Monday, March 14, 2011

Don't Bury Your Lead

The first feedback I received in a novel writing course was, “clearly publishable,” but “too reportorial.”After years of attempting to eliminate all traces of the objective style drilled into me by journalism professors, I’ve finally discovered that I don’t have to discard all the old rules to pursue of creative writing.

For example: Don’t bury your lead.

In journalism’s inverted pyramid structure, the lead is supposed to provide the five Ws, and an H as well, if you can fit all that information into 36 words or fewer. The point is to convey the most important facts in the beginning, so that if the newspaper runs out of space and only the first paragraph of your masterpiece fits into the available newshole, the public still gets the gist of the story. This seems contradictory to the idea of slowly revealing a story over 325 or more pages.

But look at what a lead can do. Sunday’s top story in The Birmingham News packs who, what, when, where, why and a hint of how in 35 words.

Japan's nuclear crisis intensified Sunday as authorities raced to combat the threat of multiple reactor meltdowns and more than 170,000 people evacuated the quake- and tsunami-savaged northeastern coast where fears spread over possible radioactive contamination.

The lead offers presents the latest development in a heartbreaking disaster and serves as a dramatic hook that draws you in to the full story.

If the story began instead with the fact that Japan is an island nation that lies on a major fault line, you might not continue reading long enough to learn that a natural disaster had occurred.

The important thing is to keep people reading. When I advise volunteer or not-for-profit PR writers, I find that they—like freshman journalism students—almost always begin their stories with a justification for their important causes. Around the third paragraph, they’ll announce that because of the great need previously described, they’re having a fund-raising event.

No matter how worthy, the cause isn’t news. It’s a pile of backstory, and it won’t pull readers far enough into the story to find the buried lead.

Agents and editors are quick to make a similar distinction. Unless we keep them reading, they’ll never find out how lovable our characters are. In fiction, we call it in medias res—but it works for me to remember not to bury the lead. Someone—heroine or villain or nature—has already acted. The heroine must react, and it’s in the reactions of the cast of characters that the story unfolds.

Tell me—is there a rule you learned in another occupation that benefits your fiction writing? I’d love to know!


Heather said...

One of my favorite judges used to gripe about pointless information dumps. He would chastise lawyers for discussing facts (in briefs and/or oral argument) that were not of consequence to the case. He maintained (rightfully so) that the advocate's point got lost in the noise of superfluous facts. That has been helpful for me with my writing - just because I find a fact/story point interesting doesn't mean I need to include it in the manuscript.

Chris Bailey said...

And a courtroom is such a heated training ground! That's a great experience to bring to your manuscript.

Carla Swafford said...

As we all know, sales people can be horrible at going around the bridge to cross the river. And I'm one of them. But I've learned to be more concise and then expand.

Great question, Chris.

Lexi said...

Interesting post, Chris. I think one reason I am a linear writer (not necessarily a good thing, mind you!) is because I've been writing briefs for so many years. Read the transcript, then the other fellow's brief and try to address the issues raised. Kind of like a mule in a plow. It drives me crazy if something isn't right in a chapter and I can't move on until it's resolved, at least in my mind.

Chris Bailey said...

Carla, your sales background is going to come through for you!

Chris Bailey said...

I'm revising now, and it's agonizingly slow because I have to solve the problems created earlier. Maybe next time I should pay more attention first time around!