Openers work hard to keep you reading

The opening paragraph of a memoir (well... any story, really) has to work hard to keep you reading.

It should:

  • introduce the plot
  • show some of the themes of the story
  • give a sense of the style of writing
  • possibly include some sort of interesting detail to hook you in

The plot is what happens in a story.
A theme is a central idea that’s throughout a story.

Let’s use Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s (or Sorcerer’s) Stone as an example. 

  • Plot: It’s about a boy who went to wizarding school and defeated a dark wizard 
  • Themes: It’s about love, friendship and humility vs greed for power

Let’s look at how Trevor Noah opens his memoir. Think about how it gives you a taste of plot, themes and style. What interesting details does he use to hook you in?

I was nine years old when my mother threw me out of a moving car.

It happened on a Sunday. I know it was on a Sunday because we were coming home from church, and every Sunday in my childhood meant church. We never missed church. My mother was—and still is—a deeply religious woman. Very Christian. Like indigenous peoples around the world, black South Africans adopted the religion of our colonizers. By “adopt” I mean it was forced on us.

From reading this, what do you think the story is about? What themes do you think it will cover? How would you describe his writing style? Funny, dramatic, loud, quiet? Finally, are there any interesting details Noah includes to get your attention?
  • Plot: It looks like it’s going to be about Noah’s childhood, his relationship with his family and religion, and his experiences as an indigenous South African living with apartheid.  
  • Themes: It looks like it could be about determination, discrimination, overcoming adversity, poverty and survival.
  • Style: It’s written in a very ‘straight talking’ opinionated style.
  • Interesting details: Are you kidding? “I was nine years old when my mother threw me out of a moving car.” OMG!

Whether you want to continue reading Noah’s memoirs would depend on what you like in a story, but this introduction gives you a snapshot as to what you can expect if you go on.

Moving car

Let’s look at some other openers.