In the beginning — How to start strong: hook 'em with the first line.

June 3, 2024
7 min read
Photo by Emmanuel Denier on Unsplash
"Stories have the power to transport us. Start strong, grab them by the heart."
Maya Angelou
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In the beginning.

All narratives begin.

They all have a hook. To make them a story, grab emotion and speak to an audience. Connect information dramatically together with but, therefore, and meanwhile. Good stories drip information into the nooks and crannies of our minds.

We might be good at this. We can get better.

Lewis Carrol captured our default storytelling setting in Alice in Wonderland: “Begin at the beginning," the King said, very gravely, "and go on till you come to the end: then stop.”

But back to the beginning.

Our goal is to get people into the story, leaning forward, eager for what's to come. While we know all stories begin, the question is where they begin and in what tense they begin.

The tense serves different purposes.

Grammarians can get bogged down in simple past, present perfect, future simple, and past perfect. But that’s too confusing. For the rest of us, it's worth considering common narrative devices and how they might apply to our next piece of work.

If you get them right, they can help you connect with your audience, make complex information more understandable, and make your message more memorable.

Stories start in similar ways.

I’ll start with some famous stories.

These represent masterful, stereotypical beginnings. Here are six, each of which represents an iconic opening.

"The Hobbit" by J.R.R. Tolkien begins with the detailed backstory of Bilbo Baggins and his quiet life in the Shire before his grand adventure."Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope" opens with the iconic scene of Princess Leia's spaceship being boarded by Darth Vader's forces.“Gravity,” starring Sandra Bullock, begins with astronauts experiencing a catastrophic accident in space, instantly throwing them into a survival crisis.“The Princess Bride” starts with a grandfather reading a fairy tale to his sick grandson, setting up the primary tale of adventure and romance.“Fight Club” opens with Edward Norton holding a gun in his mouth, setting the dramatic tone for the movie.“Citizen Kane” begins with Charles Foster Kane's death, followed by a newsreel flashback that summarizes his life and achievements.

Each of these stories opens with a different narrative technique—a different tense—for its beginning:

  • "The Hobbit" starts with Ab ovo.
  • "Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope" opens with In media res.
  • “Gravity” plunges us In extremis.
  • “The Princess Bride” uses Frame story.
  • “Fight Club” begins with a Flashforward.
  • “Citizen Kane” calls for a Flashback.

You may not realize it—yet—but each of these devices can be added to your repertoire of openings for your next business presentation, pitch, or conversation.

Ab ovo.

A straightforward, chronological recount of past events. In The Hobbit, the narrative began from the very start, detailing the foundation and critical early developments step by step. Think The Godfather, Schindler’s List, or Batman Begins, all using this style.

Ab ovo—a Latin term which in English is "from the egg," classifies a story that starts from the very beginning, sets the stage, and provides the context required to establish the story.

In business, you might use this to provide a thorough background of a company, product, or project from its inception. It could be a detailed chronological telling of a company’s foundation, pivotal milestones, and evolution to its current state.

You might find ab ovo useful in onboarding materials or investor presentations, as it provides a full record and foundation. It is also ideal for in-depth training sessions for new employees or detailed documentary-style corporate history videos.

Beware, though. A straight retelling can be overly lengthy. Too much detail is tedious; too granular risks audience disengagement. Stick to what interests the audience. Cut out anything irrelevant or uncompelling.

Ab ovo might make use of different types of Hooks: an anecdote, an intriguing structure (key milestones), or a belief statement (core values or mission statement).

In media res.

Starting in the middle of the action captures attention quickly. In Star Wars, the story has begun at a pivotal moment, already in progress, with significant events unfolding. Think Reservoir Dogs, Breaking Bad, or Farside cartoons, all starting in media res.

In media res translates from Latin as "in the middle of things;" a style of opening that plunges the audience into the story at a crucial or dramatic moment.

It’s highly engaging. In a business context, it grabs mindshare, making it ideal for presentations and meetings where immediate attention is vital. You might start a presentation or story in the middle of a pressing moment—a dry sales pipeline, the eve of a major product launch, or an irate customer’s phone call.

This is an effective way of highlighting immediacy and urgency. In media res gets straight to the point.

But—too little context might confuse an audience. Handle in media res, carefully to ensure clarity. Supplementary explanations—to fill in background information and important details—may be required.

In media res might make use of different types of Hooks: a dramatic video or graphic, a rhetorical question (highlighting challenge), or a provocative statement (about the current situation).

In extremis.

This starts with a hyperbolic bang. In Gravity, the story is unfolding at a moment of extreme crisis or action, capturing the tension and urgency as it happens. Think Captain Phillips, The Martian, or War of the Worlds, all starting in extremis.

