Rather than being broad and expansive, another option is to offer a specific, detailed opening that draws readers in. They become engaged as they place themselves in a particular scene.
Air-conditioned, odorless, illuminated by buzzing fluorescent tubes, the American supermarket doesn’t present itself as having very much to do with Nature.
Michael Pollan, The Omnivore’s Dilemma
Pollan engages all our senses by giving concrete facets of sight (fluorescent lighting), sound (buzzing), smell (sterile), and touch (the cool of the air-conditioning) – all in the service of taste. Because of these few details, we can picture the whole scene, even those things he doesn’t mention – the fruit piled up in perfect pyramids, the well-polished floors, the trendy shelving. We are captured by immediacy.
Notice, though, that Pollan doesn’t just pick any old details. The lighting is artificial, the buzzing is mechanical, the temperature is engineered, the smell is unnaturally void. They all deliberately point to one thing – his thesis. The food industry in America is ironically disconnected from nature. And that disconnect, when we stop to look at it, isn’t really all that pretty. Pollan moves us effortlessly from the particular to the general in a single sentence.
Sometimes the more immense and complex the topic, the more important it is to bring things down to a human scale.
At exactly fifteen minutes past eight in the morning on August 6, 1945, Japanese time, at the moment when the atomic bomb flashed above Hiroshima, Miss Toshiko Sasaki, a clerk in the personnel department of the East Asia Tin Works, had just sat down at her place in the plant office and was turning her head to speak to the girl at the next desk.
John Hersey, Hiroshima
A year after the first atomic bomb exploded over Japan, most people still had little idea what exactly it was or how it worked. Its sheer magnitude and unfathomable physics made it seem like something out of science fiction.
To overcome the barrier, John Hersey in his 1946 piece opens with a specific instant, with a specific person doing something very particular and very routine. A woman sitting at a desk in an office. Nothing could be more ordinary, except for what happened at that moment.
All his readers would know the bomb dropped. What they didn’t know was what happened to Miss Toshiko Sasaki. An individual. Someone like you or me who might be about to talk to a colleague. In this way readers can begin to come to grips with a new era of warfare we will never be able to turn back from
Picking the right details to include in an opening is key.
There is a housing project standing now where the house in which we grew up once stood, and one of those stunted city trees is snarling where our doorway used to be.
James Baldwin,”Fifth Avenue Uptown” in Nobody Knows My Name
What do we know generally from this first sentence? We’re reading (or at least we are starting with) memoir. It’s a personal account of a moment that reflects on the author’s past.
Baldwin does so much more, however, simply and powerfully. Just two words set the tone for the whole piece. With stunted and snarling he invokes a sense of lament. The home he grew up in, with all its intimate memories of joys and sadness, is now replaced with a massive bureaucratic building. Like the tree “where our doorway used to be,” the life in this new building is limited, confined, restricted. There is no room for growth. We do not have a tree happily wagging its branches in welcome. Instead, that tree, squat and unformed, stands guard at the door like a growling dog unwilling to let him in. Thus Baldwin begins his reflection on place, race and loss.
from “Write Better: A Lifelong Editor on Craft, Art, and Spirituality” by Andrew T. Le Peau, Intervarsity Press