While it’s perfectly acceptable to use a traditional, inverted pyramid-style lead in any journalistic article, most feature stories use a different approach. Rather than clue the reader in quickly by putting the most important facts first, an alternative lead seeks to grab attention first and explain later.
Alternative leads often have multiple paragraphs rather than the traditional one paragraph. There is no limit to the number of paragraphs in a lead so long as the structure grabs and holds attention.
This short alternative lead by Associated Press writer Justin Pope uses the element of surprise to lead readers into the story:
The weight of the textbooks almost knocked 10-year-old Greg Smith to the floor as he picked up his bag.
Otherwise the first day of college went off without a hitch.
Most readers will want to know why a 10-year-old is going to college, so they’ll keep reading to find out. That’s the beauty of an alternative lead.
Now take a look at this lead by Knoxville News Sentinel writer Jim Balloch. He uses four paragraphs to lead us into a story about an upcoming speech on local history.
Most East Tennesseans have never heard of Orlando Poe.
After all, he wasn’t from around here.
But the Ohio-born West Point graduate was here during the Civil War. He wore blue.
And when he wasn’t dodging Confederate bullets, he was drawing for the Union army some of the most accurate maps of Knoxville and the surrounding area of that time ever produced.
How do you hold a reader’s interest before he or she even knows the topic of the story? There are many different approaches, but they all have a couple of basic techniques in common: they begin with a great attention-grabber and end with a paragraph that tells what the story is actually about.
Take a look at this multi-paragraph winner by Gary Gerhadt of Scripps-Howard News Service. Note how the language of the piece escalates as the story progresses.
It started two years ago, more like vandalism than serious crime. Just a trailer or two. Nothing big.
Then last year the numbers and severity escalated. The perpetrator became more brazen, breaking into more than a dozen trailers.
This year the offenses have exploded into grand larceny, with more than 30 trailers broken into, some doors completely torn off, refrigerators overturned, cupboards torn from the walls, contents ransacked.
All because of a suspected addiction to coffee creamer.
The “criminal,” it turns out, was a hungry bear who liked to pillage vacation homes. A more traditional lead might have looked something like this.
A hungry bear has vandalized more than 50 vacation homes in the Fairplay, Colo., area, destroying property and breaking open bottles of powdered coffee creamer.
That lead would have accurate and traditional. It would not have been nearly as effective.
A well-written alternative lead offers opportunity for creativity to the writer and opportunity for fun to the reader.
Below is a link to a self-paced PowerPoint lesson on writing alterative leads. I created it for my newswriting students at the University of Tennessee. Workshop participants should look through the slide set and are also welcome to make use of it with their own students if they like. At the end of the slideshow students are asked to write a specific story using an alternative lead and to use a web package handout. The links to those items are included here as well.
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