Start with Engagement

Where do you start a story? Whether you’re writing a short memoir or a book, you need to draw a reader in right away.

Here are a few ways to do it.

Use An Emotional Hook

Emotional hooks engage. Readers feel something, they’re curious to know what will happen. They want to read more.

Let’s say you’re writing about a trip you took to Fiji and how you overcame your fear of seaplane flights.

Where does the story begin? Do you start with the day you first got the idea for the trip to the islands? Do you start with the ten-hour journey there? Do you start by describing the tropical view out your hotel window? The simple answer? No. None of these options will likely provide your best, most engaging beginning.

Instead, start with a scene that shows you in the heat of the moment. This may be the inciting incident that will form the core of the story. You’re seated in a seaplane flying high above Fiji’s turquoise waters with your eyes squeezed shut tight. You’re terrified.

Next, give a little backstory (relevant background), possibly telling where you are, why you’re here, who you’re with, and then return to the opening scene (“the time of the story”). Continue from there with the unfolding events that lead to your transformation. In this case, the events will be both external (sounds, sights) and internal (thoughts, emotions) since the story is about your experience of a change of perspective. 

TIP: When you’re adding narrative backstory in a scene, tread lightly. Background can give helpful information, but too much of it can dilute an otherwise engaging scene. Use what’s needed, save some for later.

Here are a few ways to engage readers with an emotional hook and a few examples from published memoir authors who do it.

1. Plant a question in a reader’s mind and create curiosity. The question you plant can come from out of narrative description that starts an opening scene.

Jeanette Walls (The Glass Castle)

I was sitting in a taxi, wondering if I had overdressed for the evening, when I looked out the window and saw Mom rooting through a dumpster.

2. Start with a line of dialog from an inciting scene. Here, action is taking place, there’s movement, unanswered questions are raised inspiring emotional engagement and curiosity (what will happen?).

Claude Brown (Manchild in the Promised Land)


Where? Oh hell Let’s get out of here!

“Turk, Turk! I’m shot!”

I could hear Turks’ voice calling from a far distance, telling me not to go into the fish and chips joint. I heard but didn’t understand. The only thing I knew was that I was going to die.

I ran. There was a  bullet in me trying to take my life, all thirteen years of it.

I climbed up on the bar yelling, “Walsh, I’m shot. I’m shot.” I could feel…..

3. Engage using intrigue.

Mary Karr (The Liar’s Club)

My sharpest memory is of a single instant surrounded by dark.

Elizabeth Gilbert (Eat, Pray, Love)

I wish Giovanni would kiss me. Oh, but there are so many reasons why this would be a terrible idea.

Kathryn Harrison (The Kiss)

We meet at airports. We meet in cities where we’re never been before. We meet where no one will recognize us.

4. Engage with a question. Answer it with the story.

William Maxwell (Nearing 90)

Out of the corner of my eye I see my ninetieth birthday approaching. It is one year and six months away. How long after that will I be the person I am now?

5. Engage using sensory details. Sensory details engage one or more of our five senses. Readers have a visceral understanding—they feel in their bodies because of what they’re reading. They are engaged.

Gretl Ehrlich (The Solace of Open Spaces)

It’s May and I’ve just awakened from a nap, curled against sagebrush the way my dog taught me to sleep—sheltered from wind. A front is pulling the huge sky over me, and from the dark a hailstone has hit me on the head. [here  comes the backstory–>] I’m trailing a band of two thousand sheep across a stretch of Wyoming badlands, a fifty-mile trip that takes five days because sheep shade up in hot sun and won’t budge until it’s cool.

Good starts are an important lead-in. Try your hand at a few kinds and go with the one you like best. Your readers will most likely turn the pages looking to read more.