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Lead + Title + Subtitle = Complete Package

Posted on Monday, November 29, 2010 at 5:23 PM

Writer's leads and editor's editions produce a winning formula.

By Peter P. Jacobi

The magazine Smithsonian, in its September 2009 issue, featured an inviting and informative section devoted to "Top Travel Writers' Dream Assignments." The six articles included led me to think once again about leads:

1. How to choose a lead, so as to introduce and drive a suitable approach for the story;

2. How to fit a lead, so as to suggest with it the purpose of and forthcoming content in the story;

3. How to enhance a lead by paving the way toward it with collaborative title and subtitle.

On the third item above, I'm using the labels "title" and "subtitle," designations for editorial matter used atop feature stories and magazine articles to guide a reader into what follows through some form of enticing suggestion about those inches of copy that follow. Were you to be writing a straight news story, then the appropriate labels would, of course, be "headline" and "subhead," which serve to succinctly summarize the copy that will then complete the editorial package.

The authors employed by Smithsonian will be familiar to many of you; they're topnotch writers: Susan Orlean, Francine Prose, Geoffrey Ward, Caroline Alexander, Frances Mayes, and Paul Theroux.

Let's look at several of their contributions and how the editors of the magazine led into the leads.

An Inviting and Educating Package

The Orlean piece was given "Where Donkeys Deliver" as title, supported by this subtitle: "The author returns to Morocco to explore the animal's central role in the life of this desert kingdom."

Orlean begins: "The donkey I couldn't forget was coming around a corner in the walled city of Fez, Morocco, with six color televisions strapped to its back. If I could tell you the exact intersection where I saw him, I would do so, but pinpointing a location in Fez is a formidable challenge, a little like noting GPS coordinates in a spider web. I might be able to be more precise about where I saw the donkey if I knew how to extrapolate location using the position of the sun, but I don't. Moreover, there wasn't any sun to be seen and barely a sliver of sky, because leaning in all around me were the sheer walls of the medina -- the old walled portion of Fez -- where the buildings are so packed and stacked together that they seem to have been carved out of a single huge stone rather than constructed individually, clustered so tightly that they blot out the shrieking blue and silver of the Moroccan sky."

Title and subtitle prepare me for surprise, for an unexpected journey. The lead paragraph takes me there. The author becomes a personal "I." The reader becomes a personal "you." The TV-laden donkey set against the ancient buildings offers the metaphor that symbolizes the contrasts of experiences facing those who live in Morocco and the distinctiveness of place that will embrace the visitor. The package invites and begins to educate. Success achieved, at least for this reader.

Setting the Mood

Francine Prose writes about "Serene Japan" where, according to the subtitle, "On the western coast, far from bustling Tokyo, tradition can be found in contemplative gardens, quiet inns and old temples."

She shares this introductory observation: "At the Buddhist temple of Gesshoji, on the western coast of Japan, the glossy, enormous crows are louder -- much louder -- than any birds I've ever heard. Crows are famously territorial, but these in the small city of Matsue seem almost demonically possessed by the need to assert their domain and keep track of our progress past the rows of stone lanterns aligned like vigilant, lichen-spotted sentinels guarding the burial grounds of nine generations of the Matsudaira clan. The strident cawing somehow makes the gorgeous, all-but-deserted garden seem even further from the world of the living and more thickly populated by the spirits of the dead. Something about the temple grounds -- their eerie beauty, the damp mossy fragrance, the gently hallucinatory patterns of light and shadow as morning sun filters through the ancient, carefully tended pines -- makes us start to speak in whispers and then stop speaking altogether until the only sounds are the bird cries and the swishing of the old-fashioned brooms a pair of gardener are using to clear fallen pink petals from the gravel paths."

One could argue con and pro about the length of Prose's sentences: "con" that they can be considered overwhelming in detail and, perhaps, meandering in development; "pro" that they establish a mystic aura, appropriate for a burial site and temple, and also that they make room for an author's flight of imagination, fostered by those noisy, seemingly protective crows in a serene and otherwise silent environment. The contemplative writing reflects the "contemplative gardens" listed in the subtitle and paves the way for what, yes, turns out to be a contemplative article. The mood is set.

You can read for yourself and gain much from reading the above pieces fully, as also "Saving Punjab" by Geoffrey C. Ward ("My wife says I suffer from an 'India problem.' She's right."). And from Caroline Alexander's "Captain Bligh's Cursed Breadfruit," about Jamaica ("An hour out of the maelstrom of Kingston's traffic, the first frigate bird appeared, and then, around a bend in the road, the sea."). And from Frances Mayes' "Under the Polish Sun" ("In 1990, when my husband, Ed, and I bought an abandoned villa in Tuscany, we hired three Polish workers to help us restore a major terrace wall. They were new immigrants, there for the money, and not happy to be out of their homeland.").

Smoothly Paving the Road

The sixth author, Paul Theroux, deals with "The Long Way Home," about which the subtitle says: "The noted world traveler fulfills a boyhood dream -- to drive across America in the spirit of Kerouac, Steinbeck and other poets of the open road."

Here's how Theroux begins: "The mixed blessing of America is that anyone with a car can go anywhere. The visible expression of our freedom is that we are a country without roadblocks. And a driver's license is our identity. My dream, from way back -- from high school, when I first heard the name Kerouac -- was of driving across the United States. The cross-country trip is the supreme example of the journey as the destination."

Theroux realizes his dream and, for us, he recounts it. The title/subtitle/lead combine smoothly paves the road, paves the way thematically. Adventures await me, from Los Angeles to Cape Cod. Theroux does not disappoint.

Look for the above issue of Smithsonian. See what writers' ambient leads can do. See what editors' sensitively crafted additions can do. The do-good things and all for the reader.

Peter P. Jacobi is a Professor Emeritus at Indiana University. He is a writing and editing consultant for numerous associations and magazines, speech coach, and workshop leader for various institutions and corporations. He can be reached at 812-334-0063.

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