Take the lead

Nothing says “lead” like a top hat, white tie and tails, a walking stick and leather-soled taps.

Nothing says “lead” like Fred Austerlitz (Fred Astaire).

And, of course, nothing says “follow” like a black chiffon gown that floats just above the dance floor in effortless grace.

Nothing says “follow” like Virginia Katherine McMath (Ginger Rogers).

These two, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, embodied artistry, sophistication and style.

Speaking of great leads and great follows, this brings us to great leads in writing.

A great lead sets the reader up for what is to follow and, of course, what follows should be great as well.

The lead begins with a hook—one word, one sentence or a few sentences—that grab the reader’s attention and holds them spellbound until the end.

And the lead should be concise. No rambling.

It may begin with an anecdote, a question (if it targets the heart of the story), a thought-provoking or even shocking statement, a famous quote or a bit of humour (think Anthony Trombetta or George Maratos).

Even style can create a great lead. Experiment. Try staccato. There. See?

Think of the lead as setting the pace, the rhythm, the tone. What kind of feeling do you want to invoke?

A great lead puts the reader into the story by painting a picture. You want the reader to enter the world you are creating – kind of like a virtual reality. And this can be done using similes (comparisons using “like” or “as”) or through direct metaphors (direct comparisons without the help of “like” or “as”).

Show, don’t tell.

There is a saying in writing that applies to leads: If you introduce a gun, you must use it. The lead paragraph sets up expectations and what follows should fulfill those expectations.

Having a plan will help you do just that. What are the four or five most important things you want to get across? Begin with the headline, add a hook and then the No. 1 thing, the most important part of your story, and so on.

Nothing says “lead” like a well-thought-out first paragraph. And nothing says “follow” like the carefully constructed paragraphs that continue until the music fades and the curtain falls.

When Fred Astaire steps out with Ginger in his arms, all eyes are on him. It’s immediately obvious who is leading. But, as Ginger smiles and chiffon swirls, the audience is magnetically drawn to her.

You’ve written a great lead if you, the writer, are forgotten; if the reader has forgotten all about you and is in the story, caught up in the excitement and anticipation as they are swept along.

Finally, as a writer, you must always go back and review what you have done. Writing is a choreography: each step planned, practised, evaluated and reviewed.

Print your story out, if you’re working on a computer. Read it out loud. You will catch errors, but you may also see where you can omit words, replace verbs with stronger ones, vary sentence length and style.

Writers, like dancers, get better with practice.

So think of your lead as Fred Astaire and the paragraphs to come as Ginger Rogers. Step onto the stage like Astaire, with black top hat, white tie and tails; with a walking stick and tap shoes. Grab the reader’s attention.

Sweep the readers off their feet. Pull them into the story. Entice them with what is to come.

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