Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Leads, Part One: Please don’t get mad. I’ve dropped lots of hints!


Now that you’ve carted off your scaffolding* it’s time to work on leads—opening sentences—for your vignettes, so round up all those WIPs—your works in progress—your rough drafts.

In recent weeks, you have picked up, haven’t you, on my references to your WIPs and rough drafts?

If you didn’t notice, and if you consider your vignettes “finished,” you’re probably frowning into your computer screen and grumbling, “Why didn’t she tell us about leads a long time ago?!”

Here’s the answer: I deliberately waited. I can explain.

But first, what’s a lead?

The lead is the first thing your reader reads. It catches her attention.

You “hook” a reader with your lead; it causes curiosity, draws her in, and motivates her to read all the way through. 

A lead is a crucial component in newspaper and magazine articles.

A catchy lead is a must for blog posts, sermons, and devotionals.

A top-notch lead is vital for a memoir’s vignettes (chapters) as well.

Why did I delay bringing up leads until now? Because most people write the lead after they’ve written the main body of their story.

It’s true. The reason? A lead is challenging to craft and, for a couple of reasons, many writers prefer to pin it down after they’ve composed most of their piece.

The first reason: Sometimes a story evolves into a different story. The writer didn’t set out to tell that story, but it’s good—it’s an important story, a keeper. In that case, if she had created a lead before writing the piece, she would have wasted her time. Usually a different story will need a different lead.

The second reason: Often an idea for the lead comes from within already-written paragraphs and pages. Pinpoint that idea and use it to formulate your lead.

For clarification: Spiritual Memoirs 101 is not the same as English Composition 101.

Memoir is “creative non-fiction,” and it differs from English Comp 101.

You remember English Comp from school days, right?

Paragraph one is your introduction, a few sentences about your topic. Here’s a topic example: your three-step decision to work as a nanny in Scotland.

In EnglishComposition format, you follow  your intro with the main body: three paragraphs, each one explaining one step in your decision-making process.

Then you write your conclusion: you more or less rephrase your introduction.

In memoir, however, do away with English Comp 101 format. Instead, your first lines, your first paragraph(s), will be your lead, your hook.

Today we’ll look at two types of leads, and in coming days we’ll examine even more:

Quote:  Use a quote, song, poem, or proverb to illustrate the point of your story. For example, I used a quote to start a blog post about the way our ancestors’ DNA impacts us: “’My grandmother, Catherine (Cassie) Helmer, died when my Dad was age 13,’ wrote my mother. ‘People who knew her thought I was much like her. In my hearing, old Aunt Maggie once said in her thick Scottish brogue, “Cassie will always be with us as long as that gairl (girl) walks the airth (earth).”’ Over the decades, Aunt Maggie’s declaration has played through my thoughts dozens of times. I wish I knew more! What about my mother, specifically, reminded Aunt Maggie of Cassie? … And even more intriguing to me: Did I inherit anything of my great-grandmother Cassie?”*

Scene-setting: Describe your story’s setting so your reader feels she’s there, hearing and seeing the event beside you: “Suited up in a knee-length tuxedo jacket, 15-year-old Nathan Neintz bowed slightly to the seated girl, held out a corsage and asked, ‘May I have the next dance?’ With a fur stole flung across her shoulders and legs daintily crossed at the ankles, Lindsy Ingalls, 16, smiled and nodded her acceptance. It was enough to make Miss Manners blush with pride. With a rustle of gowns, tugging of gloves and twitters of laughter, dozens of teens and pre-teens gathered Thursday night for a winter ball, sponsored by the North Idaho chapter of the National League of Junior Cotillions” (The Spokesman-Review, January 13, 2007).
Feel free to experiment. You can come up with an almost unlimited number of variations on the above list.

While you develop leads for your vignettes, keep in mind their purpose: they catch your reader’s attention and motivate her to read your story.

Go easy on yourself: Writing the lead can be the hardest part. Give yourself permission and time to experiment, a lot of time, because even for pros:

“…Most first lines weren’t first till after much revision.…”
Bill Roorbach, Writing Life Stories

Next time, we’ll cover additional types of leads: startling assertion, question, statistics, anecdote, and others.

*Related Posts
Have you removed yor scaffolding?


  1. A fun exercise to get your head around this is to look carefully at the opening words of famous or favorite writings. "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times" ..."Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." ... "Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again" ... "There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it."

    Read more:

  2. Hey, Carol, thanks! I love doing just what you suggest. It's easy to get hooked on doing that with everything we read--examine the opening. In upcoming blogs I'm going to suggest doing that, too. It's a fun way to learn, but it's important to examine GOOD writing.

    (For my other blog-followers, Carol is a real pro, a former coworker, and a cherished friend. When she speaks, I listen because she has enormous wisdom.)


  3. I don't write memoir, but even in fiction, writers tend to go through the same process. The opening line changes over time - at least it does for me.

  4. Hi, Helen Ginger, and thanks for stopping by. You're right, all writing and speaking should begin with a strong lead. Some people find lead-crafting to be daunting, but others enjoy the challenge.

    Have a good day.