Memoir Basics 4: Writing an eye-catching opener

Memoir openers

Opening with a dramatic point in the story

Let’s revisit Trevor Noah’s opener. 

If you look closely, it’s a train of thought that covers a lot of ground.

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.

It's Trevor Noah: Born a Crime: (YA edition)Trevor NoahSource
Our thoughts... (again)

It starts up close, then goes back bit by bit, like a film camera zooming back.

  1. Close up of a dramatic event.
  2. Zoom back to the day’s events.
  3. Zoom back more to family and beliefs.
  4. Zoom a long way back to South African society.

Let’s look at some examples which follow the same structure.

The only time I ever broke a bone was when I jumped out the second floor window at my school.

It was a Thursday. I know for sure it was Thursday because I’d been worried about a maths test and maths tests were always on a Friday. I hated maths. It wasn’t just the subject, it was the teacher. My grade 6 teacher loved—even enjoyed—making me miserable. And she wasn’t even unusual. I went to a strict private school where teachers were expected to discipline first, teach second. And by discipline, I mean make your life a living nightmare. 

I was six years old when my parents accidentally left me in a department store. 

It happened during the Boxing Day Sale. I know it was Boxing Day because my brother wanted a PlayStation for Christmas, but got a voucher instead. He went mental, so we all went to the store as soon as it reopened. My brother always went mental when he didn’t get what he wanted immediately. He was—is—a massive pain in the butt. Very spoilt. Like many families with ‘traditional cultural values’, my family thought the boys in the house could do no wrong and the girls could do no right. Unless we girls kept quiet, dressed pretty, and cleaned and cooked, that is.

Writing tip: if you zoom back too far too quickly, you might run out of things to write about and may have to go back and start again. So try to think one step ahead of where you’re at.

Examples
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