“The young man huddled under a layer of blankets with a cap covering his bald head, as he talked about an upcoming trip to Las Vegas before he died.”
I learned a valuable lesson about writing a story, whether fiction or nonfiction, after writing my first feature article. The lead (or as journalists spell it, “lede”) of an article, column, or novel needs to hook the reader. If the first sentence hooks the reader, you have a chance of convincing them to stick around for the rest of the story. The sentence above is the one I should have written for my first feature on a nineteen-year-old man dying of cancer. I didn’t agonize over the lead, but instead sweated out the conclusion believing that was the most important thing. I knew he was dying; he knew he was dying, but I didn’t want the article to end in a way that drew the same conclusion for the reader. I lost a night’s sleep over how to end it, and suddenly I came up with a brilliant idea at three a.m. about the trip to Las Vegas, and I ran to the computer to finish the piece and send it to my editor at the local paper who was tight on space for that week’s paper. I made the front page, but the conclusion didn’t make it on page eight. The editor ran out of space and cut my final paragraph, which is the first place an editor on a newspaper looks for the extraneous. I was devastated.
Soon afterwards, I attended a writer’s conference. A columnist who I admired ran one of the sessions on column writing. I raised my hand and told him my story because I wanted to ask him question about how to handle that situation with the editor.
“Why in the world did you end your story with the best sentence?” he said. “Never, ever do that. If it’s so great, it needs to be in the lead.”
I’ve taken it to heart, but I’m not sure I always pull it off. It’s important to remember that the opening lines are an invitation to the reader. If they read one sentence, they might read two, then a whole paragraph, a page, and so on. It makes sense. As a reader, I wander the aisles of bookstores and pick up books with appealing covers and titles. I read the first paragraph, which is often one sentence of twenty-five words or less. If I’m not hooked, then rarely do I consider buying it. Writers must always think like readers.
Here’s some opening lines from novels to stress the point.
“Elmer Gantry was drunk.” Elmer Gantry by Sinclair Lewis
“Are you bored with sex?” The World is Full of Divorced Women by Jackie Collins
“There was once a boy by the name of Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.” The Chronicles of Narnia by Sinclair Lewis.
And my personal favorite because not only does it hook me as a reader, but it provides a wealth of information about this woman.
“She had slept naked all her life, and no one knew it.” by Eileen Jensen (I am unable to find the name of the book to attribute it.)
All of these opening lines urge the reader to move forward and find out more. Why did she sleep naked? How old was she? She’s most likely a virgin, single, and saucy, but those descriptors only intrigue me more.
Here’s a test. If you’re asked to send an excerpt of your book or the opening chapters, do you want to send something from the interior of the book instead? If so, it’s time to go back to the beginning, and start all over again. Even if you lose a little sleep over the lead, take heart. Perhaps the reader will too because you’ve so captivated them with your story. And it all begins where all good stories start – at the beginning.
First line of Tortoise Stew: “The bomb sat in a bag on Kelly Sands’ desk for an hour before she noticed it.”