Saturday, July 23, 2011

Leads, Part Two

An excellent lead is a must for your memoir’s vignettes (chapters). The lead is the first thing your reader reads—your opening sentences.

A well-crafted lead stirs curiosity in your reader, hooks her, and draws her in.

A lead can make or break a story: It can entice a person to read it—or to close the book, slide out of her chair, and walk away.

Lead-writing can be hard work, even for pros. Like Bill Roorbach said, “…Most first lines weren’t first till after much revision.…” (Writing Life Stories)

In Leads, Part One,* we considered two types of leads, the quote lead and the scene-setting lead.

Today we’ll look at three more types:

Action (or narrative) lead: “The dusty earth vibrated and bushes crashed, snapping the silence of the tawny African plain. . . . We caught a blurred glimpse of some creature approaching us, carving a path through the dense thorn scrub brush. Two tick-eating birds flapped frantically off a massive iron-grey back as their resting place lunged out from under them. Now we saw clearly what was heading our way. It was a rhinoceros, one of Africa’s most unpredictable animals.” (Dr. Jon Arensen, Rhino! ) (Jon and I worked together in Africa; besides being a storyteller, he’s an anthropologist, linguist, and Bible translator. Be sure to check out Jon’s new memoir, Drinking the Wind: Memoirs of an African Odyssey. It covers his childhood in Africa and his many years working among a people group in Sudan. Buy Drinking the Wind from Amazon at this link:

Anecdote: Use a short story to illustrate or personalize your story’s broader topic or main point. For example, this anecdote lead kicks off a story about a broad topic, the surge in violence across America: “Even before the fireworks launched from the French Quarter’s Jackson Square, 2006 went out with a bang in New Orleans – a handful of them, actually. At 7 p.m. on December 31, several of those bangs felled a 42-year-old man, who was found inside his FEMA trailer with multiple gunshot wounds to the back of his head. At 8:45 p.m., another man was shot several times and left dead on the sidewalk. At 10:12 p.m., a third was killed inside his home.” (The New Math on Crime, by Will Sullivan, U.S. News and World Report, January 15, 2007)

Statistics, if brief, can effectively create curiosity and entice readers to keep reading. For example: “More than one billion people won’t get enough to eat today. In the next seven seconds, another hungry child will die.”
(World Vision,

Many writers craft their leads last. After you write the body of your piece, set it aside. A day or more later, re-read it, capture the essence of your vignette, and determine what type of lead will work best. So far we’ve looked at five types: quote, scene-setting, action, anecdote, and statistics.

Next time we’ll cover these leads: startling assertion, question, a “you” message, and the news article lead.

Between now and then, analyze leads in good newspapers, magazines, blog posts, novels, memoirs, devotionals, and newsletters.

Wednesday, my friend Carol, a real pro and a former coworker, left his comment:

"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: "

Ask yourself: Why do some leads succeed and others don’t?

*Related post: Leads, Part One

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