Two tricks to punch up your leads

(1)  Ask a question. (2) Throw the jab.

Once you’ve digested your material, once you’ve distilled it and outlined it, once you understand it…what’s your first goal as a writer?

It’s to get the reader’s attention.

It’s to make him/her notice your story among the six or seven other stories on the section front. It’s to create a reason for him to stay with you, just a little longer, and to ignore the overtures from those other stories on the page, or the children, or the TV, or the magazine.

Two tricks to punch up your leads

Two tricks to punch up your leads

Your first job is to buy enough time to introduce the reader to the purpose of your story.

The trouble is, so many of the stories we do are complicated. They don’t seem to be fathomable in a single paragraph.

We know, increasingly, how fragmented our readership is. We know that readers lack a predictable context in which to understand what we’re saying. Many writers react to this problem by writing multi-paragraph leads. The trouble is, once you start using more than one or two paragraphs to introduce the story, it’s tough to know–or sense–when to stop. It’s tough to maintain a clear, declarative tone.

The result: lead grafs that overlap each other too much, that contain too much detail, that trail into tangents before the story hits full speed. Some of this is done in the belief that as long as you have a nut graf, your path to the nut is protected. This is dangerous thinking. Massive readership resentment, confusion and attrition occurs long before.

Here are a couple techniques, widely practiced, to create a quick focusing effect. The first is the use of a question, quickly confronting the heart of the story. The second is the use of a very short second or third graf that, like a jab, viscerally slams the reader into the most interesting aspect of the story. (Please forgive how dated some of the examples are.)

TECHNIQUE: ASKING A QUESTION

Take an abstraction. Take poverty. Say you want to write about a dimension of it, like how society should define poverty. Interesting, but kind of gooey, soft. So you confront the difficulty of defining poverty by forcing the reader to answer the same questions that intrigued you:

At first glance, creating a “poverty line” may seem like something anybody could understand: Figure out how much money people need to live decently. But what exactly do we mean by “decently”?

Enough food, certainly. A clean, dry place to live, probably. But what about a telephone? How about a television set…color? A bank account? A hot lunch? A car? A separate bedroom for the children? What about health insurance, day care, immunization?

The annual poverty line income–still computed according to a 30-year-old formulia as three times the cost of the Agriculture Department’s “economy diet”–was….

Or suppose your story is about someone who did something that, on its face, was positively perplexing. What got you interested in the story was this internal question: Why the hell would anyone DO that? Consider the power, and focus, the story has when you throw the same question at the reader:

SAN SALVADOR–Her friends in the United States thought Lillian Aguirre was crazy. There she was, earning a good salary and living in a home she owned in a New York suburb. Voted teacher-of-the-year by the school district where she taught English. Rearing three children with her husband, a chef.

Why on earth, after all these years, would Aguirre give it up to return to her native El Salvador?

“I’d like to know the reason myself,” she said with a laugh. “The truth is that it was always my dream to return to my country.”

And so she did, joining a tentative but steady flow of Salvadoran expatriates who…

Let’s say you’ve got several incidents, all circling around one theme. Sometimes these incidents become bullets. But suppose this is not a hard-news story. Suppose it’s about something marginal, where you’re less interested in proving a factual truth and more interested in exploring a phenomenon. You could pose a series of questions to the reader. Where, you could ask, did the phenomenon attain critical mass?

WASHINGTON–It’s hard to pinpoint the exact moment when things began spinning out of control on celebrity front.

Was it when Michael Douglas eclipsed President Clinton at last weekend’s White House Correspondents’ Association dinner?

Was it when George Stephanopoulos, the White House communications director, began dating Jennifer Grey, the actress who starred in the 1987 movie ”Dirty Dancing?”

Maybe it was simply when Barbra Streisand became as familiar a figure on the political scene as John McLaughlin, the carnivorous talk-show host.

The Clinton White House is extravagantly star-struck…

One of the values a question has is that it implicitly creates a second-person tone. You are talking directly to the reader, engaging him structurally as well as intellectually. In the review that follows, the writer could have simply declared that the dance spectacle he witnessed was full of societal contradictions. Instead, he posed it as a question:

In an era of extreme racial tension and radical P.C. militancy, what could be more forbidden than the spectacle of dancers in black-face desperate to please? White saucer-eyes and lips forever seeking approval, cotton-mouthed voices that mangle English with a comic fusion of ignorance and pretension. As Macbeth said after similar revelations, ”Can such things be and overcome us like a summer’s cloud without our special wonder?”

