If there’s one thing you need to know about Gary Smith, he’s the greatest magazine writer that ever lived – winner of four National Magazine Awards, the most out of any writer––ever.
His understanding of the art of the long-form narrative is unreal. He’s on a whole other level, in a another galaxy, compared to the writers below him. I have been lucky enough to email back and forth with Smith; he’s critiqued a few of my narratives I’ve written, and for that, I’m grateful. Smith broke down everything I wrote, told me what I did wrong, and gave me tips on what I should have done.
But that’s for another day, another post.
This Smith’s take on the art of lede writing. Those first few words, sentences that capture your reader and draw him into the story. Forget everything you might have learned about ledes in journalism school, these words will change your writing forever.
“It’s very hard to explain ledes. You’re asking your reader to step across a threshold, inviting him to enter another world, often where metaphor and symbol and imagination reign, a place where he might meet himself in some other form, might meet truth through another man’s flesh and blood. You’re attempting to cast a spell, to make time vanish. You’re attempting magic, so the first words are vital. Magic doesn’t happen through the use of mundane words; you want words that have a special glow. Not by using big, shiny, impressive words that display your vocabulary; more often there’s a magical power in simplicity, but those simple words should imply more, much more. Don’t dawdle or waste words; not one can be wasted here. Not one can be too much or too little. Every one must be just right. You might spend all day to get two or three paragraphs on paper, and the next day getting those three paragraphs right. Because if you think you got them right on the first go, you’re lying right in front of the mirror.
First, I try to look over all my material and think about it for a long time. Of course, even as I’m transferring all my notes from notepads into the computer, I”m thinking about what the material means in a deeper sense, what the undercurrents are. I’ll be scribbling down lots of questions to ask to flesh out ideas that are forming about what’s really going inside a person or inherent in that person’s relationship to a particular situation.
Throughout the whole process, I’m asking myself: What does this particular story really have to say about human beings or life? What’s the real heartbeat of this story? Once I can say what that is in a few sentences, then I think about how I can show that rather than come right out and say it. This helps me begin to form a structure for the whole piece in my mind.
Which brings me, then, to the lede. I need to feel that room I’m inviting the reader to come and sit down in, in order to make the reader feel it and enter. Often, you’ll want your lede to give some signal of impending conflict. Sometimes, depending on the story and the character, it might start right inside the furnace of a man, right inside of his conflict or hunger or confusion. Sometimes, if the larger context is what really matters in a story — i.e., a relationship to other factors — it might start as if we’re looking down on the person and situation from a star a million miles away. Perhaps it’s in that context that we begin to see the conflict that really matters in the story, or signs of impending trouble that we’re going to explore as we go along.
Much of this has to do with your ability to think, and see larger context, to see and sense conflicts between opposites that are at play in mankind, in general, and in each one of us. So I’m guessing your ledes will improve the more you read, the more you think, the more you travel, the more these tensions that are everywhere at play become more and more apparent to you. Once you are better able to identify them, they’ll open up your line of questioning of your characters. Not that you’ll necessarily begin asking them large and abstract questions, but very concrete questions that will confirm or deny or refine your instincts about these undercurrents, these larger themes and ideas that might be at play here.
Don’t let all this sound or seem too large or abstract. Trust that if you’re hungry to understand human beings, eager to read and think and learn, this will come with time and experience. Applying these questions to yourself — how and why you react to things the way you do — will help you see it and identify it in others, because most of these things are universal. In the meantime, as you work toward all that, just try not to let yourself wander aimlessly into a story by describing settings. Ledes will never come easy. Just remember, they’re the doorway into something larger, and they’ll become more apparent to you once you’ve got a better grasp on what that ‘larger’ is.”