Excluding scientific and technical writing (which often has pre-established formats), most other topics lend themselves to a variety of introductory gambits. Suppose the assignment is to write a literary analysis of Vladimir Nabokov’s novel Lolita. Below are several different ways to start that essay. Please note that not all introductions would be appropriate for one particular thesis or approach. But having a repertoire of openings at our disposal often helps lead us to insights we didn’t know we had.
Begin with a quotation
Although this approach can be overused, it can be very effective when you have an appropriate quotation. That quotation may relate directly to the subject or it may be only indirectly related (and thus require further explanation). Do not force a quotation into this spot; if an appropriate quotation is not available, select another method.
- "The novel Lolita," the critic Charles Blight said in 1959, "is proof that American civilization is on the verge of total moral collapse" (45). The judgment of critics and readers in subsequent years, however, has proclaimed Lolita to be one of the great love stories of all time and one of the best proofs that American civilization is still vibrant and alive.
- "Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul" (11). These opening lines of Lolita reveal the essence of Humbert’s complexity and compulsion, his saving grace and his damning passion.
Begin with a concession
Start with a statement recognizing an opinion or approach different from the one you plan to take in your essay.
- Many critics have pointed to the unrelenting word games and puns throughout Lolita as proof that Vladimir Nabokov’s major concern has always been language and art. Although these subjects certainly loom in all his works, a close examination of Lolita reveals that morality — the way people treat each other — is just as major a concern for him as language and art.
Begin with a paradox
A paradox is a seeming self contradiction.
- By 1959 Vladimir Nabokov’s novel Lolita had been banned in several cities as pornographic. Today it is required reading not only in literature courses but also in philosophy courses that explore the nature of love. Since its publication, the novel’s subject has been recognized to be love, not lust; art, not perversion.
Begin with a short anecdote or narrative
- When the original movie version of Lolita was released in the early 1960s, Sue Lyon, the young actress who starred as the provocative "nymphet" of the title, was judged too young to be allowed to see the movie in the theater.
Begin with an interesting fact or statistic
- Joseph Conrad and Vladimir Nabokov — two acknowledged masters of English prose — were not even native speakers of English. Conrad’s native tongue was Polish; Nabokov’s, Russian.
Begin with a question or several questions that will be answered in the paper
- How could a book now acknowledged as a masterpiece not only of fiction but also of English prose have been banned when it was published? How could a novel that dealt with love and art be thought of as pornographic? Why would a society so mindful of free speech as America ban any book in the first place?
Begin with relevant background material
Background material should be presented concisely and should be clearly related to your thesis. A rambling discussion of material only remotely related to your main point will confuse and bore your readers.
- Although he was born in Russia and lived for many years in England, Germany, and France before coming to America in 1941, Vladimir Nabokov is now considered one of the great American novelists of the 20th century. This opinion, however, is not based solely on his mastery of English prose. His novel Lolita has been said to have captured the essence of American life in the 1950s better than any novel written by a writer born in this country.
Begin by stating a long-term effect or effects without immediately stating the cause
- It caused howls of protest from the guardians of public morality in the 1950s. Indirectly it helped bring about both artistic and personal freedom in the 1960s. Today it is a recognized classic of art and thought — Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita.
Begin with an analogy
- Like a hurricane that brings fear and panic along with its powerful winds, uprooting trees and disrupting belief in an all-merciful God, so the novel Lolita swept across America in the 1950s, bringing fear and panic that pedophilia would be loosed on the land. Instead, the novel, like a hurricane, blew over trees of thought that were not deeply rooted in American experience, exposing their gnarled premises while helping to clear the way for the artistic freedom of the 1960s.
Begin with a definition of a term that is important to your essay
Avoid simple dictionary definitions. Create an expanded definition that explains how the term applies to your topic and essay.
- Every few years the ugly charge of "pornography" is aimed at some novel or movie. Never was the term more inappropriately used than in the case of Lolita, yet the taint of that word still lingers in the minds of many when they hear the book’s title. What exactly is "pornography" that it should stir such feelings and be so hated? The problem, of course, is that no one can agree on what pornography actually is. That it has something to do with sex seems clear; beyond that, there is a chaos of opinion. When the small-minded or special-interest definitions are pushed aside, however, we are left with D.H. Lawrence’s provocative definition: pornography is anything that "does dirt on sex." By that definition, Lolita is the opposite of pornography — it is a celebration of sex and love.
Why Introductions Matter
- The opening paragraph is your first chance to make a good impression—to grab your readers' interest and make them want to keep reading your paper. A thoughtful, imaginative introduction will persuade your readers that you—and your ideas—are worthy of their time and attention. A poorly written or boring introduction, on the other hand, will create a bad impression and will make readers wonder why they should bother spending time in your company.
- The introduction identifies the topic you are addressing, indicates why the topic matters, and often signals the approach and the tone (or attitude) you will take in your handling of that topic.
