The Warm Chocolate Brownie – How To Write Leads Readers Can’t Resist
By Lee Ridley
A great lead is like that first spoonful of a warm chocolate brownie smothered in melting vanilla ice cream drizzled with caramel sauce. It is pleasurable and promises more to come. The diner, like the reader, is hooked, convinced that the rest of the brownie is going to be worth eating or the story worth reading. Writers who want to entice readers into their stories must write captivating leads.
“What I try to do when sitting down to outline a story, I look for a very powerful point of entry,” says Alan Prendergast, an award-winning reporter with the Denver weekly alternative newspaper, Westword. “Some detail, some anecdote, some description, some scene that really takes you right into the heart of the story.”
In the writing guide, “The Elements of Story,” author Francis Flaherty suggests writers should always ask, “What lead will prompt in the reader the most irresistible questions, questions powerful enough to propel him through that doorway and into the story?”
Writers should consider the topic and audience when choosing the type of lead, according to David E. Sumner and Holly G. Miller, authors of “Feature & Magazine Writing.”
People who read for entertainment may enjoy descriptive opening paragraphs, but those who read for information may prefer a straightforward approach, according to Sumner and Miller.
Experienced writers use a variety of different types of leads, mostly determined by the information their reporting, research or interviews has uncovered and their audience. So which lead is best? Let’s explore the most common.
“What Happened?” – Summary Lead
Like a “Law and Order” detective interviewing witnesses at a crime scene, summary leads answer the basic who, what, where, when, why and how questions. Summary leads get to the point quickly and are often used in hard news stories. Summary leads must include important details without overloading or boring the reader.
Tip: To write a good summary lead, try to include enough of the who, what and where details so the reader can stop reading after the lead and still know the gist of the story. It’s not always necessary to include all of the “w” details – choose the ones that the reader is most likely to want to know first. This is usually the “what” and less often the “where” or “when.”
“Once Upon a Time…” – Anecdote Lead
Anecdote leads are often used in features because they bring a human element into the story, according to Flaherty. Well-written anecdote leads are little stories that capture the reader’s attention while illustrating a story’s major point. Anecdote leads can be long, but fascinating ones spur the reader to continue.
Readers love vivid little stories that demonstrate rather than dictate important facts, according to Sumner and Miller.
In Joshua Lang’s story about waking while under general anesthesia in the January/February 2013 issue of The Atlantic magazine, he starts with this anecdote lead: “Linda Campbell was not quite 4 years old when her appendix burst, spilling its bacteria-rich contents throughout her abdomen. She was in severe pain, had a high fever and wouldn’t stop crying. Her parents, in a state of panic, brought her to the emergency room in Atlanta, where they lived. Knowing that Campbell’s organs were beginning to fail and her heart was on the brink of shutting down, doctors rushed her into surgery.”
The reader already knows from the story’s title that it is about waking while under anesthesia, but she might ask, “Does this poor little girl wake up during surgery and if so, how often does this happen to people?”
Flaherty is careful to explain that merely including an anecdote in the lead is not a guaranteed success. He cautions against “the near miss” lead, where an interesting anecdote is included but may not be relevant to the story. Prendergast says don’t write an anecdote lead “if you don’t have a good anecdote.”
Tip: To write a good anecdote lead, look for a tale that illustrates the main point or conveys the story’s theme. Avoid fictitious stories and superfluous details or you may bog your story down.
“What the Heck?” – Double-take / Shock Lead
The double-take or shock lead contains a dramactic, unexpected element. Once the headline has captured the reader’s attention, the reader unwittingly steps into the story with an expectation of what’s ahead. Then the reader bumps into something unexpected, which further kindles his curiosity.
“When two things that don’t go together – let’s say monks and punk music – are somehow put together, you want to know more,” Flaherty writes.
In Jeffrey Goldberg’s article about New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie in the July/August 2012 issue of The Atlantic, he starts with this lead: “Chris Christie is, even in moments of tranquility—of which, in his life, there seem to be none—a torqued-up, joyously belligerent, easily baited, and preternaturally exuberant son of New Jersey, so bringing him to a Bruce Springsteen concert is an exercise in volcano management.”
