Magazine article Editor & Publisher

Choosing Perfect Story Opener

Magazine article Editor & Publisher

Choosing Perfect Story Opener

Article excerpt

Hart is a managing editor at the Oregonian. He welcomes comments and published examples -- identified by publication, date and page -- at 1320 W Broadway, Portland, OR 97201, or at

There are many more ways to start than simply 'straight' or 'anecdotal' leads

Not too long ago several reporting team leaders at my paper raised an alarm about what they saw as an excess of soft leads on hard-news stories.

They called a meeting on, as the electronic announcement put it, "problems with anecdotal leads."

The team leaders met and trotted out several feature leads we'd used on news stories. One editor finally called a halt.

"Wait a minute," she said. "We seem to be calling everything that isn't a straight lead an anecdotal lead."

Exactly. And, once again, our limited newsroom writing vocabulary, the lexicon that allows us to communicate and take action, had crippled our ability to find just the right writing tool for the job at hand.

After all, one kind of featurized lead may be inappropriate for a breaking news story, but another may be just right. And choosing the perfect lead for a story requires familiarity with many possibilities.

"Straight lead" and "anecdotal lead" don't offer many choices.

So here's a lexicon of feature leads that may help expand the options:

1. Anecdotal Leads: Richard Leakey likes to tell about the day in 1950 when he was a 6-year-old whining for his parents' attention.

Louis and Mary Leakey were digging for ancient bones on the shores of Lake Victoria, but their little boy wanted to play. He wanted lunch. He wanted his mother to cuddle him. He wanted something to do.

"Go find your own bone," said his exasperated father, waving Richard off toward scraps of fossils lying around the site.

What the little boy found was the jawbone -- the best ever unearthed - of an extinct giant pig. As he worked away at it ... he experienced for the first time the passion of discovery.

As a true anecdote, this lead takes the form of a short narrative with a beginning, middle and end.

The kicker, analogous to a joke's punch line, wraps up the story and makes a point central to it.

2. Narrative Leads: They pulled the car to the side of the road, turned off the motor and waited silently as the memories washed over them in a series of gentle waves.

A narrative lead simply launches an action line. It's not part of an anecdote, necessarily.

But it puts central characters into a scene and begins telling the story that pits those characters against some kind of complication. …

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