‘It’s no good standing there at the beginning of an article flexing your muscles. Just do the old handspring right away.’
– ‘Cassandra’, Daily Mirror
Writing coach extraordinaire Jack Hart says the beginning of a story is vitally important. According to Hart, writers live or die on their leads, the opening lines that set the stage for everything that follows. Good leads hook readers immediately, drawing them into their stories with a crafty succession of enticements. A lead that lags for an instant risks losing a reader forever.
Another writing expert, Bill Blundell, concurs: he says a reader is asking the writer to ‘tease him a little, give him some reason for going on with the piece. If the lead doesn’t do that he darts away, and a story that may be excellent in all other respects goes unread’. (The Art and Craft of Feature Writing, p.128.)
So your lead should be relevant and pique your readers’ curiosity. It may be enough to lead with a compelling subject – Blundell says if aliens have invaded the US, that’s all the writer needs to say to be sure of his audience. On the other hand, a beautifully-written descriptive passage which sets the scene might charm the reader and leave him wanting more.
In her chapter on writing features in the book Writing for Journalists, Sally Adams identifies five simple kinds of lead:
- A strong/provocative/intriguing statement
- Description/scene setting
- Question that buttonholes the reader
The statement lead is possibly the most difficult but can be very effective when written well. The question and quote leads are best avoided by emerging writers unless you’re very confident they work. My advice for writers new to features: try an anecdotal or descriptive lead. Bill Blundell’s advice: try to include an element of mystery, to propel a curious reader onwards.
Features have a beginning, a middle, and an end.
- The lead, or intro
- Main body copy
In simple features, the lead will move gracefully into the body of the story, which will contain any number of paragraphs that take the reader to the end, which should wrap up the story.
So what’s a paragraph? Hart explains that paragraphs help us communicate by showing the relationship between ideas. Certain ideas are grouped together to show they belong to the same general categories, or that they follow logically from one another. (From A Writer’s Coach, p.60)
Next week we’ll look at how to end a feature. In the meantime, revisit some of the longer stories and features here or find your own. Can you identify what kind of lead the writers used? What do you notice about the construction of paragraphs, and the flow from par to par? How do the features end?
Write your feature lead, and a finely-tuned draft, with ideas of how you’ll end your story.
HELPFUL READING (via Sezane Al-Alaam): How to write a great feature article, Squidoo