:

  • Who’s this Achilles and what’s all this about his “black and murderous rage” that gave “incalculable pain” to the Greeks?
  • Who’s going to meet again after the hurley-burley and what battle are we talking about?
  • How can all these opposite events occur at the same time? What do they refer to and when?
  • Who’s this wiseguy kid talking to me like that?

Novelists, short story writers and poets are well aware of this literary device. But students writing papers in college-level courses often avoid using an intriguing opening line in their essay writing, believing it is inappropriate for works of non-fiction.

But is it? Which of these two opening sentences of an essay would you want to read?

  1. Anyone can bake an apple pie if they follow the directions.
  2. My first attempt at baking an apple pie left me with a rock-hard, blackened crust and sugary slices of apples clinging to the insides of my oven.

The first sentence appears to be an accepted fact. If so, why continue to read? Unless you are planning to bake an apple pie within the next 24 hours, the rest of the article will have no relevance to you.

The second sentence – while not the literary equivalent of Homer, Shakespeare, Dickens or Salinger – certainly arouses interest in the reader. It evokes questions that can only be answered by continued reading – the goal of all good writers.

Anecdotes Can Prove Useful in Essay Writing

Anecdotes are also particularly useful in essay writing when you’re writing about something that you personally experienced, like pie making or putting a twist on a historic incident most of us know about.

Here is how writer Charles Fishman begins his account of the upcoming 50th anniversary of the first manned moon landing in the June 2019 print edition of Smithsonian magazine: “The Moon has a smell. It has no air, but it has a smell.”

We all acknowledge that there is no air on the moon. But a smell? Who knew? I’ll bet you want to read that article now to find out more about Fishman’s anecdote.

Finally, by creating an intriguing or anecdotal opening, you can avoid the common writer’s block many students face trying to begin an essay. You will also find that the rest of your essay writing will fall into place more easily.

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