Leads are important. You only have one chance to make a first impression. The right lead can make or break a story. Finding the right lead can be maddening.
In the last year or so, I’ve begun to ask more of leads.
My new train of thought goes something like this: The right first words, even in a vomit draft, can make a story easier to write. So if I invest more time and energy up front, then maybe the rest of the story will fall naturally into place. (The operative word is maybe.)
I’ve started thinking of a lead like a post-it note, tacked to the top of the story, reminding me not only what the story is about but also what the telling sounds like. If the story needs a light touch, the lead shouldn’t drop like a lead sinker in a pond. A heavy story will flounder if the lead seems cavalier.
To me, this approach resonates with what a lead should do for a reader. The lead introduces the story and at the same time has to entice a reader to keep going. The lead should distill confidence and drop hints of something interesting to come. It’s the ringmaster’s dazzle before the circus launches; the audience needs to know they’re in the right place.
I think John McPhee made me start thinking harder about leads. In a 2010 interview with the Paris Review, Petter Hessler asked McPhee about his writing process; namely, what happens after all interviews are done, all research gathered. McPhee replied:
“You write a lead. You sit down and think, Where do I want this piece to begin? What makes sense? It can’t be meretricious. It’s got to deliver on what you promise. It should shine like a flashlight down through the piece. So you write a beginning. Then you go back to your notes and start looking for an overall structure. It’s three times as easy if you’ve got that lead.”
Yes! His answer gets at how the first words affect both readers and writers. For a reader, the lead shines like a flashlight. For the writer, the lead can unlock the ability to write the rest of the story. When I write the right lead, other pieces sometimes fall into place with a not-quite-audible click. Without the right lead, I have to get out the bolt cutters and power through until, some time later, the lead ambles in, late and grumpy.
Fiction writers often receive praise from adoring readers for their first lines. But I’d like to celebrate a few openers, penned by science writers. I have no doubt that these words were meticulously wrought, but in their published forms they read like butter. They shine like flashlights. I solicited a few other examples from SciLancers and added those to the list, too.
And if you have a favorite first from a science writer, by all means, please meet me in the comments. Here’s a start:
“It was Christmas Eve 1926, the streets aglitter with snow and lights, when the man afraid of Santa Claus stumbled into the emergency room at New York City’s Bellevue Hospital.” – from “The Chemist’s War” by Deborah Blum, in Slate
“The air outside a distillery warehouse smells like witch hazel and spices, with notes of candied fruit and vanilla—warm and tangy-mellow. It’s the aroma of fresh cookies cooling in the kitchen while a fancy cocktail party gets out of hand in the living room.”– from “The Mystery of the Canadian Mystery Fungus” by Adam Rogers, in Wired
“The test, the counselor had said, had come back positive.” – from “Facing Life with a Lethal Gene” by Amy Harmon, in the New York Times
“At will and sometimes against his will, Sam Brown can return in his mind to that hour in the Kandahar desert when he knelt at the edge of a blast crater and raised his flaming arms to the Afghanistan sky.” – from “Burning Man” by Jay Kirk, in GQ. (Hat-tip to Liza Gross (bio).)
“Human beings make terrible drivers. They talk on the phone and run red lights, signal to the left and turn to the right. They drink too much beer and plow into trees or veer into traffic as they swat at their kids. They have blind spots, leg cramps, seizures, and heart attacks. They rubberneck, hotdog, and take pity on turtles, cause fender benders, pileups, and head-on collisions. They nod off at the wheel, wrestle with maps, fiddle with knobs, have marital spats, take the curve too late, take the curve too hard, spill coffee in their laps, and flip over their cars. Of the ten million accidents that Americans are in every year, nine and a half million are their own damn fault.” – from “Auto Correct” by Burkhard Bilger, in the New Yorker. (Hat tip to Brian Vastag (bio).)
All images from Bigstock photos