Engage Your Readers from the Start

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 Tahiti by yourself.

Where does the story begin? Start with a scene that’s close to the heart of the story. You’re traveling alone to an island known for romance. Is there an inciting incident that gave you the idea to go?

Next, give a little backstory (relevant background). You may want to describe where you were, why you went there, what your concerns about traveling alone may have been. Then return to the opening scene (“the time of the story”) and continue from there with the unfolding events. These events should be both external (sounds and sights) and internal (thoughts and emotions). 

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 background 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. 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 occurring, there’s movement, questions are raised evoking emotional engagement and inspiring 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 ready to read more.