They can. Presented Friday as part of the Black Choreographers Moving Toward the 21st Cemntury festival, Donald Byrd’s….

Let’s get back to news. A couple of education writers are writing the last piece in a series about the proposed breakup of the L.A. school district. They know they’ve told you more than you want to hear in the last few days. They know that you, the reader, are probably on education overload. And yet there is one, final, central issue they want to probe. Aware that your attention span is shrinking, they use the most elemental language and reduce the issue to one, get-to-the-heart-of-it question:

The question is a beguiling one: Is smaller really better when it comes to the public school systems charged with educating the nation’s children?

To hear the impassioned voices pleading for a breakup of the enormous Los Angeles Unified School District, the answer is a resounding yes: Smaller is better for forging strong links between a community and its schools, for strengthening accountability of…

Now, I hear what you’re saying: “Bob! Get real! In the real world you can’t always GET to the heart in one paragraph. You can’t ASK the question that quick. The reader needs more context!”

And you’re right. And so the question is sometimes asked at the place where the nut graf, or perspective graf, would normally fall. Take this medical story, which required three detailed grafs to give you context about a subject you might have never mulled:

Nestled in the bowels of a government laboratory in Atlanta, in a tiny room under constant electronic surveillance, a padlocked silver-and-blue freezer houses a set of vials whose contents, if let out, could unleash upon an unprotected world one of mankind’s deadliest plagues.

More than 5,000 miles away at a scientific institute in Moscow, a similar collection sits, frozen in liquid nitrogen at minus 94 degrees Fahrenheit, guarded by police around the clock.

Together, these ampoules contain the legacy of one of the most remarkable accomplishments in the annals of medicine: the eradication of smallpox, the only disease ever wiped out by man. The vials at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Russia’s Research Institute for Viral Preparations contain the only known specimens of a virus that altered the course of history, felling paupers and kings, soldiers and tribesmen and untold millions who had the misfortune to cross its path.

Now, scientists are grappling with a unique and confounding question: Should the last, locked-up remnants of smallpox be destroyed? Should the world’s biggest mass murderer be sentenced to death?

Same thing here: Two grafs of statistical evidence, setting the stage for a question that did an excellent job of focusing the attention and curiosity of any reader:

NEW YORK–Around the nation one person is killed in an urban traffic accident for every 67 million miles driven. In New York City it is one death for every 29 million miles.

Nationally the victim is six times more likely to be a driver or a passenger than to be a pedestrian. In New York pedestrians make up half the fatalities. Among them have been three children killed in the last several weeks in accidents involving drivers whose licenses had been suspended numerous times.

What is wrong with New York? The city’s layout and density do not help, but one of the biggest problems may be that is filled with New Yorkers.

”There’s a lot of challenging going on out there, cars challenging pedestrians and pedestrians challenging…”

Same thing here here: A news analysis of Clinton’s slow start as President first laid out the problems; then, around the third pargraph, it began to head toward the central question:

…But after last week’s White House news was dominated by the President’s pricey haircut, a revolt among Democrats on taxes, more groping for a workable policy on Bosnia and the messy dismissal of the White House travel office amid charges of cronyism, many Democratic supporters of Mr. Clinton are beginning to whisper the previously unwhisperable: What if this White House never turns the corner? What if the real problem is not focus, or staff, or organizational charts, but somehow the President himself?

No Democratic lawmakers want to say it aloud for fear of…

TECHNIQUE: THE JAB PARAGRAPH

Here’s the problem: You have good conflict in your story. Somebody has done something silly, or wrong, or two people are at odds, or something bad has happened–but there are some complexities that prevent you from writing a simple, declarative, cause-and-effect lead.

One solution is to write a two-graf set-up that tells enough of the story to engage the reader, and implies enough about the rest of the story to keep him/her going.

Say you’ve got a popular restaurant that shut down and you don’t have the space at the top to bother with “why,” but you want to show that it was an abrupt event:

The “foodski, funski and brewski” are gone-ski.

Gorky’s is kaput.

Twelve years after downtown’s best-known bohemian hangout opened in the name of cheap java for the working class, Gorky’s Cafe and Russian Brewery has quietly shut down, leaving nothing but the coffeepot and a bill for back rent.

See? Technically, the writer could have done that without the second graf (“Gorky’s is kaput.”) The first graf leads right into the third. But what a sense of personality and energy the little jab gave the story. It caught your attention. It told you the tale was worth following.