“Huh? A governor and a rock star?” the reader might ask. The reader’s interest is piqued because normally politicians and rock stars are not linked together in a reader’s mind.
Tip: To write a good double-take or shock lead, look for information that surprises you because it will likely surprise your readers. Or look for things that are not normally associated with one another.
“Colonel Mustard with the Candlestick in the Library”– Mystery / Blind Lead
Similar to the board game, “Clue,” mystery or blind leads don’t provide all the clues right away. The mystery lead “dangles one word before the reader to raise questions,” or “teases readers by promising great drama further in the tale,” writes Flaherty.
“The blind lead raises readers’ curiosity by omitting a key piece of information,” Sumner and Miller write. Omitting that key piece of information will lure readers into the story until their curiosity is satisfied.
Tip: To write a good mystery or blind lead, look for a phrase or detail from your story that will spark interest but not give too much away. Don’t identify the person who is the subject of the story. Or, omit a key piece of information. Wait until the third or fourth paragraph to reveal the person or key detail.
“Just the Facts, Ma’am” – Fact Lead
Sometimes a startling or interesting fact can make a good lead. For example, a story on human trafficking might start like this: “There are more human slaves in the world today than in any other time in history.”
Tip: To write a good fact lead, look for a fact from your research that surprised you and made you want to learn more. Use that fact as the lead, then in the story answer the questions your readers would likely ask.
“Move Over, Van Gogh” – Scene Lead
The scene lead paints a picture with words. It is not as immediately intense as the anecdote lead, according to Flaherty. “The scene writer strolls up more slowly, describing the full view while also stressing a thematically advantageous aspect,” he writes.
Sumner and Miller write that the scene lead allows readers to “see” the backdrop of the story. They advise against using too much description so the reader’s imagination can take over.
In another Goldberg story in the December 2012 issue of The Atlantic, he uses a scene lead in an article about gun control. Goldberg writes: “The Century 16 Cineplex in Aurora, Colorado, stands desolate behind a temporary green fence, which was raised to protect the theater from prying eyes and mischief-makers. The parking lots that surround the multiplex are empty—weeds are pushing through the asphalt—and the only person at the theater when I visited a few weeks ago was an enervated Aurora police officer assigned to guard the site.”
Goldberg has painted a picture for the reader with words. Since the theater was the scene of horrific gun violence, it serves as the backdrop for his story about gun control.
Tip: To write a good scene lead, first you must have a good scene to describe. “It doesn’t make sense to do a scene lead if you don’t have a good scene,” Prendergast says. Include enough details to help your readers visualize the scene and make sure it is relevant to the story’s main theme.
“Don’t Quote Me on That” – Quote Lead
Quote leads are just that, a lead that starts with a quote. They should be used sparingly, according to Ted White and Frank Barnas, authors of the fifth edition of “Broadcast News, Writing, Reporting, and Producing.” They advise using a quote when the speaker is famous and the quote is relatively short. You can also pull quotes from books on well-known quotes if you find one that is relevant to your story.
Tip: To use a quote lead, find a quote that invokes emotion – amusement, sadness, admiration, anger, curiosity. Make sure the reader can easily connect the quote and emotion with the rest of the story.
“Danger, Will Robinson!”– Mistakes to Avoid
The same characteristics that can cause introductory paragraphs to succeed can also cause them to fail, according to Sumner and Miller. Common mistakes include:
- Too much data that bogs down the lead
- Humor or cute phrases that cause readers to cringe instead of smile
- Giving nonsensical human characteristics to inanimate objects
- A barrage of questions that overwhelm the reader
- Using a hypothetical subject instead of a real person or scenario
Writers have other lead options in their tool kits beyond what is listed here. Avoid getting hung up on lead definitions. Most experienced writers write leads that convey their stories’ most intriguing elements for a particular audience and don’t obsess over technicalities.