An opening paragraph should do two jobs: it should tell the reader what the work is about, and it should make the reader want to read about it.
The opening paragraph needs to do both jobs well. If the reader can’t tell what the writer wants to say, or it’s not very interesting, he’ll put the computer on “sleep” mode and go eat some potato chips instead.
To prevent this, the opening paragraph needs to include the main point of the work. The main point goes by a lot of different names, for example, the thesis statement, the topic statement or the central idea. But it’s always the point that the writer most wants to get across to the audience. It’s the writer’s reason for writing the work.
For example, suppose you were out driving around and you witnessed an accident at an intersection that had a two-way stop sign. There are trees and buildings at the intersection, and it’s hard for the people with the stop sign to see oncoming traffic. You remember hearing about several other accidents at this intersection. “Gee,” you think, “this intersection should be a four-way stop.”
So you decide to write a letter to the editor calling for the city to make this change. Somewhere in your opening paragraph you need to state, “The intersection of Elm Street and Clark Road should be a four-way-stop.” That’s because this is your main point. Readers want you to get to the main point without much delay, because human brains are wired to think linearly. Readers want to hear what you think and then why you think it in a nice logical order.
The main point doesn’t have to be in your first sentence, however, and usually it’s better if it isn’t. As a reader yourself, you know you like to be engaged; you like to be drawn into something interesting the writer has to offer. So an opening paragraph should begin with a “hook” that grabs the reader. The article should start out promising the reader some value for his time, either in entertainment, useful information, or discussion of an important issue.
Here are some suggestions for hooks:
A question, such as “Do you know there is an intersection in town that is very unsafe?”
An attention-grabbing statement, such as “Our city council is neglecting the safety of our residents.”
A story, such as the story of the accident you saw. Make it short, though. Opening paragraphs should always be short, or you’ll lose the reader’s interest
Fiction writers know how to write an opening paragraph that captivates readers. For example Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina begins, “Happy families are all alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” This makes the reader think, “It’s about an unhappy family. Who’s unhappy? Why are they unhappy? I want to hear the story about the unhappy family.” Tolstoy told his readers what the book is about, and also provided the hook.
Non-fiction writers can use these same techniques for getting their readers on board, with a good opening paragraph.