A Great Lead is Like Opening a Door
An exclusive Authorlink interview
By Columnist Penny Fletcher

April 2017

“Good lead sentences come in all shapes and sizes. One size does not fit all. “

For example, in nonfiction- including newspaper and magazine work- a quick summary of what the story is about may be enough to make a reader continue. But with attention spans getting shorter and more choices of available material, a traditional summary-style lead may not grab a reader fast enough to keep his or her eyes on the page. And if we’re writing a book- we’re actually writing two leads: the back cover blurb and the first sentence inside the book. Check out the differences in the two leads below. Which story would you most likely want to continue reading?

  1. “Following 14 dog bites and two armed robberies, sanitation workers convince the City Council to change the way garbage is collected.”
  2. “The Six-Person Anytown City Council voted today to stop collecting garbage from the alleyways behind houses and apartments and will now take only bins that are placed in front of residences for reasons of safety of collections agents?”

Number one opens a more enticing door, don’t you think? In this case, telling why the City Council made the changes is more important than what changes have been made. Details about when and where to put the garbage bins can follow once the reader is hooked. Writers tend to think of nonfiction as fact, and fact as boring, but it doesn’t have to be.

Creative techniques vary widely and can be used for fiction or nonfiction, and once the door is open, all the necessary information can be introduced in ways to keep the reader engaged.


Here’s an example that exemplifies two completely different ways of conveying the same information in a story about a mother and her children going for a swim. It could be fiction or nonfiction. We don’t need to know. Just see how each paragraph about Clarissa’s fear of water affects you as you read it.

1) Clarissa wanted to swim with her family. She didn’t want her children to be afraid of the water. She knew she mustn’t let them see how she was trembling inside, just standing in the wet sand at the water’s edge. They were having such fun. Now they were calling to her but she was too afraid of the water to join them.”

Okay, I can visualize Clarissa, and as a parent, I can understand her not wanting to convey her fear to her children. But the scene doesn’t elicit any emotion from me so I’m not likely to finish reading the story.


Let’s try this instead:
2) “Come on, Mommy! The water’s great. Please come and swim with us.”
Clarissa took a step. Then another. The whitecaps from the broken waves were lapping at her ankles now, but she couldn’t stop thinking. She couldn’t stop remembering.
I’ve got to join them! I mustn’t let them know I’m afraid.
The warm water curled around her ankles as she went deeper. Despite the heat of the August afternoon, Clarissa’s hands trembled and her shoulders shook. Then, as if it was yesterday, her mind rolled back and she was a child again. Where’s daddy? He was here just a minute ago, right here, beside the boat.

“I’ve heard several editors say if a lead sentence is more than 18 words, they won’t use it.”

Now we’ve opened the door and gently let the reader in.

I didn’t have to “tell” you Clarissa was afraid, or that her father had left her alone in the water, or maybe even that he had drowned. I let Clarissa show her fear through her actions and thoughts. Sometimes there’s no better way to draw someone into a story than to get inside a character’s head, which many writers do by putting “thoughts” in italics.

I’ve heard several editors say if a lead sentence is more than 18 words, they won’t use it. Others say 25.
Personally, I prefer short punchy leads, but what matters most is the invitation it conveys. I want my leads to whisper, “Come on in, you want to hear this!”

The garbage collection example used in this piece is what is referred to as a summary lead. Clarissa’s fear is more of an anecdotal lead. Both are widely used but there are dozens of other ways to get readers into a story. We just need to make sure we start with something that pulls readers inside; to make them care.

“The best lead is the one that’s appropriate for the subject, the publication and the audience.”

Using active verbs helps. Instead of “A speech was given,” (perhaps) “Damn Rebels!” the Yank shouted.

The best lead is the one that’s appropriate for the subject, the publication and the audience. A lead that makes skimmers into readers who stay through the conclusion.

We have endless choices.

Do we want to draw people in with description? Dialogue? Human interest? Facts?

The answers to these questions will bring about the best lead.

It took me years of writing professionally to realize I didn’t have to fight with leads.

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When I see a blank page, I just think: “Get Started.” Most likely I’ll change the lead sentence once the piece is finished anyway. I can think of dozens of news articles and short stories I’ve written where I’ve gone back and changed the lead after I’d gotten the whole story down, taken a break, and come back with fresh eyes. Once I even swapped Chapter 1 and Chapter 2 of a book! Just remember, our goal is to take readers from the lead to the conclusion. First, we draw them in, and then we lead them through, step by step, giving them only the information they need at that moment.

“What that door looks and feels like can be horrifying, romantic, factual or fantasy.”

Nobody needs to know the “who, what, when, where and why” of a story in the first sentence or even in the first paragraph.

The lead is like opening a door. What that door looks and feels like can be horrifying, romantic, factual or fantasy. We just need to make sure it’s compelling enough to make readers want to know what awaits inside.

Penny Fletcher

About Regular Contributor
Penny Fletcher
Author, Editor & Coach

To contact Penny or use any of her editorial services, you may visit www.pennyfletcher.com.

To buy, visit The Sumerian Secret on Amazon in paperback or Kindle