The Lead

If It Bleeds …

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If it bleeds, it leads.

You probably heard a number of old print newspaper tropes like, “if it bleeds, it leads,” and “you buried the lead.” The word as I’m using it here (sometimes spelled “lede” lately to differentiate it from its homonyms) refers to the first paragraph of a news story.

The version of the term, lede, came into use circa 1965. That spelling just grates on me, so I’ll stick to the old way. The first paragraph of a news story should lead you into the rest by providing you with the most important elements. If I said it should lede you, you’d get all confused and think I committed a typo.

This is the first of a series of posts on journalism and how it relates to writing, specifically writing fiction. I was no famous journalist in my day, but I did work on a number of small weekly and twice-weekly papers. I had some good mentors both in the Navy and in civilian life.

It was through these experiences and practice of writing news stories that I developed my style, I think. An economy of words, precise description, active voice, all play a role in my writing. I’m not perfect, but I try.

So, what exactly is a lead?

In a news story, the first paragraph–usually no more than two sentences–is the lead. It normally contains four or five of the six critical elements of a news story: who, what, where, when, why, and how. It is the lead that draws the reader into the rest of the story which expands on the elements to offer a complete narrative of what happened.

Here is an example of a well-written lead from The Chicago Tribune, Tribune News Service, Oct. 3, 2016:

The Illinois state treasurer plans to announce that the state will suspend billions of dollars of investment activity with Wells Fargo.

This simple single sentence covers the critical elements of the story. Who (Illinois state treasurer), what (suspend investment activity with Wells Fargo), when (soon), where (Illinois). The bridge or body of the story will address these and the “why” and “how” elements in more detail.

Notice the economy of words. Real news writing still lives in Chicago, it seems. You get the primary information in a well-written sentence in active voice. It compels you to read further for more information.

Here’s a lead from the Associated Press in a story dated Oct. 3, 2016:

The Supreme Court has declined an Obama administration request to break its recent tie over plans to protect millions of immigrants, when a ninth justice is on the bench.

This lead is a mess and definitely not what I’m used to seeing from the AP. The sentence uses a passive verb and has a clause that is nonsense. Here’s how it should look:

The Supreme Court rejected an Obama administration request to break the court’s recent tie over plans to protect millions of immigrants.

I suspect the clause dangling at the end of the AP version was a cut-and-paste edit error that stomped on a part of the story’s bridge. The revision punches up the verb and helps drive the reader into the rest of the story without the confusion of the strange clause. Both stories are online and you may not see the versions I’ve clipped here if you go looking.

“So,” you ask, “just what does all this have to do with writing fiction?”

Using an economy of words and addressing the critical elements of the story (who, what, when, where, why, and how) are important in getting a reader to read initially, and continue to read. Fiction writing really isn’t that far from news writing.

The first element we address in a fiction story, usually, is the who. Tie the main character or protagonist quickly and actively to a what so you entice the reader to read more. If we spend too much time in all the detail of a who, or a what, in the first few paragraphs or pages, the book or story gets put down.

That first page of your book–or the first paragraph of a short story–is the lead into your story. You don’t need to go into excessive detail on the character’s description or personality disorders, or heavy description of the what the character gets involved in.

Just give the reader enough information to hook him or her into reading further. Salt your protagonist’s physical and character traits through your narrative, or use “show, don’t tell” techniques. Tease the reader with elements of the what as you go along. This keeps the narrative moving and the reader interested.

Keep writing.