Good writing captures the imagination of the reader, grabs and holds his attention, compels her to keep reading. It creates interest and makes her care about the story, the people, the problem, or theme. It affects him deeply, almost spiritually, as if the reader does not have the option of putting down the book, the article, or the essay. She must keep reading. He has to find out what happens next. She wants to know the outcome. He is hooked.
The same is true of any form of communication: television commercials, sitcoms, and movies; micro fiction, short stories, and novels; essays and narrative nonfiction; poetry and songs; speeches and sermons. When done well, it latches onto something inside the mind or the soul of the hearer, viewer, or reader.
This happened to me the first time I read Longfellow’s Evangeline. My wife had recommended it, so I picked it up at a used book store and sat down on the sofa to read on my day off. From the opening, I was hooked. The opening lines from the first page: THIS is the forest primeval. The murmuring pines and the hemlocks, Bearded with moss, and in garments green, indistinct in the twilight (Longfellow, 95).
The story line, the language, the imagery, and the human pathos captivated me. I read the entire story that day, tears in my eyes several times. Being a guy who has always preferred nonfiction, that was the first time I was genuinely moved emotionally by a piece of fiction. I didn’t know how to process my own reaction.
Business communications consultant Milo Frank says, “The attention span of the average individual is 30 seconds. Let me give you an example. Look around the room and concentrate on a lamp. You’ll find your mind goes to something else within 30 seconds. If the lamp could move or talk, or go on and off by itself, it would recapture your attention for another 30 seconds. But without motion or change, it cannot hold you” (Frank, 15).
It is for this reason that William Zinsser writes in his chapter titled “The Lead and the Ending,” The most importance sentence in any article is the first one. If it doesn’t induce the reader to proceed to the second sentence, your article is dead. And if the second sentence doesn’t induce him to continue to the third sentence, it’s equally dead. Of such a progression of sentences, each tugging the reader forward until he is hooked, a writer constructs that fateful unit, the “lead” (Zinsser, 55).
If this is true, writers who want their stuff to be read will use a variety of means to hook and maintain the reader’s attention throughout the work, not just at the beginning. Because his mind can only focus for thirty seconds, every word, every sentence, and every paragraph has to reengage the reader, reconnecting him to the story for another half-minute. There has to be motion, change, something of interest. Even in non-fiction. Otherwise, the average reader will set aside your piece and find something more fascinating.