The best feature writing in America is on the front page of the Wall Street Journal, and one recent story showed why. It contained a technique that good writers use to pull readers in.
The lead paragraph made you want to keep reading because it stirred your curiosity:
“Last month, Bob Dechert, a senior aide to Canada’s foreign mister, was dispatched to Detroit with an important diplomatic mission: to stop a highly annoying noise.”
The story is about a rumbling hum that has rattled windows and knocked objects off shelves in Windsor, Ontario, across the lake from Detroit, and Windsor residents blame it on the industrialized American side. It is a long-standing dispute, so the government felt it was necessary to send an authority figure to end it.
What makes the lead effective is that it does what an effective indirect opening must do: It raises a question in the reader’s mind. Why would a government official be sent to across the border to investigate a noise?
Not all feature stories have indirect leads, which delay telling readers exactly what the story is about until the second, third, or fourth paragraphs. Some features tell the reader immediately what the story is about.
But when you use an indirect approach, you need to prompt a question in the reader’s mind. Look in your notes for details that conflict; that is, they contain an inherent contrast because we normally don’t associate them with each other. In this case, it’s a government dignitary and an investigation into something as mundane as an annoying noise. Doesn’t a foreign minister have more pressing issues to focus on?
You also can make a simple, direct statement that has an unexpected twist at the end, thereby providing an element of surprise. Or you can create mystery or present a vivid image. Such technique stir questions: Could that be true? Why did that happen? How did she resolve that quandary? And then what happened? Readers will stay with you until they learn the answer.
Crafting such a lead requires that you have abundant details to work with, and those come from solid reporting, from researching and interviewing skills. Assuming you have that information in front of you, search for the unusual and interesting elements that relate directly to the core theme or meaning of your article.
What problems do you have when writing leads on articles, or maybe even on releases?