Awkward Beginnings, Lamentable Ledes: How to Avoid First Lines that Lose Readers

"Like all those Mr. Cool snowheads walking on mattresses."

How does the first line of a story create itself in your mind? Do you start with a feeling you want to get across, a concept, or do certain words emerge and begin to form a sentence?

Though there are many kinds of writers – fiction, memoir, corporate, literary nonfiction, journalism – the one thing we’ve all had ingrained in us is that opening lines can make or break a story. Readers will decide to buy or reject a novel based solely on the first sentence. Reporters need to answer Who, What, When, Where, Why and How in their ledes. PR pros have one sentence to convince editors there’s a unique story angle in a press release.

Feature writers have a little more leeway (though not by much). They don’t have to cram in every story concept plus the “five Ws” at the starting line. Still, they must craft an opener that entrances readers enough to keep them turning, scrolling down or clicking through the pages.

It’s easy to find examples of first lines that are enticing, just as simple to spy the clunky ones. But, what makes the great lines sing while the bad ones hit sour notes? Below I’ve described four of the most obvious feature-story mis-ledes and how to avoid them.

The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamlined Lede
The language swoops and careens, U-turns and dive bombs, attempting to leave the reader dazzled, but more often rendering them dizzy and disoriented. Perhaps the writer has been spending a little too much time with Tom Wolfe?

If you’ve been writing as long as I have, you’ve probably penned an opener like this yourself. I certainly have and more than once. Two of those ledes I’m fine with, one makes me cringe to this day. The ones that worked did so because they were finely detailed descriptions of a sequence of events, giving the reader a visceral sense of being there – in the moment – with the subject of the article. The cringeworthy piece is a classic case of a young writer hepped up on too many doses of New Journalism, trying to bluff her way around a subject she didn’t quite understand, resorting to hyperbole.

I’m not here to knock Tom Wolfe or Hunter Thompson – they were masters of literary journalism, fanatic observers, astute cultural reporters. They remain required reading for any writer.

For feature writers (especially in the corporate world), this type of writing can be tricky, and not only because your reviewers (and even your profilees) may not appreciate or approve a bold approach. If you’re going to attempt this style of writing, you’ve got to be able to maintain it all the way through – and, like reading long stretches of dialogue written in vernacular, that may be more than your readers or the story can bear. More to the point, you’ll need to have accomplished some seriously in-depth reporting to maintain writing like this at feature length. Most of us don’t have the months (in some cases, years) to dedicate to that kind of immersion journalism, and most subjects won’t give you the access necessary to achieve it.

To see what I mean, here are Wolfe’s opening lines from “The First Tycoon of Teen”:

All these raindrops are high or something. They don’t roll down the window, they come straight back, toward the tail, wobbling, like all those Mr. Cool snowheads walking on mattresses. The plane is taxiing out toward the runway to take off, and this stupid infarcted water wobbles, sideways, across the window. Phil Spector, 23 years old, the rock and roll magnate, producer of Philles Records, America’s first teen-age tycoon, watches . . . this watery pathology . . . it is sick, fatal. He tightens his seat belt over his bowels . . . A hum rises inside the plane, a shot of air comes shooting through the vent over somebody’s seat, some ass turns on a cone of light, there is a sign stuck out by the runway, a mad, cryptic, insane instruction to the pilot—Runway 4, Are Cylinder Laps Main-side DOWN?—and beyond, disoriented crop rows of sulphur blue lights, like the lights on top of a New Jersey toothpaste factory, only spreading on and on in sulphur blue rows over Los Angeles County. It is . . . disoriented. Schizoid raindrops. The plane breaks in two on takeoff and everybody in the front half comes rushing toward Phil Spector in a gush of bodies in a thick orange—napalm! No, it happens aloft; there is a long rip in the side of the plane, it just rips, he can see the top ripping, folding back in sick curds, like a sick Dali egg, and Phil Spector goes sailing through the rip, dark, freezing. And the engine, it is reedy

Gripping stuff, right? Draws you in, sits you down in Spector’s airplane seat and makes you see, feel, gulp right along with the ‘60s hitmaker.

Now, think about how much reporting – how much detail – Wolfe includes in one short paragraph in order to place you into the mind of his subject.

“Sometimes I used point-of-view in the [Henry] Jamesian sense in which fiction writers understand it, entering directly into the mind of a character, experiencing the world through his central nervous system throughout a given scene,” Wolfe writes of his New Journalism pieces.

