Lead On – Hook Your Readers Every Time

By Underdog

The tongue-in-cheek Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest recently announced its results for the worst writer of 2008: Garrison Spik, a 41-year-old communications director and writer from the state of Washington wrote:

Theirs was a New York love, a checkered taxi ride burning rubber, and like the city their passion was open 24/7, steam rising from their bodies like slick streets exhaling warm, moist, white breath through manhole covers stamped ‘Forged by DeLaney Bros., Piscataway, N.J.’

The contest asks writers to submit their best attempts at a bad opening line to a novel and while this contest celebrates a bad opening, in most situations, a bad opening can kill a piece.

While almost everything you write will begin with a lead – articles, blogs, sales letters, web content, press releases, cover letters, etc., many writers don’t embrace the importance of their opening lines. The main goal of a lead is to peak the reader’s interest and encourage them to continue reading.

One key to a great lead is to match the lead style with the tone of article. Some of the more popular types of leads are: direct leads, indirect leads, anecdotal, narrative and quote leads.

A direct lead gives you the core information up front and is used in many different types of writing including press releases, news and feature articles, blogs, etc. “Thursday morning, Thomas Thompson wrote his last blog for On Scene.Com titled “Chick Flicks Suck.” The movie critic giant shocked his readers and riled parent company “Chick Flicks ‘R Us” with his long-winded diatribe sent via iPhone.

Indirect leads tease you. “A famous media personality sends a parting shot to a major media conglomerate and fans are outraged.” But remember, you only have so long to tease before the reader gets bored.

Anecdotal leads, a favorite of feature writers, can be fun, but they can also be a nightmare. Some writers go too far with an anecdote and leave readers wondering what it means and what it has to do with the rest of the article. If you have to explain the anecdote too much, just take it out.

Narrative and question leads are used all the time in blogs; features and sales lead always starts with a question. A narrative lead is a more personal and introduces the reader to the circumstances of the subject. “Sam sat surrounded by third graders, grinning with expectant smiles…” When using a question lead, writers need to pose an interesting question that cannot be answered by yes or no. Instead of “Have you ever wondered…” try, “Why is it…”

Other lead no no’s:

  • Too long. If halfway through the piece you are still introducing the information you’re sunk.
  • Too complex. If the reader struggles to make it through your first paragraph it stinks.
  • Too emotional. Three exclamations in the first three sentences = cheesy.
  • Controversial for controversy’s sake. People can spot a fake.

Today’s writer is like a vendor at a street fair. They are doing everything they can to stand out among the other publications, Web sites, emails, Tweets, feed readers, etc, and have only seconds to hook a reader before they move on to the next stall.

All right FWJ community, your turn: write a great lead for the following: the Coast Guard rescues a dog and a magician stranded on an island. It can be any style, can include any additional info you want to add and can be used for any type of piece, i.e. press release, feature, news, blog, sales letter, etc. The catch – don’t spend any more than three minutes on your lead. I don’t want to be blamed for any productivity issues!

Comments

  1. I’ve never forgotten the worst line every when reading books. I don’t remember the author’s name, but I remember his line. “He drove his concrete and velvet rod into her moist jade love tunnel.”

    GAG.

    He’d wanted to enter into the world of romance writing and that was the line from his first romantic scene and all it did was make me gag and really struggle to keep reading the book. Some times, you have to be very, very careful when working with imagery.

  2. Ugh. That should be “ever” and not “every.” Time to stop working for the day when my brain is working slower than my fingers.

  3. Here goes:

    ‘Magic’ pooch attracts Coast Guard rescuers to stranded performer. Magician Cheezy McPheezy and canine companion ‘Chuckles’ are recovering on the mainland after being stranded for four weeks on Laughalot Island. ‘Chuckles’ is hailed as a hero.

    Why did I feel the need to be the first one to attempt this? I hope someone else can come up with something a little better!

  4. I’m going to love this! Nice job Underdog!

  5. Ann: That. Is. Hilarious! Jade? That makes me think green and breakable why would it be green and why would you drive a concrete rod into a breakable object? That is wrong on so many levels…

    Hey everyone, if you don’t want to come up with a lead – share with the FWJ crowd the best or worst lead you’ve seen.

    Here’s my sales lead to get the ball rolling on the writing prompt:

    “How far would you go to keep your pet safe?

    If you said anything you’re like Magician Michael Murphy. His dog Sparkles is not only a beloved family member, he’s half of the Murphy and Sparkles show. Murphy took the crucial step toward Sparkles safety by outfitting her with Canine 2000, a GPS tracking device. When Murphy and Sparkles were marooned on an island following a devastating plane crash, the Coast Guard used Sparkles signal to find the group.

    For the introductory low price of $9.99 you can have the same device for your family. Find a lost pet or save your own life.

    I know what you’re thinking…”

  6. Oops Linden, I thought I was going to be hanging out alone here today :0) Kudos for jumping in first!!! Great job, you made me smile and I’d click that link, I’d wonder what in the world the dog did so I’d read on. Good one.

