Basic principles of writing a story lead

(Shorenstein Center)
(Shorenstein Center)

April 28, 2009

A lead (also known as a lede) is the first paragraph or several paragraphs of a story, be it a blog entry or a long article. Its mission is to catch readers’ attention and draw them in. Getting them truly involved is the duty of the rest of the story; getting them to that point is the job of the lead.

There are two broad categories of leads, direct and indirect. The first gets right to the basics: who, what, when, where and why, with a dose of how if appropriate.

These are most useful for breaking-news stories that need to get right to the point: “Last night around 1 a.m. a fire broke out at the Associated Corporation’s main warehouse.” If you add one more sentence (“It burned to the ground, and all contents were lost”), you have what’s called a summary lead. It summarizes a story, and lets the reader know the essence of what it contains. They might get more details (“destroyed goods included 500 faux-fur hats and two Thanksgiving parade balloons”), but the basics they know.

If the essence of the story is on the consequences of an event, an analysis form of the direct lead is in order. It takes one step back from the event itself, provides perspective on a simple fact (a fire in a warehouse) and lets us know its implications (at the very least, the Thanksgiving parade will be two balloons short this year).

If direct leads get straight to the point, indirect leads do the opposite. Rather than telling us about an event or its implications, indirect leads can zoom in to pick out a single detail, character or quote. It could be one detail of a crime scene — shattered glass on a sidewalk, say — or a single character in a larger drama. It could be an anecdote, which is in effect a story within the story that expands outward. If you have a truly riveting quote, it’s a candidate for a lead. So are questions. Pretty much anything is fair game as long as it works.

When considering what kind of lead to use, ask yourself two questions: First, what is important about the story you’re writing? An event, its implications, the big picture? Second, what is the most effective route into the story for readers? Is it the event itself, a person at the center of a drama or an image? Did you get a quote that really drives home the event’s impact? Whatever you choose as your starting point, it should immediately bring the story to life and get the reader involved.

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