Robin Rendle

First you notice the letter

Friends! Pals! Comrades!

Every good piece of writing is hiding a secret; whether that’s a great novel or a glowing newsletter, a fine blog post or a videogame that keeps you up at night. It’s a secret that took me years to uncover but now I think I have it: great writing will have no introduction, no waffling, and starts everything right in the middle, halfway through.

A good example of this is at the beginning of Uncharted 2: Drake’s Fortune. We do not see our protagonist Nathan Drake heading to the train station, buying his ticket, grabbing a coffee, hopping on the train, finding his seat, taking off his coat, and then finally settling down for the trip. Instead, the game cuts to Drake waking up in his seat upside down with the train teetering on the edge of a cliff in the Himalayas; suitcases are crashing down all around him and into the open maw of a giant canyon.

This silly game about climbing things reminds me that there’s only one writing tip worth a damn: always start with the drama.

Sure, you can begin your story at the train station if you like, but if we start with the drama and then trust the reader to figure out what happened it ends up being so much more satisfying for them. And this writing tip applies to video games as much as it does to books, blog posts, and film: A New Hope begins with two ships in chase. Within half a minute we understand what’s going on without the need for a single word to be spoken or an introductory preamble as to which ship is which. I could go on endlessly with examples. In fiction? “Call me Ishmael.” But wait—who is this? Where am I? What is going on? I have no earthly idea, but tell me more!

Beginning in the middle of a story is a cheap but effective trick and it took me about a decade to figure out. You can tell in my early writing, and with each rambling introduction, that I hoped the reader would be tagging along for the ride. But over explaining things always feels patronizing and I’ve noticed how so much writing today begins like this:

“In this essay I will conclude that…”

It’s this type of stuff that makes writing not particularly exciting to read. You’re left with a story that’s stuck in the dirt with the tires spinning. There’s no momentum, no drive or mystery.

After learning this secret I now try to jump halfway into whatever point I’m making for two reasons. First, this jolts the reader awake. “Pay attention!” the introductory sentence should declare. Second, I jump into the middle so that I can then enjoy the fun of trying to explain my way out of it. And one small example of this done well is the introduction to an essay that I wrote years ago all about typography and graphic design:

“First you notice the letter.”

I make no apologies for the fonts not working on this page, as I like that this little website is preserved in amber—ever so slowly breaking down as web tech changes.

But what does this introduction that mean? Who is the you here? What is this whole thing about and what the heck has this got to do with anything? Where am I? Eh?

I’m not saying this piece is the model for what all writing should—it surely isn’t—but that introduction is what I now aspire to with everything else that I write. This essay could’ve started like any other blog post or book or television show about design. You know the stuff already because we’ve all heard it a million times before: “Typography is all around us. It’s the art of visualizing the way that…” blah, blah, blah! Screw everything about all of that. Instead: throw me in the deep end because otherwise why should I care?

All of this is to say that we need to stop patronizing our readers by explaining everything away at the beginning. Instead, if we start halfway through the story where the drama is thickest we can trust our readers to fill in the gaps for themselves.

And we can also leave a bit of mystery behind us, too.