For the Spector profile, Wolfe continues, “I began the article not only inside his mind but with a virtual stream of consciousness. One of the news magazines apparently regarded my Spector story as an improbable feat, because they interviewed him and asked him if he didn’t think this passage was merely a fiction that appropriated his name. Spector said that, in fact, he found it quite accurate. This should have come as no surprise, since every detail in the passage was taken from a long interview with Spector about exactly how he had felt at the time.” (Italics mine.)

If you’ve been given full access to a subject and won his or her trust, I encourage you to go for it: note the details that seem especially meaningful to the person and relevant to your topic, go beyond basic questions to ask what they were thinking and feeling, ask what surprised them, what was unexpected, what embarrassed or unnerved them. This is how you will gather the specific images that make a fully realized picture, how compelling writing can be sustained over the length of a feature.

The Spotlight-on-You Start
Making the writer the subject is questionable in almost all circumstances. The clearest (and possibly only) case for using this approach is asking someone renowned to interview a colleague with the goal of generating spirited dialogue that enhances readers’ understanding of a complex subject.

The “all about me” lede is a hallmark of celebrity reporters, callow journalists and misguided flacks:

  • “Emma Stone is telling me why she’s so over ingénue roles.”
  • “It takes me eight hours, riding shotgun in a Jeep straight out of WWII military surplus with zero shocks and dubious tires, to cross the blazing desert to Zacaro’s hideout. He’s eluded the ruling junta for 14 desperate years, but I am the journalist he’s chosen to tell his story to.”
  • “This writer spent a fascinating morning watching candidate Joe Smith return to his roots as a history teacher when he held a sophomore class at an inner-city high school enthralled with descriptions of Revolutionary War skirmishes.”

Writers who embed themselves in the story typically don’t have enough material to create a strong feature. They’re padding. If you feel the urge to spotlight yourself because you didn’t get enough time with your subject or because there’s honestly not a lot to say about something, use your creativity in a different way. Use photographs, illustrations or charts to underscore the subject matter and let your text supply the captions. Or simply keep the story short – every subject doesn’t automatically deserve feature-length prose, and your readers will appreciate a two-graf article that clearly and concisely tells them what they need to know without any gratuitous filler.

Quoth the Maven
You’ll find many feature stories leading with a quote from the profilee and, though there’s nothing inherently wrong about this choice, there are two things to avoid if you use a quotation-lede:

Skip lengthy, ghost-written, off-topic and pedestrian quotes. A sparkling observation by your subject will grab readers’ attention, but quotes that cram in too many concepts (often crafted by well-meaning communications folks trying to encapsulate every message they want to get across) tend to make your audience’s eyes glaze over. And, while you may have a few great lines from your source, a witty remark that’s just there to entice the audience to read the article may backfire if the rest of the article doesn’t offer a similar payoff. Dull quotes are just that and don’t deserve prime real estate in your feature.

Starting with a quote inevitably leads to this kind of locution:

“The economy is so anemic, even large transfusions of cash won’t restore it to iron-blooded vigor.” That’s the assertion of economist Dan Smith…

It’s not like that “That’s” is a sin against the grammar gods, but this usage is so frequently employed that it will mark your feature as a dashed-off piece of journeyman journalism rather than a selection that deserves the reader’s attention.

Commencing with a Question
Similar to the quotation-lede, the Q&A format can feel like a fallback position to the reader, particularly when the Qs are generic (“Where did you get your start in business?”) and the As sound canned. Worse still is the Q&A that strives too hard for authenticity by transcribing every verbal tic or pause: um, uh, well, like, sort of, you know (you get the picture).

If you attempt a Q&A and the answers read like well-prepared messages – or worse, like your interviewee can only speak in half-sentences, never clearly explaining something – when you read it through while editing, this is a signal to leap to the reader’s aid. Rewrite the piece, using your prose to guide the audience through the subject, zeroing in on only the sharpest quotes.

Let’s face it, we all can’t be Mike Wallace squaring off with corrupt politicians for perspiration-inducing interrogations – and frankly it’s not our role to be Mike Wallace if we’re corporate communicators. But, if you want to give your audience edge-of-their-seat Q&As and would like some helpful reading about how it’s done, you could do worse than search old issues of Playboy. I am actually serious about that. The reality behind the old joke “I only read Playboy for the articles” is a long tradition of incisive interviews with world leaders, innovators, artists and authors – all Q&As. (You can probably stop looking after the mid-1980s, though…) Also, watch or revisit the movie “Frost/Nixon” to remind yourself of the kind of questions that inspire insightful answers, raising both interviewer and subject to more stimulating levels of discourse.

What are your favorite examples of bad beginnings? Which opening lines do you love because they serve the subject matter so perfectly? Share them in the Comments.