Or take this sidebar column in Sports that attempted to put into perspective a crucial play that resulted in a Dodger loss. The circumstances were too complex to compress. The writer had to construct a sentence that focused your attention on his hypothesis, playing off the word “interference.”

As is usually the case with this technique, the rhythm of the first graf is conventional, sometimes elongated, heightening the contrast with the “bam!” effect of the jab graf. The reader’s curiosity is piqued by the contrast, as it would be by a piece of music in which the rhythm suddenly went into high gear or a cymbal crashed. The structure serves the syntax. It says: This matters.

About this opening-day controversy: Yes, there was a serious case of interference at Dodger Stadium on Tuesday.

Darryl Strawberry’s pride interfered with his brain.

The Dodgers’ 9-7 defeat by the St. Louis Cardinals was not, as Strawberry alleged, a case of a fan improperly stealing a fly ball from him, resulting in a game-winning three-run homer by Gerald Perry.

It was Strawberry using the home opener as an occasion to throw out the first scapegoat.

In this case, it was Dr. Mark Perez, a fan from South Gate who told KABC television Wednesday that he was only trying to make the catch in self-defense.

Here’s another example of the same structural problem. Here it’s about a good guy who turns out to have an evil past. The first graf sets the stage by describing how good he is. The second graf could, conventionally, describe his arrest and his old crime. In the example that follows, the third graf plays that role because the second graf is a jab, reaching out and slapping you with the quick contrast:

Scott Andrew Stockwell had a steady job at a foundry, a wife he was helping put through nursing school and a young daughter he spoiled. The 31-year-old Wisconsin native had abandoned a drug habit and was looking to the future, planning for more children, said his wife, Megan.

This week, Stockwell’s past caught up with him.

Irvine police named him as a suspect in an arrest warrant in the 1983 bludgeoning death of Boyd William Finkel, a 39-year-old tire store owner and car collector. Finkel may have been beaten to death after making sexual advances to Stockwell, investigators said.

Say you’re playing around with a figure of speech–in this case, the notion that a wrecked car can “rise from the dead.” In this story it’s actually going to happen. Trouble is, explaining what that “rising” literally means is complicated. It requires you to describe a technical process. So you jab the reader with a second graph that instantly takes the story full circle–the car goes from dead to alive–and makes him curious about how such a feat might occur:

The detectives who saw the front half of a Honda in a Sun Valley wrecking yard wrote down its identification number, a precaution in case it rose from the dead.

Which it did.

Two years after detectives found the half-demolished wreck in the auto graveyard, the same Honda–at least, according to Department of Motor Vehicles records–was rolling again.

But only two things remained from the original car: the title document and the three-inch tin strip riveted to the dashboard, with the 17-character identification number, or VIN, that establishes an official identity.

The rest of the car was made up of a similar Honda that had been stolen. Fitted with the salvaged VIN strip from the original car to match the title document, it had assumed the identity of the long-vanished wreck and was sold on consignment through a used-car dealer to an unsuspecting Altadena resident for more than $8,000. And when police impounded the car to return it to its true owner, he was out of money.

The growing practice of using “ghost” identities of scrapped vehicles as a cover to sell stolen cars…

Again, you could have deleted the second graf and the story would have tracked academically. But it wouldn’t have tracked dramatically. How many readers would have stayed with it?

Here’s another example of a complex notion that needs a colorful technique to seize the reader:

WASHINGTON–Among the rich idioms of American Sign Language, there is a sign for “hearing”–the right index finger, held parallel to the mouth, circling forward like a rolling log. From it comes a second, related sign for a deaf person who thinks like a hearing person: the same finger, circling forward in front of the forehead.

It is not a compliment.

A generation after the language and values of deaf people began to win recognition and respect in the hearing world, things “hearing” have acquired a strong stigma at centers of deaf culture. Nowhere is this pride and prejudice more poignant than in the bitter debate over deaf children and a medical device offering them a limited ability to hear.

The third graf of that story could have been the lead. Its two sentences are excellent declarative thoughts. But this was a story the writer wanted you to understand emotionally as well as factually, so she put you in the shoes of a deaf person.

In the space of the first graf, she made you visualize the signing, and then–quickly, because it was important to get you to the heart of the story right away–she used a jab graf as a second graf to illustrate the tension. You were intrigued, she hoped, and you were better prepared to understand the third graf.

That’s how good writers take care of their readers.

Reproduced from “Nuts $ Bolts,” a writing newsletter Bob circulated at the Los Angeles Times from 1997-2000.