In extremis is a Latin phrase that means "in a desperate situation;" this narrative technique involves starting a story at a point of great intensity or at a climactic moment, often involving a crisis or a pivotal event. It’s similar to in media res but specifically focuses on the tension and drama of critical situations.

In a business narrative, you might describe a high-stakes situation or crisis the company is facing or has faced. It could be used in a training scenario, for example, a cyber-security attack. In extremis could be used to illustrate a pivotal judgment point—failing to innovate or move quickly in market—as part of a change management narrative. It’s ideal for emphasizing decision-making under pressure.

The hyper-reality of in extremis works for leadership talks or motivational speeches to illustrate resilience and strategic thinking.

You might watch out for the boy who cried wolf. Elaboration is exaggeration. Overly dramatizing situations overly alarms stakeholders. Overemphasizing a potential crisis could overbalance other positive aspects of the situation.

In extremis might make use of different types of Hooks: a high-stakes video or graphic, a rhetorical question (emphasizing the severity of the crisis), or a provocative statement (a bold claim about inaction).

Frame story.

A mini story that sets up the larger story. In The Princess Bride, the main narrative had been set within another story that was completed earlier, adding layers and context to the primary plot. Think Life of Pi, Forrest Gump, or Brideshead Revisited, all starting with a frame story.

In this narrative device, a story unfolds that allows a character within that story to tell another, larger story.  The introductory narrative sets the stage. The actual narrative begins after or within this frame, with the introductory one used to provide context or contrast.

The frame story is an anecdote that makes the larger message more relatable. You might use a customer story to frame a broader narrative about customer experience. Or a specific event to frame a broader strategic discussion or product introduction.

As a leader, you might use a frame story to reveal a coaching moment. “When I first joined this team, I faced a similar challenge...” The ability to draw parallels makes frame stories incredibly useful. It might work well in marketing to connect individual experiences to broader product benefits or company values. A case study or customer testimonials are mini-frame stories during sales presentations or marketing materials.

One caution: the frame might distract from the main message if it isn’t well integrated, is an overused technique, or the connection to the main message seems contrived. The main narrative must clearly connect back to the frame to avoid confusion or a disjointed presentation.

Frame story might make use of different types of Hooks: an anecdote (a customer story), a rhetorical question (relating to the frame story), or a thematic belief statement (connecting to the main story).


Start with the end. In Fight Club, the narrative will show what happens in the future, providing glimpses of upcoming events that shape the story's progression.  Think How I Met Your Mother, a long-running comedy whose whole premise is a flashforward.

Flashforward is self-explanatory.  It’s a glimpse of the future, with the implication that the following story is how we get there. Although it’s not used that often in cinema and TV, it’s especially effective in business storytelling.

Product storytelling is all flashforward. The storyteller gives a glimpse of a better you (the audience) in the near future. This could be a kick-off: presenting future goals to set expectations and motivate towards achievements. “Imagine a world...” Outlining future projections and the strategic steps the company plans to achieve these goals. Flashforward is useful in strategic or vision-sharing sessions to inspire and align teams. It also works for planning meetings, investor pitches, and forward-looking sections of annual reports.

The watch out is in the abstract. Vague visions don’t help much. The more concrete you can make it, the better. Otherwise, you risk creating unrealistic expectations or dependencies on outcomes that may not materialize. Wildly speculative can be misleading and unrealistic.

Flashforward might make use of different types of Hooks: a video or graphic (showing a future state), an intriguing structure (a roadmap to the future state), or a future-state belief statement (the vision).


A quick reminder of a past event. In Citizen Kane, the story had revisited key moments completed before the current events, enriching the ongoing story with necessary background. Think Memento, a story crafted from flashbacks, The Godfather Part II, or episodes of Orange Is The New Black.

We are familiar with flashbacks—reflections of past events used to set up the message. They’re useful as they establish common ground and shared context for the audience.

In a business narrative, the flashback provides a stepping stone to a lesson learned, a pathway to what good looks like. It’s informative of current practices or pending decisions.

You will find them in retrospectives and annual reports. Change leaders use them in messaging to link past experiences with present decisions. They are also effective in project debriefs, training material, or continuous improvement processes.

The caution with flashback is functional fixedness—which is true of almost any frame you use to set up a story. If you talk about the last time you used a hammer, the tendency is to view every problem as a nail. Flashbacks can lead to an excessive focus on the past, potentially hindering innovation or forcing myopia on new challenges. Nostalgia over past successes can distract from a clear-eyed view of the future.

Flashback might make use of different types of Hooks: an anecdote (telling a story of past success or failure),  a rhetorical question (asking a question about a past event), or humor ( a funny retelling, shedding light on a current situation).

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