- The opening paragraph provides a kind of road map for your readers, alerting them to what they can expect as they travel through your paper. In a thesis-driven paper, the thesis statement is usually located in the introduction, often at the end of the first paragraph.
Tips for Writing Effective Introductions
Try writing your introduction last. Often, writers don't know exactly what they want to say or what their thesis actually is until they have finished the first draft.
For narratives or personal response essays, offer a hook—an intriguing anecdote, a telling description, a scintillating quotation, a startling fact, or a provocative statement or question—to capture readers' interest.
For other types of academic writing, including research papers, literature reviews, and summaries, begin with a statement of the problem the paper addresses, followed by background information on the problem and why it is significant. Then, provide an explanation of the focus and purpose of the paper, and conclude with the thesis statement and/or a brief summary of the paper's contents. (See our handout on “Formal Academic Introductions” for examples.)
Examples of Effective Introductions
An introduction using description (and an anecdote as well)
“A weasel is wild. Who knows what he thinks? He sleeps in his underground den, his tail draped over his nose. Sometimes he lives in his den for two days without leaving. Outside, he stalks rabbits, mice, muskrats, and birds, killing more bodies than he can eat warm, and often dragging the carcasses home. Obedient to instinct, he bites his prey at the neck, either splitting the jugular vein at the throat or crunching the brain at the base of the skull, and he does not let go. One naturalist refused to kill a weasel who was socketed into his hand deeply as a rattlesnake. The man could in no way pry the tiny weasel off, and he had to walk half a mile to water, the weasel dangling from his palm, and soak him off like a stubborn label.”
-Annie Dillard, Living Like Weasels
An introduction using a provocative statement
“I am an academic call girl. I write college kids' papers for a living. Term papers, book reports, senior theses, take-home exams….”
-Abigail Witherspoon, This Pen for Hire
An introduction using a quotation
“‘Where I was born and where and how I have lived is unimportant,' Georgia O'Keefe told us in the book of paintings and words published in her ninetieth year on earth. She seemed to be advising us to forget the beautiful face in the Stieglitz photographs. She appeared to be dismissing the rather condescending romance that had attached to her by then, the romance of extreme good looks and advanced age and deliberate isolation….”
-Joan Didion, Georgia O'Keefe
Types of Introductions to Handle with Care
The "Restating the Question" Introduction
Professors often find themselves reading a stack of papers that all begin with a restatement of the question they themselves wrote. If you choose to begin your paper with the question, try to do so in an interesting way that goes beyond mere restatement.
Example of a weak opening that restates the question
“Does Beowulf make the correct decision when he elects to fight the dragon? Yes, he does. The reason why is that he does indeed know, like all mortals, that he must die, and so he meets his fate heroically.”
Example of a more effective strategy
“Beowulf's arrogance, bravery, self-sacrifice and the loyalty he inspires in his men all make him one of literature's most heroic figures. Although some critics, including Beowulf's own retainer, have complained that fighting the dragon was a prideful and foolish act, he clearly had no other choice.”
The "According to Webster's Dictionary" Introduction
This introductory strategy is used so often that it has become a cliché. It is important to define the terms of a discussion; indeed, in many essays, stipulating how you are using terms is crucial. However, the introduction probably isn't the best place to do so. If you do choose to define your terms in the opener, try to do it in a way that is creative and original.
Example of a weak opening using a definition
“The American Heritage Dictionary defines weak as ‘Lacking physical strength, energy, or vigor; feeble….Likely to fail under pressure, stress, or strain; lacking resistance: a weak link in a chain.'”
Example of a more creative approach
“ ‘Asymptotic freedom.' It was the first and only piece of text that had intruded into the long rows of equations and symbols that covered that morning's blackboard. Perhaps that accounts for the words being so seared into my memory. Or perhaps it was just the first thing on the board that morning that made any sense to my numerically challenged mind. ‘Asymptotic freedom.' What beautiful words. The dictionary defines the term as referring to “a property of the forces between quarks, according to quantum chromodynamics, such as that they behave almost like free particles when they are close together within a hadron.' You would probably need a graduate course in quantum physics to truly understand the concept, but it is basically a fairly simple notion. An ‘asymptote' is a line on a graph that extends into infinity.”
-Christopher Livaccari, qtd in Frames of Mind, 398
The "Since the Beginning of Time" Introduction
Here, the writer makes sweeping generalizations or vague assertions about the topic. Such introductions often lack a thesis, suggesting that the writer does not have much to say. Ask: Can I cross out my opening paragraph with no loss of impact or meaning? If the answer is yes, then it's time to revise!
Example of a weak “since the beginning of time” introduction
“Since the beginning of history, poverty and inequality have been a problem for mankind.”
Example of a more effective approach
“It is a melancholy object to those who walk through this great town, or travel in the country, when they see the streets, the roads and cabin-doors crowded with beggars of the female sex, followed by three, four, or six children, all in rags, and importuning every passenger for alms….
-Jonathan Swift, A Modest Proposal
Webster University Writing Center, 2005