A Guest post by Lori Myers
Lead paragraphs aren’t just one thing… they’re everything!
In the workshops I teach on writing lead paragraphs, I try to bring home the notion that how you write the start of a query, article, essay, short story, or novel may mean the difference between sale or slush pile.
My students always seem skeptical at first, accustomed to coming up with an idea and looking at the big picture, not just focusing on the first one to three sentences. They wonder how anyone can talk about an itty bit of something for such a long time.
They soon find out.
I tell them that busy people have little time to pay attention to all of the entertainment options out there, such as magazines, television, computers, books, videos, just to name a few. It is imperative then to hook a reader from the beginning. Hook them so intensely that they don’t turn on that TV or play that computer game. Make them, no, force them to read until they see the words “the end.”
The same is true when selling your work to publishers, editors, and agents. You can’t afford to bore them before they’re done reading the first page. If you do, expect that rejection letter. It sounds simple, but it takes creativity to come up with that lead paragraph, sculpting it to perfection, and allowing it to be the springboard to the rest of your written piece. It doesn’t have to be shocking or unusual. But it should have the reader wanting to find out what will be happening next or yearning to know more about a character or situation.
Here are six techniques to plop into your writer’s toolbox:
- Use a quote – But it shouldn’t be just any quote. It should be strong on its own, without the reader knowing who said it or what it actually means. Whether you are writing a magazine piece or a short story, make sure that quote is captivating and can transition smoothly to your next paragraph.
- Write an anecdote – This is particularly effective for magazine articles or queries. This type of lead begins the article in storytelling mode using fictional elements that may relay the actions of a person in a particular situation. This kind of lead immediately places the reader in the scene and “hooks” them so they continue reading. As with the quote, the anecdote must be interesting and come alive for the reader.
- Create a description – This could point out the details of people, places, and things. For instance, describing a subject who is inappropriately dressed at a formal occasion will tell the reader a lot about this subject. Choose your adjectives carefully and make sure that every detail contributes to the focus of your story.
- The “hey, you!” direct address – To get the reader’s attention and get them involved from the start, use the direct address lead. Direct address leads sound like you, the writer, are having an up close and personal conversation with the reader in some small coffee shop or living room. It’s taking the reader by the hand and saying “Look, I want to tell you this story, so listen and understand what I am saying.” Now, it’s not those words exactly, but that’s the feeling you want to convey – that it’s for their ears and eyes only.
- Make them wait with delayed revelation – This technique withholds some key fact such as a person’s name or place. These leads replace those names with a pronoun such as “she” or “it” within that first paragraph. The identification referred to in the lead is then revealed in the next paragraph or soon after the introduction.
- Make them wonder with the startling statement – Please note the lead sentence of this guest blog you are now reading – “Lead paragraphs aren’t just one thing…they’re everything!” Did it make you want to read on? Did it surprise you? Make you wonder what this article was about? This technique is called the startling statement, and it is exactly that – a startling statement. It should pull readers in, perhaps shock them, but at least make them want to find out that lies beyond that startling fact, statistic, or idea.
I tell my workshop students to browse through books, magazines, and journals, read only the leads, and get a sense of how other writers form their opening paragraphs. Then when they sit down to create their own story or article, write the lead as a separate section. Don’t think about the middle or end of the story, just focus on the beginning. If the lead is strong enough, the rest will follow.
Lori Myers is an award-winning freelance writer with creative nonfiction, fiction, and essays published in more than 40 national and regional magazines. She is also a playwright who has had plays produced in Virginia and Pennsylvania. Lori loves to share her love of writing with her college students and those who take her writing workshops. You can find out more about Lori at her web site http://www.lorimmyers.com
How do you approach writing leads?
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