How to Keep Readers Reading Long After The First Line
Featuring Michael Thompson's article: "My Life Began the Day I Lost $250,000"
I’m going to think highly of your writing experience for a minute and assume you know what a cliffhanger is.
Cliffhangers are familiar to anyone who has studied writing.
Less familiar is something called an internal cliffhanger.
Internal cliffhangers are the subtle words and ploys that keep a reader moving from paragraph to paragraph, and not just from page to page or chapter to chapter. In film or television, this is relatively easy:
Go to a spooky mansion and make your two main characters split up.
Show Sally climbing the stairs, looking at dusty pictures.
Cut to Jim slowly opening a door and peering into the dark room behind it.
Bam — instant tension.
In writing, you don’t have visuals. How can you deploy internal cliffhangers with words alone?
Instead of drowning you in research, I’d like to present one clear example by my good friend Michael Thompson. Mike is a great storyteller and an all-around fun fellow.
The article is called My Life Began the Day I Lost $250,000.
I’m switching up the format a bit, and talking about 4 main lessons I learned from the first 4 paragraphs of the article
Lesson 1: Jump Right Into the Action
“The phone rang. This was it, I thought. At last, all the years of struggle I’d endured were about to be worth it.”
Michael uses two main tactics that immediately plunge us into the story.
The first is content-based. The second is grammar-based.
First: he doesn’t give anything away up front.
Think about your favorite TV shows for a moment. What happens at the beginning of each episode? Do they introduce characters formally? Do they tell you what’s going to happen? No.
Frasier begins with our main character shouting at someone into a microphone. The very first episode of The Crown starts with a sick man spitting blood. How I Met Your Mother opens with a proposal.
Michael doesn’t tell us who’s calling. He doesn’t tell us where he is. He doesn’t tell us why the phone call might be important. Those cards are too interesting to be given away right at the start.
The second tactic: immediate use of a concrete action verb.
Selecting a tangible action verb like “rang” may seem innocent, but Mike’s choice here is backed by brain science. Research has shown us that our brains respond to reading descriptions like this. When you scan the opening line — the phone rang —it isn’t just the language processing area of your brain at work. Your mind is lighting up in the same areas that would go off if a phone actually rang beside you.
You read on, wondering if Michael’s effort will pay off.
Lesson 2: Add Storytelling To The Opening of Your Articles
“Growing up with a severe speech impediment and social anxiety, I had a very limited view of what I was capable of accomplishing. But as I grew into adulthood, I began to push myself far beyond my comfort zone. I hired a communication coach and threw myself into a sales job, where I’d be forced to talk to people every day. And I became good at what I did, working my way up to managing a sales team. I got a taste of success, and then I wanted more. I began dabbling in real estate investments in Central America.”
Can you imagine if the story started this way?
Probably you wouldn’t have gotten past the first 3 words. That’s why great opening lines are important. Since you’re already wondering why the phone rang, you’re willing to learn who this Michael person is. As he spills out concrete and tangible details, you begin to understand more about the stakes.
“If he did all this work, no wonder he’s stressed out about the phone call,” you think. Your eyes flit toward the end of the paragraph, where a warning sign catches your eye:
“I got a taste of success, and then I wanted more.”
This is another internal cliffhanger.
The seeds of destruction have been sown. Michael’s reference here reminds us of the lessons laid down in almost every story since Icarus: the hero who wants more is punished.
You have to know what happens next.
Lesson 3: Answer Old Questions While Opening New Ones
“ I was 29 years old, and for the first time in my life, I felt like I could do anything. I was about to close the deal on the sale of my investment property, which would net me a $250,000 payout.”
Great writing consistently wraps up old questions and opens new ones.
Michael closes a few doors in this paragraph. After the struggle with speech impediments and forced growth, he has arrived — a seemingly invincible 29-year-old. He’s referenced a $250,000 payout. That’s not all he does in these two sentences, though.
Look at the verb choice again: “…which would net me.”
These aren’t concrete verbs, they are future-projecting verbs. You’re pulled back into the future.
You’re seeing what Michael is seeing. You can visualize the win. You want that $250,000 just as badly as he does. And then, after a paragraph break, something happens:
Lesson 4: End Your Paragraphs at Moments of High Drama
“But the moment I heard the voice on the other end of the line, I knew something was wrong. My stomach began to drop.”
This is a classic cliffhanger play. Instead of doing it at the end of an episode, Michael leaves a paragraph break, making us suffer a gaping 12 pixels of agony.
You obviously continue.
“After a long pause, the man — my partner in the deal, and someone who I’d once considered family — gave me the news. ‘Michael, the money isn’t coming,’ he said. ‘The deal is dead.’”
Note the finality in this last line here: “The deal is dead.”
Mike doesn’t use the word “finished” or “fallen through.” He doesn’t retreat to a word like “over.” A lazier writer would sink even further, tossing out a pitiful helping verb like: “isn’t happening.”
No, the deal must be “dead.”
This is a powerful metaphor. It helps us understand exactly how Michael felt at the moment. The devastation of this phone call is drilled home. It’s not just a bad day at the office.
Mike’s word choice is great, but the rhythm of the sentence might be even better. As you read through the paragraph, you move from a long sentence to shorter ones. This gives you the feeling that you’re flowing along nicely… until you slam into the brick wall.
For the writing technicians, this is called “hypotaxis” (the long sentences) and “parataxis” (the short ones).
After 220 words, the story of the phone call wraps up. Even though many of our questions have been answered, we know Michael’s story is just beginning. No matter what happens after this point, we know his life can never be the same.
In addition to each paragraph having cliffhangers, the whole first scene is a cliffhanger for the rest of the story.
We have to know… what happens next?
Much love as always <3
-Todd B from Tennessee
As always, great breakdown.
And yes, your mic works :)