DON’T OPEN WITH A QUOTE
There seems to be a trend lately toward opening stories with a quote. I think you should consider not doing this.
Everybody knows the lede is the single most important part of a story. It draws readers in, sets the hook. Given only a couple of sentences to convince a reader to continue reading the piece I’ve worked so hard to produce, I always try to make sure the lede is extra special.
If you’re writing a blog post or a news story, your lede might only be a paragraph or three. Or, if you’re writing a magazine piece or a book, your lede might be an entire section, an entire chapter. My old boss at Esquire, David Granger, used to talk about a lede of mine that went on about 2500 words, during the days when stories were much longer. See “Big” in Wounded Warriors
In every case, your lede should be virtuoso; an irresistible trailer for the word-movie to come. Even if you’re writing on deadline, adding to the digital churn, try to take a few extra minutes to tap into your creativity. That’s why you got into this, right? Even as a reporter for a daily newspaper, on daily deadlines—and even with the legendary editor Ben Bradlee reading over my shoulder–I tried to make each feature lede special. After all, the lede is usually displayed in farily close proximity to the byline, correct? If I’m going to dare to put myself out there, dare to ask people to read my stuff, I’m going to make sure I’ve done the best I can.
No matter what the format— digital or analog—starting with a quote feels kind of lazy.
Starting with a quote is like opening a movie with a black screen and a voice over. That’s the image your reader gets, except they’re not even hearing the voice.
And forget the fact that there might be photos or other bells and whistles accompanying your story. A great piece of writing should stand alone. Imagine your story in a book. Page after page of manicured type. Any multi-sensual experience has to come from your deployment of the 26 letters of the alphabet.
When you lede with a quote, you’re really just leading with verbiage that has no context. Unless it’s one of the all-time quotable quotes, I think you can do better.
A lot of writers like to begin a story with a definitive declarative sentence. “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” et al. When such a sentence presents itself, by all means go ahead. But there’s a balance. Definitive declarative sentences can sometimes sound comically portentous. Whatever you do, you don’t want to look like you’re trying too hard. (Another important tip.) Great writing should read as if it flowed from a wellspring; it should never bear the signs of all the digging and construction that proceeded it.
Over that past forty years, having done hundreds of stories, I’ve gone the definitive sentence route only a handful of times. These kinds of ledes are a rare gift. The lede of my story “The Devil and John Holmes,” about the pioneering porn star, crack addict and AIDS casualty, is one of these. Read the beginning here. Click “look inside,” then scroll to the opening of the piece.
In most cases, however, I’ve used description to open a story. I set the scene, introduce the character or characters, add a little context and drama. This can be done in a few sentences—or many sentences, depending upon space. Describing into a story this way helps your readers—it’s like projecting a picture into the mind’s eye of the reader.
(One example of this kind of lede is my ASME-winning piece about Todd Marinovich. Read it here.)
After the scene is set, it is now time to use the quote, or to begin running dialog. In context now. More meaningful.
It takes a little more work but you’ll be rewarded. Out of the great din of the digital wordflow, your piece will be heard.