One of the great joys of being an avid reader is book browsing, whether at the local library or indie bookshop on the corner, or even on our Kindle or iPad, skimming through the free sample previews.
As an editor working with nonfiction authors, I’m keen on watching how potential book buyers relate to a book. They’ll flip to the inside flap or the back of the book, read the summary and the book blurbs. If that passes their taste test, then they move on to the inside of the book— and most likely they’ll turn to the introduction.
Ah, the book introduction. This is the writer’s golden chance to hook the reader.
So what do nonfiction readers look for in a good introduction? They want answers to three questions:
- What is the book about?
- Why did the author want to write the book?
- How will this book enhance the topic? (or what is the author trying to say that is new and interesting to the reader about this topic?)
Introductions for nonfiction books should generally employ the language of exposition, rarely argument, and almost never narrative.
Many writers think that jumping into the middle of a scene or telling an anecdote is the best way to hook a reader. That’s fine for magazine articles and features, but for books, it’s best to get down to the real business— telling your nonfiction reader what they will learn and gain from reading your book. Cast your narrative spells and write your stories in the opening chapter (chapter 1) of your book. But for the introduction, here’s what you do:
If you must start with an anecdote or a story, keep it pithy and write about how you came to the book’s topic. Was it a grand revelation? An epiphany after an arduous struggle? A simple realization? Did you read a small footnote in another book that set you on your investigative journey? Was it a personal encounter with someone? These kinds of stories should entice readers with their revelations.
After this quick taste of your narrative skills, jump right into the business at hand: What the book is about and what the reader’s payoff will be.
A writing mentor once told me not to be shy about “spilling the beans”. She scolded, “Don’t be coy.”
Your introduction shouldn’t be a coy, come-hither flirtation with the reader, but a full-on amorous strike. Writers might think, “Oh, I’d like to give them a little teaser of the book and not give too much away.” In reality, this obfuscation is a big reader turn-off. An introduction that boldly states its thesis is more provocative than an introduction that insists on half-revelations.
Readers— serious readers who are thinking of buying your book— are not really concerned about the ‘ending’. This may be an issue with fiction readers, but not so much with nonfiction readers. Nonfiction readers are more interested in how an inevitable ending came to be. Boldly state what your book is about to entice readers.
“The Tipping Point is the biography of an idea, and the idea is very simple. It is that the best way to understand the dramatic transformation of unknown books into best-sellers, or the rise of teenage smoking, or the phenomena of word of mouth or any number of other mysterious changes that mark everyday life is to think of them as epidemics. Ideas and products and messages and behaviors spread just like viruses do…
Three characteristics—one, contagiousness; two, the fact that little causes can have big effects; and three, that change happens not gradually but at one dramatic moment—are the same three principles that define how measles moves through a grade-school classroom or the flu attacks every winter. Of the three, the third, epidemic, trait… is the most important, because it is the principle that makes sense of the first two and that permits the greatest insight into why modern change happens the way it does. The name given to that one dramatic moment in an epidemic when everything can change all at once is the Tipping Point.”
Gladwell laid it bare like a sunbather on a nude beach— and the reader is more enticed to read the rest of the book, to go through the vibrant case studies and examples illustrating his bold premise.
So go on, spill the beans, and hook your readers.