We mustn't waste our readers' time. We need to grab their attention from the outset, from the first sentence and the first paragraphs of our memoirs.
How do we do that? By deliberately crafting an opening to draw them in.
We need to make our readers curious. To hook them. To keep them reading.
But most writers don't know how to craft an effective opening. In fact, many of us don't even know what, specifically, we want to communicate.
So we scatter a few words and sentences across our computer screen and then we add or delete or move a few words—until we realize we're just flailing around. And we thank God nobody is reading over our shoulder because first attempts can be really embarrassing.
But don't worry. Believe it or not, we are making progress. We are experimenting and, in the process, we're constructing scaffolding which will help us build a sturdy opening. Really.
Our scaffolding gets us going, provides momentum, and helps us zero in on the story we want to write.
"As the tennis player rallies before the game begins,
so must the writer.
And as the tennis player
is not concerned with where those first balls are going,
neither must the writer be concerned
with the first paragraph or two.
All you're doing is warming up."
Leonard S. Bernstein
Decades ago, I learned about scaffolding from Donald Murray, and later from Roy Peter Clark and Don Fry, authors of Coaching Writers: Editors and Writers Working Together. They say,
". . . Sometimes the writer must write her way into the story, creating sentences that can't appear in the final version but do get the writer to where she wants to go. So the writer erects a scaffold to build the story, but dismantles it to let the story show through."
So then, scaffolding is temporary, a structure that supports the construction of what will eventually stand alone.
"Good stories . . . leap right to their subjects, perhaps not in draft one, or draft six, but at some point, the introductory apparatus is cut, seen for what it is: scaffolding. You put up the elaborate and complicated and even beautiful scaffolding and build the cathedral. When the cathedral is complete, well, you take the scaffolding down." (Writing Life Stories)
So begin writing, knowing that later you might delete some or all of those initial attempts. (And nowadays, deleting and rearranging and rewriting are so much easier than they used to be—back when we used typewriters, sometimes manual typewriters, and later electric. If you've never typed compositions or articles or books on a typewriter, you have no idea how computers have revolutionized writers' lives!)
Readers will like us and our memoirs better
if we remove the scaffolding.
Because they don't want us to dillydally around. They want us to get right to the point.
When we do, our stories have punch, focus, and power.
Look over your memoir's opening. Read it aloud.
And answer these questions:
What is my memoir's main point—the story's purpose? Its signficance?
Do my first few paragraphs focus on or aim toward that main point?
Do my readers need to know this information? Or is it scaffolding—did I write it only to find my way into my story?
Dismantle your scaffolding. Let your story stand strong.