Module-Fifteen (Word)


The Completion Club

Module Fifteen – The Ingredients of a Winning First Chapter (Non-


“The beginning is the most important part of the work.” – Plato

In the current competitive marketplace, non-fiction writers need to wow agents and publishers with a strong opening, just as fiction writers do. This module encourages you to think about your non-fiction manuscript from the perspective of the reader who picks it up for the first time. What can you do to entice the reader into your world?

How can you make your factual material exciting and vibrant so that the reader has no choice but to continue reading?

Non-fiction, of course, covers an extremely broad spectrum of work from memoir to technical books on DIY! No matter what the focus of your non-fiction book however, if you write an opening that is in some way compelling, then you are half way to convincing the agent/publisher to buy and the reader to fall in love with your book.

In this module, I’ll take a close look at just one successful example of a strong opening to see what we can draw from the example that may be useful in our own work:


‘Outliers’ – by Malcolm Gladwell

Gladwell opens his book with an introduction entitled ‘The Roseto Mystery’, followed by a quotation:

“These people were dying of old age, that’s it.”

Immediately he has grabbed us. First, we have a ‘mystery’. We are told it is a mystery and the word ‘Roseto’ sounds mysterious in itself. (That title follows the formula – “tell us something we know (i.e. it is mysterious and we like mysteries) and something we don’t know (i.e. we haven’t a clue what Roseto refers to)) We are drawn in. The quotation adds something new. Who are these people dying of old age?

Gladwell then goes on to define the term ‘Outlier’. It is, essentially, ‘something that is situated away from or classed differently from a main or related body and ‘a statistical observation that is markedly different in value from the others of the sample’. In choosing an unusual title ‘Outliers’, Gladwell has already drawn us in.

Already he is saying ‘I am talking about anomalies and why some people stand out from the crowd, why they are successful and others aren’t. By choosing the concept of ‘success’ (something we know about) and ‘outlier’ (something we don’t know about) he is indicating that he has something unique and as yet unknown to say on the subject.

Then, Gladwell launches into his story. He is about to tell us about a group of people who emigrate from Rome to New York – yet even in their new environment, they thrive and live longer lives than anyone around them… It’s an intriguing story. That word ‘story’ is key. He sets up a factual tale, but he does it in prose that is rather like memoir or a novel. He describes his setting ‘In the style of medieval villages, the town is organised around a large central square… Narrow stone steps run up the hillside, flanked by closely clustered two-story stone houses with red-tile roofs.’

Note that Gladwell doesn’t rush. He isn’t worried that we’ll be bored by the detail of his setting. He trusts his reader to be drawn into the mystery, so he uses detail to make this world come alive. But – and here’s the important bit – by the third paragraph we have, ‘In January 1882, a group of eleven Rosetans – ten men and one boy – set sail for New York.’ Just as in fiction, we have an inciting incident here.

Something has happened to change the lives of these people and we, the reader are prepared for a story.

Gladwell goes on to describe how the villagers settled in an area of rocky hillside, naming their new dwelling ‘Roseta’; he describes how the new town came to thrive

‘The Rosetans began raising pigs in their backyards and growing grapes for homemade wine’. They spoke Italian there, it was ‘its own tiny, self-sufficient world

– all but unknown by the society around it – and it might well have remained so but for a man named Stewart Wolf’.

We are at the end of the fifth paragraph of the introduction, but already we have a

‘mystery’ set up, we know it’s something to do with ‘longevity’, we have a clear sense of place and time and we want to read on. Not only have these people settled in a new land but NOW there’s another dramatic turning point. (We’re only five paragraphs in and here’s a second drama!) Wolf, in the 1950s, learns from a local doctor that only rarely does anyone under the age of sixty-five get heart disease in


Roseto… at a time when heart disease was endemic in the USA. So what Gladwell has done here is get to the nub of his story, his mystery – and quickly – but he has also delighted us with this mystery – a story that he has found and unravelled for our delight!

Gladwell goes further in revealing the details of Wolf’s study. Wolf discovered that men over the age of 65 had a death rate that was half that of other men in the USA.

But Gladwell’s coup is that he interviews a colleague still alive today:

‘This happened more than fifty years ago, but Bruhn still had a sense of amazement in his voice as he described what they found. “There was no suicide, no alcoholism, no drug addiction, and very little crime. They didn’t have anyone on welfare. Then we looked at peptic ulcers. They didn’t have any of those either. These people were dying of old age. That’s it.’

By bringing in a first-person witness, Gladwell is able to introduce dialogue and a present drama into his narrative. The wonder of this discovery feels very vivid as a result. And this it turns out is where Gladwell found the term outlier. The normal rules did not apply.

Part Two of Gladwell’s introduction goes on to reveal the next stages of Wolf’s discoveries. He overturns our expectations. We discover that it’s not diet ‘ a whopping 41 per cent of their calories came from fat.’ Nor was it ‘a town where people got up at dawn to do yoga’. They smoked heavily and many were struggling with obesity (see how Gladwell keeps the suspense going…) Wolf disproves the idea that it’s genetics (other cousins of the Rosetans in other parts of the States didn’t share the good health). The next paragraph checks out the region…Nope, in the neighbouring towns, the death rates from heart disease were high.

Paragraph by paragraph Gladwell destroys the theories. Then we reach this: ‘What

Wolf began to realize was that the secret of Roseto wasn’t diet or exercise or genes or location. It had to be Roseto itself.’ It turns out that when they looked at the social structure, generations living together under one roof, the calming effect of the church, the egalitarian ethos - they discovered this was key. ‘The Rosetans were healthy because of where they were from, because of the world they had created for themselves in their tiny little town in the hills.’

In the final pages of the chapter, Gladwell brings the first person view back in: ‘It was magical’ Bruhn said. And he discusses the implications of the discovery and how difficult it was to convince the medical establishment to think about health and heart attacks in such an entirely new way. ‘They had to appreciate the idea that the values of the world we inhabit and the people we surround ourselves with have a profound effect on who we are. In Outliers, I want to do for our understanding of success what

Stewart Wolf did for our understanding of health.’

So Gladwell concludes his chapter by saying, in effect, ‘Not only have I told you this delightful story of new discovery, but I’m also going to apply this to how we think about success.’ As readers, we all know that we have endless preconceptions on this fascinating subject and we are ready to have them smashed by Gladwell (doubtless in the form of more engaging stories, just like this one…)


Exercise Fifteen - How to use this analysis:

You might not be writing a book that has anything in common with Gladwell’s in terms of style. However, there may, all the same, be something in the description of his narrative that gives you a fresh insight into how you entice the reader in. What might that be? You might like to read (or reread) the Gladwell chapter to see what else he does that I have missed.

Alternatively, this short analysis might inspire you to do a similar analysis of a nonfiction book (or several) that have more in common with your own work that

Gladwell’s does:

Take an hour to gather three or four non-fiction books that bear some relation to your own work. Read the opening chapter (or part of the opening chapters if they are long) of each book, taking notes as you go. How does the author draw you in? What is he/she doing structurally that intrigues you? How does the language work? What is the hook? What’s the pace like? Is story used? Dialogue? If not, what is engaging you? And what could you do that they don’t


Once you have done this, take some time to reflect on what you have learnt. Then, perhaps the following day, return to your own opening chapter and ask yourself what you could change to make your opening grab the reader more directly. (It may be perfect already in which case, hooray!)

If there is something to add, spend an hour working on your opening to notch it up to the next level with the aim of drawing the reader in immediately, so that they won’t want to put your book down…