I know a good lead when I see one. So do you.
How do we know a lede is good?
We keep reading.
(“Lede,” by the way, is journalismspeak so you don’t confuse the opening of a story with the stuff of sinkers and bullets. Either is fine, but I’ll stick with the lingo here.)
Sometimes I plow past a sucky lede. I’m curious (or stuck on an airplane having finished reading a novel)—will this thing get any better? Almost always, my first impression is proven right. Hence this credo:
Bad lede = bad story
Even if the story improves, bad lede = bad story because if no one reads it, it’s a bad story. (That goes for sales letters, ads, blog posts, and novels, too.)
Does this lede grab you?
Bill “Buddy” Menendez parks his big pickup truck on a narrow, winding road in western Jamaica. A short cloudburst greets us as we step out of the vehicle. A little rain is good, Buddy says. It’ll keep us cool today. We scramble over a high mound to a broad overlook. There, the Blue Mountain Canyon spreads out before us. My heart leaps.
I’ve changed words and the setting so as not to publicly embarrass the writer. Or the editor who allowed this to see the light of print in a national magazine. It’s a paraphrase.
So what’s wrong with it?
Mainly it’s boring. Nothing about it intrigues me. No sense of mystery. Nothing happens, and there’s no suggestion that anything will happen. Nothing portentous. Nothing unusual. Nothing seems out of place.
All it does is set the scene. The editor should have informed the writer that the scene will be nicely set by way of a headline and photo, thanks very much. Give me something to care about in this lede.
It’s also muddled. Is it a travel story about a natural wonder? A profile of a local guide? A focus on one or the other could easily sharpen the observations and action. If it’s both, yoke them together somehow.
By the way, muddled focus proved to be a problem throughout the story. The writer never developed the guide as a cool character, and never gave the terrain more than vague, clichéd nods like, “beautiful, lush valley…all of it impressive.”
Proving once again:
Bad lede = bad story
What else is bad about this lede?
Absence of details.
We’re obliged as writers to be sharp observers. And reporters. What we don’t understand, we have to find out. Simply specifying the truck as something more than “big” could have said a lot about the guide and the setting. Maybe it’s a ’63 Willys with rusting fenders. Maybe it’s a cherry-red Dodge Ram with ArmorAll’d tires. Either one would suggest something intriguing.
Or forget the truck, since it proves to be a red herring anyway. Maybe drop in a detail about something Buddy’s wearing. We learn later that the story is really about a hike into the canyon, that Buddy hikes in flip-flops, and that the writer is nervous about hiking the trail. His heart leaps from nervousness, not awe, but we don’t know that. Why not introduce the flip-flops, the wariness, and some initial observations about the precipitous trail right up front?
Maybe it could read something like this:
The Blue Mountain Canyon Trail makes 237 hairpin turns in the course of its 12-mile plummet to the Blue River, 4,436 feet below the canyon rim. I see most of them from my dizzying trailhead vantage point. Gulp. To me, cinching the laces on a pair of four-pound Vasque hiking boots with deep Vibram tread makes perfect sense. My guide, Buddy Menendez, kicks into a pair of Walmart flip-flops.
Okay, not brilliant. But see how dropping in details serves as shorthand? Details also suggest that you’re in the hands of an observant writer. They build confidence.
We need to see in details, not in generalities. We owe that to the reader. Details give us credibility, and they give us storytelling fodder—in our ledes and throughout our pieces. The craft of writing is a whole lot easier when we have details at our disposal.
I recall many times as an editor kicking a story back to a writer because he didn’t name his trees. “Madrones” are always better than “trees.” Even better than “oaks.” Give me Sitka spruce or Douglas fir over pine trees anyway. If the trees droop with moss, if they’re speckled with epiphytes, if their trunks are twisted, so much the better. Details serve and portend.
Back to ledes. I’ll close with one I loved in a recent Men’s Journal story by Bucky McMahon. It too is about an adventure on an island. But notice how the details service the whole. Notice the playfulness even as he admits to fear, and the way he intrigues us with observations of some pretty bizarre stuff. Bucky the Brave! Great lede.
The first time I saw Orongo, the archaeological site of the Easter Island Birdman cult, the hair on the back of my neck bristled with acrophobia and awe. It had taken our tour group all afternoon to hike to the top of Rano Kau volcano, hoofing it single file along the knife-edge rim trail to where it broadened and flattened at the cliffs of Orongo. Orongo the Bizarro! Stonehenge for the Unhinged! The grassy plateau, studded with obsessively etched boulders, seemed precariously perched between the interior crater and a thousand-foot drop to the crashing Polynesian surf. In the fading light we admired the hundreds of petroglyphs carved by the Rapa Nui (as Easter Islanders call themselves and their island), picking out the depictions of gods and heroes and oversize vaginas.
You want to continue, right? Good lede = good story: Click here.