Writing: Digging Up Your Lede

At one of my first critique group sessions, a seasoned, well-published writer listened to me read a short piece. Then she said, “Your lead is buried way down here.” How can we learn to spot our opening or hook?

Writing Tip for Today: Here are a few tips for spotting “buried” leads:

Interest, Not Info

New writers often mistakenly believe that readers must know a lot about what the writer is going to say—in fiction, it’s back story. In nonfiction, it’s the “theme sentence” or set-up of information.  What readers are attracted to, however, is something interesting.

By holding back your interesting hook until after this setting up, you risk losing your reader. Throat-clearing or long explanations generally don’t work. Readers will settle for much less information or background in favor of an interesting event, dialogue bit or statement that hints at the body of the nonfiction or the purpose of a scene.

You can generate interest by locating a sentence or paragraph that hints at the emotion or the problem of a scene or essay. Look for places where there’s sufficient tension to make readers want to know more.

The Good Lead

An efficient lead is a sentence that jumps out or piques interest. This sentence (or paragraph) must hint at the general purpose or point of the work.

Avoid making the climax your lead. Why? You want to rachet up the tension with each passing sentence or scene. The climax must be the high point of tension, and if you lead off with it, your tension has no way to increase.

Another caveat: Even if a sentence or paragraph is full of interest and tension, avoid giving readers the wrong signals. If a tense moment is not about the general purpose or theme, it can’t be the hook for the entire piece or scene.

An efficient lead is a sentence or paragraph that jumps out or piques interest. 

Draft and Craft

When you draft, you don’t need to worry about where your lead is buried. Don’t let editing get in the way of your creating. Let it all out. Get it all down. You’ll be revising soon enough.

The best leads point to a problem that is just arising. In fiction, good scenes begin just before the real action starts. The red wine example illustrates this: A woman in a white gown orders red wine. The waiter goes to the kitchen, pours the wine, sets it on a tray and walks back to the woman’s table. He jostles the glass but manages to keep it upright until he’s two steps from serving the wine. He trips and the wine arcs out of the glass, splashing the white gown. The woman screams.

Where did the story start? Back when she orders the red wine? In the kitchen? As the waiter juggles the tray? As he trips near the table? As the wine arcs toward her gown? If you guessed somewhere near the table, you’re on the right track. Get as close to the biggest problem as you can to lead off your work. Dig up your lead and capture more readers.

About Linda S. Clare

I'm an author, speaker, writing coach and mentor. I teach both fiction and nonfiction writing at Lane Community College and in the doctoral program as expert writing advisor for George Fox University. I love helping writers improve their craft and I'm both an avid reader and writer of stories about those with wounded hearts.

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