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February 2003 
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In this issue
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What is a lead?
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In the parlance of journalism, the first paragraph of an article is called a lead ( sometimes spelled 'lede' among newspaper copyeditors.) It is the most important aspect of your story because it "sells" the story to the reader.

The feature story lead can be playful and descriptive but, as in a news lead, it must always contain an element of the central point of the story.

One of the most popular ways to lead a feature is the narrative lead.

March issue of PAGES for subscribers

The narrative lead: Great for feature stories
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In this example, notice that the writer uses emotional, tactile, and visual description in a simple, but compelling lead:

(Newsweek) On a frozen morning in hilly rural Wisconsin, the dead deer lay stacked in a pile, like so much garbage. Big and brawny, these whitetail bucks and does should be prizes. But the hunters who shot them are afraid to take them home. --- end quote --

This story, about the spread of a mysterious wasting disease among deer in the Midwest, is a brilliant example of using description to make a point. This paragraph involves the readers senses in the story from feel (frozen) to sight (stacked deer, big and brawny), and smell (like so much garbage). It ends with emotion: The hunters are afraid -- an unexpected juxtaposition of subject and emotion.

For PAGES Web subscribers: Link to March art

When it should be used
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Narrative leads can -- and even should -- be used when the main point of your story involves an action of some sort.

Narrative leads can inspire emotion and interest, but they are often misused.

Here is a typical example of a poorly constructed narrative lead that we've seen (with variations) hundreds of times:

Sheriff Smith leaned back, took a sip of coffee, and sighed. "We've been busy," he said.

March cartoon page

Why was that lead bad?
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The Sheriff Smith lead above fails the test of narrative leads.

1. Narrative should describe interesting action.

In the case of the sheriff, the action is commonplace. Yes, it is possible to imagine a situation where common actions are extraordinary. Maybe the sheriff is on the moon. Okay, then the sheriff sitting at his desk sipping coffee is indeed unusual.

2. Narratives should describe a pivotal concept of the story.

You could say, and some will no doubt argue this, that the contrast between the relaxing sheriff and his assertion that he has been busy describes the pivotal moment. But, unless the story is about a lazy sheriff, then the narration in this case is really about an unrelated moment in time: The meeting of the writer and the sheriff.

3. The execution of the narrative must be exceptional.

In the Newsweek example the writer has crafted an unusually strong image for a unusually dramatic situation. To pull off a narrative you have to be a good writer with an appropriate subject.


PAGES subscribers: Space Shuttle art online
Subscribers to PAGES can find art for the Space Shuttle Columbia posted online in the March issue. ( Color, grayscale, and black-and-white) If you do not have the online version, the art will run in the April issue of PAGES.

PAGES presents a package of safety and general interest stories about tornados for the start of the storm season April 1. On page 7 of the March issue, you'll find a basic story about tornado safety and how to keep your family safe as best you can.

Also in the March issue is the answer to the question: How many stock analysts does it take to lose $956 million? You won't want to miss the story on page 5.

For PAGES Web subscribers: Columbia art

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