Thursday, April 14, 2011

"L" is for Lead

It was a dark and stormy night.  

This little sentence, though poor Snoopy never seems to get past that section, is part of what's called a lead in writing.  

A lot of people associate a lead with a news story, but in reality, nearly every work of writing has a lead.  As for a technical definition, a lead is considered to be either the opening paragraph of something, or even just the very first sentence.  It should grab the reader's attention and give them information in a clear, concise, and interesting manner.  It leads the reader into the story; it leads the reader to want to read more.  Hopefully, anyway.  It should, at the very least, capture your interest and make you want to turn the page; it shouldn't make you want to throw the book across the room and run away from it like you're a chihuahua and Paris Hilton is coming to adopt you.  

"Help me, please!"
A good lead will "hook" the reader and get their immediate attention, and there are a variety of ways authors do this.  A lot of us think about our story, and consider how we'd try to interest our best friend in reading it (aside from the fact that they're obligated to do so because of the best friend title).  

We also give a lot of thought to where the story should start.  What's the most interesting part of the story?  What information is essential to give to the reader initially so that they'll want to keep reading?  Using an interesting fact, well-placed action verbs, or a humorous or provocative perspective can help with all of this.  Maybe even throw in a little conflict.  But, the thing to remember, is to attempt not to be cliche.  Sorry, Snoopy.  I'd rethink that lead if I were you.  

This article here is very helpful for learning the ins and outs of lead-writing.  Often, the first sentence is the hardest one to get down.  

Here are a few leads from successful works: 

''If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you'll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don't feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.'' ~The Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger

''Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.'' ~Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, J.K. Rowling

"When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold.  My fingers stretch out, seeking Prim's warmth but finding only the rough canvas cover of the mattress.  She must have had bad dreams and climbed in with our mother. Of course, she did.  This is the day of the reaping." ~The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins

"For the love of Jesus on a Velociraptor, tell me what happens next!
I had trouble picking some leads to show you because there were so many good ones, but these three really grab you. You want to know more!  Who is this smart-ass, snarky narrator, and what doesn't he want to tell us?  Who are the Dursleys, why do we need to know where they live, and why are they so happy to be normal?  Why is the narrator sleeping with her sister, and for God's sake, what is a reaping, because it sure doesn't sound like a good thing if it gives her sister nightmares!  

Personally, I like to start my stories in the middle of something.  Some action is taking place, and I like to plop the reader down right in the middle of it.  Something's going down, and I want the reader sucked in as quickly as possible; I want them to feel like they can't not find out what's going to happen next.  Of course, I make sure to give them essential information, but I try my best to keep everything short and sweet.  There will be plenty of time later for explanations, and I make sure I give that to the reader as well.  

What kind of lead grabs you?  Or, if you're a writer, how do you like to write your leads?   What's going to get you interested in an article/entry/short story/novel?  Tell me!

xoxo Sarah


  1. Oh my word! I think your post on leads gave me an idea about how to fix the start of my book! Thanks so much!

  2. Since I write erotic romance, in my novels I generally lead with a naked man.

    IMO, a naked man is pretty much a good way to start anything.

    However, I have to look for other good leads when writing my PG work. Who what where & when is generally what hooks me when I read; I don't care about the curtains and carpet (unless they're splashed with blood, as in a murder mystery.)

  3. @Misha: I'm glad to be of service! The beginning can be a real pain. Good luck!

    @Writing Goddess: Haha, yes, a naked man is always a good thing to start with.

  4. I write all shorts, which means I have to cough up a LOT of leads. I try and start off with something striking...beautiful, ugly, scary, or intensely personal. I also like to add a twist to story endings, so my first line might just be misleading :))

  5. very technique and apt L word.

    only you or an expert can relate to this.
    beautiful presentation,
    keep it up.

  6. @Li: I write shorts as well, and it's tough to keep the leads fresh. I like your approach!

    @Jingle: Thank you! Yes, I was a little worried it would be hard to relate to, but I had fun writing the article and learned some things in the process.

  7. I'm doing shorts for the A-Z challenge, and finding a good sentence to start with, that hooks the reader, is the biggest task. The rest is like a drawing yarn from a ball of wool. Cool post!

  8. I don't know if any of my first sentences are gold but they usually come to me pretty easily. It's the end of the chapter that I struggle with, how to make it smooth and transition to the next chapter.

  9. I'm a lazy writer, not too disciplined, and that was why I forced myself to do this A to Z blogging challenge: to MAKE me write daily and get out of my bad writing habits.
    The start of my story was actually from a "throw away" exercise: I asked people on FB to give me a Theme and a First Sentence only, no title, nothing else. I was writing short bursts. AtoZ came up, and three days in I decided to take one of the bursts and expand it. Now...I'm seeing where this takes me, and my leads to each "chapter" burble forth.
    Please don't "Tsk Tsk" me. I'm trying.

  10. @damyantiwrites: I'm glad you liked it! Yes, those first sentences have to be good, which is the tough part.

    @Patricia: The transition part can be tough, too. Maybe try not sectioning your story off into chapters, but just writing? Then divide it into chapters later on where the break feels natural?

    @BornStoryteller: I'm the same way...I wanted to get into the habit of writing every day, so the A-Z challenge seemed to be the perfect opportunity. I'm glad I'm not the only one using it to develop discipline. :-)

  11. I love this entry! And goodness knows we all get tripped up by that first line. It's so looming because it has to be catchy and engaging and perfect but, like writing the synopsis for your story, it's nerve-wracking. You want it be up there with Hemingway and Frost. You think of the greats that came before you and don't feel worthy. LOL. :0D After reading this entry, I started thinking back to memories from one my college English classes; during one class our professor gave us 30 minutes to write 5 pages of a story about anything. The minutes ticked by and you could see all of us students thinking and scribbling, and plotting. When the egg-timer went off we put our pens down and sighed. Looking to our teacher the professor then instructed us to ditch the first two pages; to just throw them out.... You know that sideways "Que?" look that your dog gets sometimes when he hears a funny noise? Yeah, you know that there were 24 students giving our Prof that same look, but we did what we were told and MAN, what a difference it made to the lead of our stories. We read the new cropped version of our 30 minute session, and the leads were STRONG. Like you said, it's better to start in the middle of the action instead of front-loading with a lot of back-story. Start with a center of the event quote or with someone running, and once you have the reader's attention you can give the rest of the details, just engage them first. (Sidenote: It's good to end a writing session in the middle of the action, too - that makes it easier to pick back up where you left off with it later.) And in the words of that incredible English professor: "Reach out, grab the reader by the sweatshirt and YANK 'EM in!" And a strong lead does just that. Awesome topic, Sarah - love it!

  12. Hey, Shelley! That's amazing advice that your professor gave you. I know I would have been shocked to throw out the first two pages of my work, but I can see the merit in that. That's pretty awesome. I love your point about ending in the middle of a scene, too...that's something I have to work on and I think that gives me writer's block sometimes. *MWAH!*