Posted On: 2021-11-29
Introductions are particularly tricky to get right. As the first thing an audience experiences, the introduction has to simultaneously engage the impatient and orient the unfamiliar. Many works - books, games, films, articles, even conversations - lose their audience immediately, either to boredom or confusion. As this is something I've been striving to get right in my own works, I thought I should share some of the strategies that I've found are helpful for me.
The first responsibility of any introduction is to be interesting. Part of this will be how interesting the subject matter itself is to the audience, but a lot can be said for careful word choice and paying attention to the cadence of the sentences. Keeping things short and punchy has helped me quite a bit - and I often find myself revising an introduction by cutting. It can also help to write several different introductions, and compare them side-by-side. For blog posts I often do this with a before and after version: write (and revise) the intro with the rest of the post, and then once it's all done rewrite it - just to see if the second one is any better.
The second responsibility of an introduction is to indicate what's in the rest of the work. I generally think of this in terms of expectations: the audience going in has some pre-set expectations (ie. fantasy books have wizards in them), and as the creator I have to put in effort to replace any erroneous ones with those that are more suited to the work (ie. in this particular fantasy book, the world is filled with magic, but humans cannot manipulate it). Unfortunately, it's not realistic to handle setting every expectation up-front, so it's often useful to use elements like the theme or focus of the work to decide which ones are important enough to make it into the introduction.
As far as tools for setting audience expectations, there's a lot that can be done through subtle elements like phrasing or context. Even just a single word change, (ie. going from "he couldn't fly" to "he alone couldn't fly") can seed the reader's expectations with a whole host of relevant ideas.
Some works have a third responsibility: to set the stage. Many readers depend upon cues of the physical space where a scene takes place, and the introduction often has to do some work upfront to establish the broadest strokes of the setting. The more fantastical the setting, the more work is required, but any work trying to paint a scene in the audience's mind will want to describe details - the hem of the clothes, the slope of roofs.
Of course, since this is an introduction, it's best not to go overboard with details. Thus, the question of which detail to include and which to omit largely is driven by earlier points: what is interesting or important to rest of the work? Taking inspiration from others' introductions that I've found particularly effective, I like to focus on a single element of a character/scene, and only draw attention to details that support that element. For most characters, this is usually some trope or otherwise broad brush to understand them at a glance (nuanced characterization can come later). For a scene, I try to use something that accents what the audience will need to know about the rest of the setting (ie. in a world where magic is normal, I might focus on a single floating flower pot.)
Interestingly, the role of using details to set the stage can appear in some unexpected places. For example, political speeches may open by citing a specific, recent "offense" by an opposing group, as this can help to focus the audience's attention on a particular issue or viewpoint*. Even when simply communicating information, a well-chosen detail can help quickly ground the audience in the relevant headspace: for example, when telling a supervisor that a particular machine has misbehaved, one can introduce the topic by referencing a prior memorable failure from that same machine**.
There's a lot that goes into a good introduction, but hopefully these tips that have helped me will likewise be of use to you. As always, if you have any thoughts or feedback, please let me know.