    Deb: Thanks. I’d been playing with the post since Monday and then CNN posted the news on the contest. Talk about timely!

  7. Underdog — I like your sales pitch! I think Sparkles really works as a good eye-catching name.

    Ann — I’ve read some similarly bad intimate scenes from romance novels. My favorite term referred to her “fruitful love nest.” That’s nothing compared to the “jade love tunnel” though…

  8. Hi Underdog,
    I’m still thinking of a lead. You’re right about leads being vital to hooking the reader. I’ll be back with a lead soon.

  9. Okay, here you go and warning–I seriously did adhere to the time requirement, so thought was not involved.

    The large, brown dog leapt out of the rescue boat and shook his fur with a flourish, drenching the Coast Guard officers who accompanied him. Tom Smith, leader of the rescue team, turned to Edward the Enchanted, Sparkles’ equally wet and tired owner, and said, “For your next trick, make sure Sparkles learns to come back to shore when you call.”

  10. Linden “Fruitful love nest?” Ew. That’s pretty bad. Thanks for the compliment!

    Jenny BI’ll be looking for you, can’t wait to see what you come up with!

    Skippy Good opener. Is this for a novel? Sounds novel-y. If it launches your book career I want 3% of sales. I could also see it as a feature…lol

  11. Wait, the lol was supposed to be after the hit up for money – sorry Skippy.

    And Linden, I meant thanks for the pitch compliment. Looking back it looks like I could be talking about fruitful…*shaking head to rid myself of that image*

  12. As the rain pelted down the Coast Guard stretched out his hand to pull the drenched survivors on board. As he did so he said,”You’ll both be dry soon.”

    The man, held onto the dog’s harness with one hand while he reached in the direction of the Coast Guard’s hand.

    “Why, you’re blind!” exclaimed the Coast Guard, “how did you and your dog end up on this stranded island?”

    Grinnning the man replied, “Sir, a magician can never reveal the secrets of his magic tricks.”

  13. Underdog–

    It could be a novel. Or it could be a newspaper article about your local Coast Guard crew, or about dealing with rambunctious pets. Or it could be an article for a magician’s magazine about dealing with difficult assistants, or it could be for an article about dogs and water safety, I guess…

    If it is a novel, I’ll give you the 3% of sales, but I’ll keep the whole licensing deal for Sparkles toys, video games, etc.

    P.S. Hey, Mr. Spik, that better be a period bad novel–there haven’t been checkered cabs in New York for a long time.

  14. Skippy – HA! A magician’s magazine – excellent! I never thought of that. I don’t know about the whole licensing deal. I mean Sparkles bookbags, coloring books and Leapster games. No way. The power of a kid making their parent’s buy merchandising far outspends adults buying books any day! lol

  15. For some people, IBM stands for International Brotherhood of Magicians. Of course there are magician publications.Houdini edited one for a while, back in the early 1900s.

    You know, I had a temp job when I was in college where I worked as the secretary for someone in a pharmaceutical company. The first day I got his mail and saw a bunch of magazines with titles like, “Packaging Weekly” “Caps Monthly” and “Labeling Journal.” At that point, I realized there was a magazine for everything.

    And maybe I’ll give you a small cut of the licensing, but not too much. I am well aware of how Charles Schulz really got rich. Oh wait, now I have to actually write something…

  16. Skippy,

    Wow. Caps Monthly – I can see that, you have to keep abreast of the leading theories and developments in caps. It’s times like these, when you see just how much the world depends on writers that I’m amazed that people really believe in the death of the written word. Or that if you don’t write for Time or the Washington Post that you’re not a “real” writer.

    Well whenever you get writing, make sure your lead rocks.

  17. Dog, Not Rabbit Saves Magician From Disappearing Act

    Coast Guards stationed off the small Island of Gangledon are still shaking their heads following last night’s rescue of Paul Magheels and his beloved dog, Penny.

    Magheels, a thirty-two year old magician from Westing, Missouri, was reported missing last week when he failed to show for a performance at his seven-year old niece’s birthday party.

    (sorry in three minutes that’s all you get)!

  18. Aurora –

    That’s a great lead! I get who, what, where, when, and want to read to find out the why and how. Great way to hook ‘em!

  19. Just out of curiosity–isn’t it “lede?”

  20. Hey Skippy,

    Either way is acceptable. Lede’s is the old school way to refer to a “lead” in order to distinguish between an opening paragraph and the lead typesetting. I had to look it up to remember the folklore behind it. Here are a few links on the subject:

    http://youngwriter.typepad.com/adventures_in_freelancing/2006/01/the_lede.html
    http://jerz.setonhill.edu/teaching/EL227/2007/09/lead_sometimes_lede.php
    http://journalism.about.com/b/2007/04/04/demystifying-the-lede-lead.htm

  21. Thanks–I figured it was a baker’s dozen type thing, or a relic of the period before spelling was standardized.

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