Where Do I Even Begin?

How asking questions can help you find your lede sentence

By Tiffany Fox

“The most important sentence in any article is the first one. If it doesn’t induce the reader to proceed to the second sentence, your article is dead.” — William Zinsser, On Writing Well

By TookapicIs there a science to writing a good opening sentence, otherwise known as a lede?

Maybe not, but there is science that suggests a good lede can mean the difference between your story being read and your story being, well, written off. The harsh truth: You have exactly eight seconds to capture your reader’s attention — unless your reader happens to be a goldfish, in which case you have nine.

Gulp.

For many writers, trying to excavate the lede from that overwhelming tangle of notes can lead to serious writer’s block. (And yes, as a former denizen of newspaper newsrooms, I spell it “lede” and not “lead” for purely nostalgic reasons.)

After all, if you don’t know how to begin your story, how will you ever find the middle and the end?

One way to unstick yourself from The Stuck is to use the same tactic that got you into this mess: Start asking questions. Your notes are the result of the questions you asked your sources, and questions are also what can help you find your way into the story.

For straight news stories, ask yourself….

Can I sum up the Five Ws (who, what, where, when, why should we care) in one concise sentence and make that my lede?

  • Example: “An experiment at CERN has demonstrated a new way of accelerating electrons to high energies — one that could dramatically shrink the size of future particle accelerators and lower their costs.” (Nature)

Do I need to instead start with some background or context in order to show the significance of the breaking news?

  • Example: “At a time when the giraffe population is plummeting in the wild, the sale of products made with giraffe skin and bone is booming.” (New York Times)

Alternatively, would showing the predicted impact of this news make for a powerful lede?

  • Example: “Heat waves will grow more severe and persistent, shortening the lives of thousands of Californians. Wildfires will burn more of the state’s forests. The ocean will rise higher and faster, exposing California to billions in damage along the coast. These are some of the threats California will face from climate change in coming decades, according to a new statewide assessment released Monday by the California Natural Resources Agency.” (Los Angeles Times)

For feature stories…

What is the most important thing the reader needs to know in order to understand this story, and can I use that as my lede?

  • Example: “The majestic beauty of California’s Sierra Nevada never fails to impress. But the mountain range, which stretches hundreds of miles, is much more than a stunning vista. It’s a linchpin that helps make living in an arid state possible.” (New York Times)

Or… can I ask a compelling, universally relevant question — or even a series of questions — and make that my lede? One caveat — be sure to ask open-ended questions. If you ask a yes or no question — e.g. “Have you ever wondered why cougars tend to prefer certain habitats over others?” — the reader might very well say, “Nope. Next!”

  • Example: “Was it a chance encounter when you met that special someone or was there some deeper reason for it? What about that strange dream last night—was that just the random ramblings of the synapses of your brain or did it reveal something deep about your unconscious? Perhaps the dream was trying to tell you something about your future. Perhaps not. Did the fact that a close relative developed a virulent form of cancer have profound meaning or was it simply a consequence of a random mutation of his DNA? (Nautilus)

Can I instead begin with an interesting character experiencing a powerful emotion?

  • Example: “Nortasha Stingley doesn’t remember a lot about the weeks after her 19-year-old daughter was shot and killed nearly four years ago. All she could do was cry. All she wanted to do was scream.” (Chicago Tribune)

Is it possible to write a first-person lede? Caveat: Use these sparingly! Most stories you write shouldn’t be about you.

  • Example: “Five days before my 21st birthday, I was told I had stage IV cancer in my lymphatic system and bone marrow, and that there was a good possibility I wouldn’t live to see 22. I spent an entire year in chemotherapy, sequestering myself at home to avoid people and infections. Not keen on losing so much of my life to cancer, I used my time at home to teach myself how to properly cook, and got my first kitchen job a few months after my last round of chemo.” (Eater … yes Eater – there are stories with a science angle everywhere!)

What is the most moving or significant direct quote, and can I use that to start the story? Alternatively, is there a quote I can use to start the story, sort of like an epigraph?

  • Example: The William Zinsser quote cited above!

Can I start with The Ewww Factor? Instead of repelling readers, gross-out news actually tends to hook them (strange but true).

  • Example: “As a chemical engineer who studies the motion of fluids, Bill Ristenpart deals with a lot of spattered blood and aerosolized pathogenic mouse phlegm. But when it comes to teaching wary freshman the basics of mass transfer and thermodynamics, the UC Davis professor relies on a less messy (and more potable) liquid: coffee. Beans go through so many complex chemical changes that they can easily form the basis of a whole curriculum.” (Wired)

Is there an element of mystery I can incorporate into my lede to draw the reader in?

  • Example: “In 2007, Cheryl Cook received an email from an out-of-towner planning a trip to Hopkinsville, Kentucky. As the executive director of the town’s convention and visitors bureau, Cook was used to reading messages from potential tourists. There was one hitch, though: The visitor’s projected stay was 10 years away.” (Mental Floss)

Some additional tips for writing great ledes:

  • Avoid throat-clearing, especially in straight news stories. If it takes you 2-3 paragraphs to actually get to the news or the “so what”, you’re probably wasting valuable real estate. Try cutting those grafs and see if the story works without them. Hint: If you suspect your reader already knows what you’re telling them, you’re probably right. Ditch it.
  • Show someone your notes and ask them what single sentence stands out the most. Start with that.
  • Still having trouble getting started? Write the lede last. Start telling your story from the middle, or write the end first and work your way backward. You might find that what you thought was the end would actually make for a terrific beginning.

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