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A Fresh Approach to Leads, Part I

Posted on Thursday, July 30, 2020 at 2:31 PM

Which type of lead best serves the piece you want to write?

By Peter P. Jacobi

The writers of fiction can show us the way. Take leads -- beginnings.

The writers of fiction need to find ways of getting the reader started, then immersed. And not too slowly.

The writers of nonfiction, those who would engage others in the pages of the magazine, for instance, need to find ways of getting their readers started, then immersed. And not too slowly.

The parallels of responsibility and of approach can be striking.

For Example...

So familiar, this lead: "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epic of disbelief, it was the epic of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way..."

Charles Dickens opens his Tale of Two Cities this way, striking the reader's mind through parallelism and contrasts, the former a stylistically enticing verbal structure, the latter a way of surprising with the range of differences.

The parallelism amounts to manner, the "how" of presentation.

The contrast is a way of handling matter, the "what" of presentation.

How and what are the essential elements of the lead.

As Dorothy Vines once showed us in TV Quarterly when she reintroduces us to a world we thought we knew but apparently don't:

Fade In: a lush, deserted tropical island, palm trees languidly swaying over ways-drenched, semi-new lovers stretched out at the water's edge locked in a passionate embrace...

Fade In: An unmarried couple in bed. She unbuttons his shirt and repeatedly kisses his chest. She tells him, "I want you to want me so much you cannot stand to be without me."

Fade In: Along the Seine's left bank, strolling hand-in-hand, two lovers enjoy the actual sights and sounds of a spring day in Paris...

It may come as a surprise, or perhaps even the shock to non-soap watchers, these are not scenes from a high-budget or X-rated feature film but from old episodes of Search for Tomorrow, Days of Our Lives, and One Life to Live, respectively. Gone forever were the stereotypes associated with soap operas...

Any Lead That Summarizes -- Established the Subject

For Tolstoy, in Anna Karenina, an aphorism says it all: "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."

Here is a preliminary wisdom, a theme, perceived truth. Everything that follows in his novel will bear out that statement. It's like a summary, a thesis, and all-encompassing nugget.

Some magazine articles lend themselves to such treatment. Their authors decide that readers are best served with brief basics. A story once in Chain Store Age says simply: "Yesterday's crumpled, rumpled antiestablishment generation is dressing up." All that comes thereafter will support that opening.

I like this one from a piece in the New York Times:

To a judge, New York City's Criminal Court is an endless crotch of cases that rarely allows time for compassion or careful consideration of complex human issues.

To a defense lawyer from the Legal Aid Society who has been on the job nine months and has yet to try a case, the court is a daily exercise in frustration.

To a prosecutor, it is a daily parade of accused criminals whose sheer numbers almost guarantee that they will be freed or sentenced on reduced charges.

We know what the story will tell us. We know what the story's purpose is. Those are the advantages of a summary or thesis lead.

Setting the Tone

Sometimes, the fiction writer strives for the essence of the tone, a field that will imbue the entire book or a character within it.

Take this start:

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.

That's J. D. Salinger, of course. That's Catcher in the Rye. That's Holden Caulfield talking, revealing immediately what he is all about, on the level, at least.

(We'll continue with the matter of tone in Part II.)

A classic article from a past issue in tribute to the late Peter J. Jacobi, longtime EO writer and author of The Magazine Article: How to Think It, Plan It, Write It.

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