Writers of nonfiction, including the academic variety, can often learn useful lessons from the more “artful” storytelling world of novelists, playwrights and filmmakers. The phrase “Once upon a time…,” despite or perhaps because of age (it’s apparently been in use since 1380), still evokes a sense of wonder. It’s a sense that has been exploited in numerous ways over the years, including George Lucas’ “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away….” in Star Wars to the title of Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West.
Sometimes opening words can take on a life all their own. Think of the first paragraph of Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” or “Rosebud,” the first word spoken in Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane. While Tolstoy’s sentence sets the tone for his novel, the dying word of Charles Foster Kane sets up a mystery (a question if you will) which the film’s story attempts to unravel.
Students are taught to write introductory paragraphs that clearly state what you are going to write about and how you are going to go about it. Unless you have been assigned to do one of those five-paragraph essays, your opening statement does not have to be your opening paragraph—it might even be several paragraphs long.
For instance, you could start off by telling an anecdote whose relevance to your topic is not initially evident. It could set up a mystery or question much like Welles did with “Rosebud.” One might also begin with an evocative quotation, such as “Once upon a time….” to start a book review of Bruno Bettelheim’s The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales, or Tolstoy’s “Happy families” to introduce your essay on the dynamics of families coping with schizophrenia.
While the use of anecdotes and/or quotations to start off your book or essay might seem a bit of a cliché, they can be useful literary devices to get you going. After all, it’s much more interesting than starting a term paper for your American Literature class with something as cut and dry as, “John Steinbeck was born on February 27, 1902, in Salinas, California.”
Tips for creative and other descriptive writing. Whether you’re writing a novel or ethnography, description places the reader in the scene.
That night at the hotel, in our room with the long empty hall outside and our shoes outside the door, a thick carpet on the floor of the room, outside the windows the rain falling and in the room light and pleasant and cheerful, then the light out and it exciting with smooth sheets and the bed comfortable, feeling that we had come home, feeling no longer alone, waking in the night to find the other one there, and not gone away; all other things were unreal.
— Ernest Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms
Good writing is good writing, whether it’s literature or a scholarly journal article.
Provide enough evidence so that the reader agrees with you. In the quote above, everything that precedes the last line is evidence for the private world of Hemingway’s characters, Henry and Catherine. We accept Hemingway’s assertion because we have experienced it for ourselves.
If you’re doing an ethnography or other academic writing, there is a paradox. Part of providing evidence is acknowledging alternative views. You want the reader to understand why you came to the conclusion you did.
In fiction writing, alternative perspectives are less important, since you don’t have to justify the existence of the world you are creating.
The point of this excerpt is that Henry and Catherine were living in their private world. The last words, “all other things were unreal,” says this explicitly. Don’t be afraid to be explicit.
Try to use all 5 senses, although not all at once, which would be overkill. The new writer’s tendency is to say what things look like, but if you place yourself in any situation, there is a lot more going on. The Hemingway passage is very tactile, even though it appears at first read to be visual. Smooth sheets, thick carpet, comfortable bed. Long empty halls come with a feeling, and subconsciously evoke smells, and even sounds or absence of sounds.
Focus on describing rather than telling. In this passage, Hemingway does not tell us the main characters Henry and Catherine are blissfully happy with each other, he uses words so we feel it.
Describing is NOT emotionally neutral. Hemingway’s images are deliberately chosen to evoke feelings. Good writing, especially good academic writing, has a definite perspective. Make your point without apology.
Economy of words. Eliminate words which don’t create images relevant to your point. Hemingway is famous for being lean and economical with his words. However, you can see that the carefully chosen images in the quote provide a rich sensual experience for the reader.