How to Write an Effective Intro Paragraph

Four kinds of essays need three kinds of openers.
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Writing an effective introductory paragraph depends on what kind of work you're composing. Your writing will typically fall into one of four types: narrative (telling about something), expository (explaining something), persuasive (arguing something) and descriptive (describing something). There are three kinds of opening paragraphs, depending on the effect you want the reader to experience.

1 Narrative Exposition: Don't Just List

A narrative piece begins with exposition. This is background: the story's time and place, at least two characters involved and one conflict that the story will explore. If you study writers of great narrative pieces, you'll discover that almost none of them begin their stories by listing this information. Ernest Hemingway begins with dialogue setting a scene; Nathaniel Hawthorne describes his setting in vast, symbolic detail; William Shakespeare and Stephen King often start their stories just before a crisis begins. There are no hard and fast rules, except to avoid listing your exposition points.

2 Expository Focus: General to Specific

An expository piece such as a research essay begins with an introductory thesis. This is your central statement the essay will discuss; the first sentences move from general to specific focus. The first sentence is the most general: "Nazi Germany's Holocaust was a nightmarish incident in human history." The next is more specific: "The five-year bloodbath, authorized by Hitler and carried out by his SS, destroyed more than 8 million human beings, including 6 million Jews." Your thesis -- explaining reasons for the Holocaust -- ends the introductory paragraph.

3 Persuasive: Presenting an Argument

If you have a persuasive or argumentative essay, your introduction is not radically different from the expository one; if your topic is still the Holocaust, you'll change very little in the first sentences. However, the thesis now contains an arguable idea: "The horrors of the Holocaust might have been avoided with more awareness of the problem on the part of the United States." Your persuasive essay will argue placing blame on the world powers of the time; the three-sentence thesis introduction is a focused method for beginning the argument.

4 Descriptive: The Most Creative Opener

Descriptive essays are similar to narratives, since they may contain figurative language to aid in descriptions. However, your opening paragraph here can have much more variety; you can "hook" the reader with sensory detail from the very start, and paint a vivid picture using imagery, simile and metaphor, and rhetorical questions. Your essay describing San Francisco might begin: "What city is built on a dozen silver mountains, each leading to a blue-green sea?" You can keep your readers riveted as you provide more images before revealing the answer.

Michael Stratford is a National Board-certified and Single Subject Credentialed teacher with a Master of Science in educational rehabilitation (University of Montana, 1995). He has taught English at the 6-12 level for more than 20 years. He has written extensively in literary criticism, student writing syllabi and numerous classroom educational paradigms.