Saturday, July 30, 2011

Saturday Snippet: Leads, Part Four, the flashback lead


Your lead—your opening—pulls your reader into your story.  

It causes curiosity and lures him in.

To keep your reader from meandering away, write a lead that inspires him to stick around and read all the way to the end of each vignette.

Many people create leads after they’ve written the main body of their piece because, “Often, in the process of composing, beginnings do not clarify themselves until endings arrive,” writes Priscilla Long in The Writer’s Portable Mentor, a delightful book I recommend.

She continues, “‘Good leads often show up late,’ writes many-book author Ralph Keyes in The Courage to Write. ‘…I generally find the best opening deep within the narrative. This opening only makes itself known as I read drafts, see what catches my eye, something that sets a tone, that gets the piece up and running. Knowing this, I don’t concern myself with beginnings until the end.”

In previous blog posts we’ve examined several types of leads, and today we’ll look at the flashback lead. (Thanks to my friend Shel Arensen for sharing this material. You’ll enjoy getting acquainted with him. See below.*)

The Flashback Lead: Start with the most gripping part of the action, then flashback to the beginning of the experience; use the word “had” because it moves you back to the beginning.

For a flashback example, here’s this excerpt:

Alone in Amsterdam
by Shel Arensen

I opened my eyes, suddenly awake. An eerie sense of uneasiness crept over me. Had I heard someone moving in the room? It was too dark to see. Then I heard the door click.

I sat upright in bed, straining to see who might have invaded the barracks-style hostel room where I was staying in Amsterdam, Holland. I sat perfectly still, hardly breathing, for several minutes. No one else stirred.

“I must have been imagining things,” I told myself as I lay down again. I decided to lie on my stomach so I could get back to sleep quickly. When I turned over, I noticed what was wrong!

My pants, hanging on the wall near my bed, were twisted, and the lining of my pocket was hanging out. With a frightened gasp, I reached for my wallet. It was gone!

My misfortunes had started the day before when I arrived at Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam. I was to make connections there for Kenya, where my missionary parents lived.

“I’m sorry,” the voice of the ticket agent had grated in my ears, “but tonight’s flight to Nairobi is full. We can’t take any more passengers…. I will confirm your ticket for the next plane to Nairobi.”

“When will that be?” I questioned.

“Next Thursday—Christmas Day. Here’s your ticket. Enjoy Amsterdam. Who’s next in line please?”

… I was forced to step aside. Stunned and bewildered, I wandered over to a bench to collect my thoughts….

It was Sunday night…. Now I would be unable to leave Amsterdam until Christmas – four days later….

Did you notice where the flashback ended? Where does Shel move the reader back to the story’s beginning? (Paragraph five.)

Feel free to experiment. You can come up with many variations on lead types. Keep in mind your lead’s purpose: to catch your reader’s attention and motivate him to read your story.

Have fun!

*Check out Shel’s novel, The Dust of Africa, at

Read my two blog posts about Shel:

The Dust of Africa

Related posts

Leads, Part One

Leads, Part Two 

Leads, Part Three 


  1. I'm a bit behind, but it's been good reading today, catching up on all your posts on leads. Thanks. (Leads are not my strong suit.)

    Just so you know, the link for Part One (above) does not work. I found it easily in the side bar, so it's no big deal, but I thought you'd want to know.

  2. Hi, Jamie Jo, thanks for letting me know about the link problem. Actually, I don't think any of my links work, do they? I've never been able to get them to function properly on this blog, though they work fine on my other blog... Sigh....

    Hope you're having a nice day, Jamie Jo! I always smile when I think of you!


  3. Great reminder. Sometimes I manage to compose a tractor-beam lead, and sometimes I just start talking and it takes a while for the piece to get going.

    A great tip someone told me that I use more often in editing others' work is to read through and decide if the opening lines or even the entire opening paragraph can be cut.

    That's what Ralph probably meant when he said he doesn't concern himself with the beginning until the end. Sometimes I just have to get starting, get in motion...later, in revision and editing stages, I can cut that boring beginning and find the true lead (or invent a new one). It's harder with my own work than when seeing more objectively the work of someone else.

  4. Hi, Ann, and thanks for stopping by. I agree: it's harder seeing/analyzing our own work than someone else's. I appreciate my critique partners and editors so much!

    You're talking about "scaffolding" -- writing for a while just to get into a piece, realizing later that it can be cut. I suspect that most of us do it often. In the right column, you'll see a link to a recent blog post about scaffolding. Hope you find it helpful.

    I so enjoy your blog, Ann!