What's in a lead?
A journalist friend stews over the first words of every story, refusing to move on until she has the perfect lead.
I once operated that way, until I realized that if I could simply start writing, the lead would appear somewhere. Often I chop off several paragraphs to find the kernel I was hoping for.
Leads have never been my strong suit. I just can't seem to capture the sparkle in the jewel, the spray of the waterfall, the crackle of the snow underfoot. At least not the way some writers can.
There are at least three ways to get in to a story. Journalists on deadline will often simply jump in: "A man was killed last night in a brawl that left three others injured."
When there is a little more time, journalists and magazine writers will open with a more general reflection: "A night of drinking led to a bad end for several people Saturday night, with a death and several injuries reported." Or, "It's not every night that drinking too much is fatal, but our city has seen several such deaths in the past few weeks. Another occurred Saturday after a fight, and has police wondering how to address the problem."
Then, there are the champion leads ... those that begin calmly, inauspiciously. If you read the New Yorker, you've seen them. They start off with an utterly ordinary observation that somehow sucks you in and keeps you reading until the final, 5000th word.
"'The birds sometimes return to their home, but sometimes I have to go hunt for them,' Susan Fox tells me as we stand at her coop on top of her Brooklyn brownstone...." You get the picture.
I've tried the "New Yorker" lead a few times and editors have just ripped it off and added something more punchy. Still, it is an ideal for me, to write a humble, unassuming lead that pulls you into the story in a profound way.
It's like the ad reps tell us: You have to capture the sizzle, not the pan.