At some point during their academic careers, many students were told by a teacher not to open a narrative essay, or any other expository essay, with a question. This wasn’t erroneous advice; in all likelihood, the teacher was trying to steer students away from a technique that often backfires, because writers fail to use it to good effect. However, you can open a narrative essay with a question as long as the question fulfills the other obligations of a strong introduction.
Get Back to Basics
A strong introduction accomplishes two basic tasks: it grabs the reader’s attention, luring the reader into the story, and it presents the topic that will be explored within the essay. The thesis statement, or the central guiding focus of the essay, often appears as the last line in the introduction.
Avoid the Hazards
Essays that begin with a question often run off the rails because they say little, giving the reader little reason to continue reading. For example, a question such as, “Will it ever stop snowing?” or “Are all college freshmen party animals?” is rather flat and perfunctory and motivates the reader to answer the questions quickly, “yes” and “no.”
Be Creative or Pose a Thought-Provoking Question
Effective question openings demand a provocative, compelling twist, so strive to write one that defies an easy answer. Question openings can be particularly effective if the nature of your essay is reflective. For example, a narrative essay on the death of a family member might begin, “Does anyone ever find a true sense of closure after the death of a loved one, or is the notion of closure just happy talk?” An essay on a family vacation gone wrong might begin, “How long might it take to forgive your sister after she has subjected you to a weeklong, uninterrupted journey into the depths of sister hell?” In both cases, the questions fulfill the two basic goals of an introduction plus set the mood of the essay.
An Important Word of Caution
Like a thesis statement, asking a question at the beginning of an essay is your way of making a bargain with your reader. So be sure that you leave no doubt about the answer to the question you pose.
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- Purdue University Online Writing Lab: Narrative Essays
- The New St. Martin’s Handbook; Andrea Lunsford and Robert Connors; 1999
- The Scott, Foresman Handbook for Writers; Maxine Hairston and John Ruszkiewicz; 1991
- Step by Step Writing; Randy Devillez; 1992
- Purdue University Online Writing Lab: Expository Essays
- Indiana University: Proofreading for Common Surface Errors: Spelling, Punctuation, and Grammar
- The Prentice Hall Guide to Basic Writing; Emil Roy and Sandra Roy; 1989
- Ryan McVay/Digital Vision/Getty Images