One of the writing “Facts of Life” is that every story, article, book, or blog post must have a beginning, a middle, and an end. The most important paragraph in any piece of writing is the first one, called the Lead. Jumping directly into the body of your piece is likely to elicit a “Huh?” from the reader, followed closely by a click on the browser’s exit button. The lead coaxes your reader to continue reading the remainder of the piece, which, if done well, will “follow the leader.”
Your opening is more than an introductory handshake to set the tone — it’s a commitment to your reader that your prose will entertain, intrigue, inspire, and inform him. Think of the lead as a seconds-long commercial to entice your reader to “buy” the remainder of your story. A tall order, yet with the number of techniques to choose from (see list below), the challenge of writing an opening is not an impossible task. It can even be fun.
- Start with a Question – “Can you pigeonhole every aspect of your life into one of two categories: chore or obligation?” What 21st Century woman wouldn’t be instantly intrigued by such a start? I opened a speaking engagement with that question and the audience immediately identified. Many sat up and listened attentively, hoping something in my presentation would offer them an alternative to their rut-ridden lives.
- Start with a Familiar Quote – Here’s an opening from an article about handling stage fright: “In the list of people’s greatest fears, public speaking ranks higher than death, meaning at a funeral, most folks would be more comfortable in the coffin than presenting the eulogy.” Familiarity puts your reader at ease. And most people can identify with familiar quotes, which is why such sayings become popular.
- Start with a Personal Experience – I once began a piece on communication by relating an experience with one of my co-workers. Here’s an excerpt: “I managed to survive a brief but memorable career in the high-stress, behind-the-scenes arena of the trucking industry known as dispatch.” The audience settles in, knowing you’re about to tell them a story. Everyone likes stories. A word of caution on personal experience openings, however: Get to the point soon. Once a magazine editor cut my entire lead because I took about five paragraphs to make a connection between my story and my topic.
- Start with a Descriptive Passage – Imagery is an effective means of drawing a reader into your story and works well with fiction as well as nonfiction. Here’s an example from one of my past columns: “My garden resembles a roller coaster. It’s not that the rows aren’t perfectly straight. (They aren’t, but that’s another matter.) It’s the highs and lows that concern me.” After continuing with the garden’s description, the article went on to make a practical application.
- Start with an Anecdote – The classic “Once upon a time” opener is a great all-purpose story starter. Things to watch for with this lead style are cliches – overdone and worn-out passages. Keep it fresh.
- Start with a Contrast – Good for the “where we’ve been (or are) and where we hope to go” article or speech. One of the most famous examples of a contrast opening is Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address: “Fourscore and seven years ago, our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.”
- Start with a Startling Statement – This attention-grabbing method is often used in journalistic writing. People are fascinated by phenomenons. For examples of the “shock treatment” lead, flip through nearly any magazine on the supermarket rack. Or better yet, watch the evening news.
- Start with a Factual Statement – The best example I can think of for this style of Lead is the Bible. “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” The author, God, then goes on to elaborate on the opening statement. This is a common but effective way to begin a news story, but, as seen in the example taken from Genesis 1:1, this Lead method can be employed in any writing situation.
This is by no means an exhaustive list of Lead styles. Look through magazines, newspapers, books and papers. You’ll find many more methods with which to start a story. As you consider the purpose of your prose, you’ll be able to judge which type of Lead is appropriate. Of course, you can always start with a joke!
Until next time,