“The man at the bottom of the grave opened his eyes:” Why a lead can make or break your story

I’ve spent the last couple days critiquing newspapers for a variety of institutions, during which time I’ve found one immutable truth:

Leads will make or break a story.

In most cases, people can write a solid news lead, with at least a few W’s and an occasional H in there, but when it comes to feature pieces, I find three types of leads that are horrible:

1) “Some people/Most people/Everybody/Nobody” leads: In most cases, these are straw-man leads where the author sets up the current situation with a generic statement about how “others” tend to view something. Then, the writer juxtaposes this with the source of the story doing the opposite or something quirky. Consider this opening to a story about a student journalist:

MONDOVI – Some college kids come home for summer and wait tables, paint houses or grab internships.

Nash Weiss is serving as interim editor of his local weekly newspaper, the Mondovi Herald-News.

He’s 21 years old, an incoming senior at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he’s studying journalism.

It’s an interesting story, but I’m bored right away as a reader. Also, it feels like I’m about to experience an infomercial or something:

(Whoever thought of this title was a marketing genius or went to work for the Pratt Tribune.)

2) “Not your typical” something or other: If I had a dollar for every profile that started with “So-and-so is not your typical college sophomore (or junior or senior or whatever),” I’d never have to work a day in my life.

Of course someone isn’t your “typical” anything if you’re doing a profile on that person. The whole point of personality profiles is to showcase someone who is special or interesting. A person who is exactly like everyone else probably isn’t really going to stand out as a profile subject. Here’s a look at a lead about someone who isn’t your “typical college sophomore:”

Santiago Gonzalez is already in his second year at the Colorado School of Mines, one of the nation’s top engineering colleges, where he has his sights set on degrees in computer science and electrical engineering.

But Gonzalez, who is 13 years old, isn’t your typical college sophomore.

Most college sophomores aren’t 13 years old, so… yeah.

Instead, tell his story, which you can find in the quotes below that lead in the story, which would further engage your readers.

3) “Imagine” leads: Unless you are writing about the John Lennon tune, you should avoid forcing your readers to imagine something. I had a student once who had an imagine-lead fetish, as he was seemingly unable to write any lead that didn’t include the word “imagine.” At that point, I told him if he wrote “imagine” in a lead one more time, I’d fail him. His next lead started this way:

Envision this scenario:

I don’t know if I felt pride in his weaseldom or amazement at how hard it was to break free of his imaginary friends. In any case, you want to avoid “imagine” leads for two reasons:

  • If something is truly imaginary, why are you writing about it in a news story or news feature? We want facts and information, not flights of fancy.
  • In most cases, the imagined thing is really true and thus should be the core of what you want to tell your readers. Therefore, instead of having someone imagine what life was like to be homeless as a 5-year-old boy, tell the story of that boy and what he really went through.

The reason I dug into leads today was that I read two narrative leads that knocked my socks off today. They came from varying sources and are of varying vintages, but they both did the one thing a lead must do: Make me care enough to want to read the rest of the story.

Start with the classic: Jacqui Banaszynski’s 1980s Pulitzer-Prize-winning series, “AIDS in the Heartland.” The series chronicles the way in which AIDS, then thought of as a disease for large cities with questionable morals, hit the Midwest. She did it through the eyes and struggles of Dick Hanson, a Minnesota political activist and farmer, who died at age 37. Although all three parts have an incredible narrative lead, the third part was the one I picked for an example here:

Dick Hanson died Saturday, July 25 at 5:30 a.m. Farmers’ time, when the night holds tight to a last few moments of quiet before surrendering to the bustle of the day.

Back home in rural Glenwood, Minn., folks were finishing morning barn chores before heading out to the fields for the early wheat harvest. Members of the Pope County DFL Party were setting up giant barbecue grills in Barsness Park, preparing for the Waterama celebration at Lake Minnewaska.

In the 37 years Hanson lived on his family’s farm south of Glenwood, he had seldom missed the harvest or the lakeside celebration. As the longtime chairman of the county DFL, it always had been his job to ran the hotdog booth.

But today he was in a hospital bed in downtown Minneapolis. The blinds of the orange-walled room were drawn against the rising sun. He had suffered a seizure the morning before. Doctors said it probably left him unaware of his surroundings, beyond pain and — finally — beyond struggling.

Yet those closest to him swore he could hear them, and knew what was happening, and knew it was time.

“Three times during the course of the night he brought his hands together and his lips would move, and you knew he was praying. I can’t help I but think he was shutting himself down,” said Roy Schmidt, a Minnesota AIDS Project official and longtime friend who stayed with Hanson that last night.

Hanson died holding the hands of the two people most dear to him — his sister, Mary Hanson-Jenniges, and his partner of five years, Bert Henningson.

“Amazing Grace” was playing softly on a tape machine in the corner of the room. It was Hanson’s favorite hymn, the one he had sung over his mother’s grave barely a year ago.

This is the final chapter of Hanson’s story. After having lived a year longer than he was expected to, he grew weary of fighting for his life and was willing — if not eager — for it to end.

After his death, he was cremated. Mourners came to his childhood church for a memorial service that was vintage Hanson — traditionally religious but politically radical and, inevitably, controversial.

Henningson is left behind on the farm with a legacy of love — and death. For now he, too, is sick, suffering early symptoms of acquired immune deficiency syndrome. No sooner will he finish grieving for Hanson than he must begin grieving for himself.

In this lead, small details add to the big picture. It also comes to a point of conclusion that shows this illness is not slowing down and more will die of it soon.

The second lead I ran into came from ESPN’s Tisha Thompson and Kevin Shaw. It is about a boxing trainer who had been marked for death by someone close to him. The beginning uses details in much the same way the AIDS series did, but then the twist at the end has me wanting to read the whole thing from top to bottom:

The police camera clicked. Click. Click. Click. Each snap shattered a silence brought on by Houston’s suffocating summertime heat. The lens pointed into a waist-deep hole.

At the bottom of the freshly dug grave lay a man in his late 40s with what appeared to be blood running from a gunshot wound to his right temple. More blood trailed from his nose. The man, clad in nothing but his underwear, had his arms pulled beneath his back as though he’d been bound.

Detectives from the Montgomery County Constable’s Office already knew his identity: Ramon Sosa, one of the best-known boxing trainers in southeast Texas. A former professional fighter, he’d taught pros and Olympic hopefuls how to spar the fast-paced Puerto Rican way. Dozens of kids from gangs and troubled backgrounds had funneled through his nonprofit Young Prospects Boxing program.

He also owned a successful gym less than two miles from this spot, surrounded by heavy forest on all sides and well-hidden from the bedroom community known as The Woodlands. The detectives knew too that Sosa’s gym brought in about $20,000 a month, allowing the trainer and his wife to buy a fancy new house, cars, motorcycles and designer shoes and watches.

Gangs and money. That’s what might have been behind this grim scene. But this wasn’t a predictable crime at all. Once the camera stopped clicking, the lead detective spoke: “We’re done, Mr. Sosa. You can get up now.”

And with that, the man at the bottom of the grave opened his eyes.

If you’ll pardon me, I have to go read the rest of that one now.


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