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Writing good leads: How to begin a story

Lead … or readers won’t follow!

By Wayne van Zwoll
First impressions can fuel or sink a new relationship. So a lead can define a story. You knew that.
You’re reading this far because I just implied you might find something here you didn’t know. And because the lead sentence has less to do with writing than with living. Like me, you’re probably on the prowl for anything that can make you more money or earn you more recognition or just plain satisfaction. Reading, you also find human-interest angles compelling, largely because you’re human.
Writing will reward you if you remember that human-interest imperative – and lead with it.
These days, you must hook readers fast and deep to keep them reading.
Snag them with tight, short, active sentences. Shun self-serving prose and needless words. Show immediately that you consider the reader as important as the story, and that even a few minutes with your writing will benefit him.
Some leads are truly memorable: “Call me Ishmael.”
No thinking reader will quit after those first words. They involve the reader, they reference the outcast, they imply that the name is less important than the life story; they indicate this man has little use for hyperbole and is, by extension, a man of action. Who wouldn’t want to join him?
In your lead, choose words with particular care. They not only give the reader a thin slice of the story; they show your priorities and abilities as a writer. I’ve little interest in squandering time on mediocre writing. I’ll ditch it at a glance unless it’s a report unavailable from more skilled journeymen.
Say what you must directly and with short words. Say something important, but leave the reader unfulfilled. Say what you’d find of interest if you weren’t trying to make a dollar writing a lead.
Here are some things you don’t want in a lead:

  • Adjectives – They soften impact; any you include must darn well earn their keep.
  • Weather – To set a mood, use instead human reaction to the weather: “She knotted her shawl against a freight-train wind.” In particular, don’t use “it” to describe weather – it was raining, it was snowing. It then becomes a story not worth starting.
  • You – Unless you’re a protagonist and can say something truly compelling about yourself or your role in the tale, bring the reader into the story first.
  • Explanations – Good writing spools out understanding with studied care. It lets the reader in on plot and characters as if both are guarded treasures. The lead should tease. If it looks like the body of a college lecture, you’ll get a predictable response from readers.
  • The conclusion – Don’t deny the reader the pleasure of his journey. Don’t make the story unnecessary.
  • References to pop culture that presume a reader’s interest in them – Putting a character in a dusty Deadwood street or in the Crimean cavalry quickly brings time and place into focus. History matters. Writing as if the historical hinge is a Rolling Stones album or a Star Wars episode suggests to the well-read that the writer is not, and that the story will lack depth.
  • Judgments – Tipping your hand as a narrator impairs your credibility and can reveal too much of you and of the story’s direction up front. If you’re a flawed character in the story, of course this caveat may not apply.
  • Formula events and language – Some formula leads have made lots of money for journalists. They’re also the mark of lazy writing. Be original. Fresh writing impresses readers who have other choices.
  • Profanity – It is almost always a crutch. If it doesn’t offend readers, it will confirm your limited vocabulary and imagination.
  • Front-loading quotation marks – An editor brought this to my attention. “I really like your use of dialogue, Wayne. But bumping up font size on the lead page is difficult if it starts with a quote – especially if there’s a photo in the background.” In books, this is rarely an issue, but when writing for magazines, keep the layout artist in mind.
  • Though I write leads first, some writers leave them for last, rightly divining that a lead must suit the story in its final form. I find the considerable time I spend crafting a lead sharpens my focus for the story. But I always return to the lead and re-work it with great care with each story draft. It’s that important. ◊

A full-time outdoors journalist, Wayne van Zwoll has published more than 2,000 articles and twice that many photos for more than two dozen magazine titles. Once editor of Kansas Wildlife, he has also edited Mule Deer for the Mule Deer Foundation, and Stoeger’s Shooter’s Bible. Van Zwoll’s Rifles and Cartridges column in RMEF’s Bugle has run for 21 years. He has authored 13 books on hunting, shooting and history and he has won numerous awards for his writing. Now Special Projects Editor for Intermedia Outdoors, van Zwoll is a professional member of the Boone and Crockett Club and is a former OWAA board member.
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