Beyond the gate of experience flows the Way, Which is ever greater and more subtle than the world. - Tao Te Ching

Monday, October 13, 2014

Attention authors: Please stop burying the lead!

Articles on the internet increasingly use an amateur tactic to reel in readers, and it’s got me, and likely other adherents to good taste, completely pissed.

It’s a technique called “burying the lead,” the “lead” being the initial sentence or two that intends to catch a reader’s attention and sum up what the reader can expect to absorb throughout the article. Often, the burial is in the form of an extended, three-paragraph warm-up session in which the author attempts to regale his audience with some sort of metaphor or parallel or tenuous anecdote that often reaches too far, having the unintended effect of leaving a reader confused, angry or depressed that she missed the fragile connection concocted solely to massage the author’s ego by impressing his audience with his intellectual prowess.

It’s like doing a 20-minute warm up routine for a 5-minute workout. I don’t need to stretch. I’m ready to pump! If I need to stretch my intellect before I dive into an article, I will simply read the impeccable and never-annoying advertisements that decorate the flanks of your illustrious epistle.

Now, I’m not trying to pick on anyone in particular, because burying the lead is as ubiquitous as ignorant comments and Twitter snafus in the internet age. Even so, here is a real example.

A friend of mine posted a link on Facebook, headlined “We’re losing all our strong female characters to Trinity syndrome.” I’m always interested to read stories about characters and how that relates to writing, so I checked it out. But I fell asleep when this is what I found:

“DreamWorks’ How To Train Your Dragon 2 considerably expands the world introduced in the first film, and that expansion includes a significant new presence: Valka, the long-lost mother of dragon-riding protagonist Hiccup, voiced by Cate Blanchett.”

Now, maybe you’ve seen “How To Train Your Dragon 1,” and so maybe this hooks you. Maybe you’ve also seen the sequel, so you’re hooked, too. Or maybe you love DreamWorks and can’t wait to dive deeper. For me, I could care less about this sentence and the entire opening paragraph — not because it’s not interesting, mind you, but because I’m 1) Completely disconnected from the subject matter. 2) Completely unclear about why this is even an opening sentence. 3) Feeling betrayed by the lack of connection between the headline and the opening sentence.

Here’s the rest of the opening paragraph:

“The film devotes much of its sweet, sensitive middle act to introducing her, and building her up into a complicated, nuanced character. She’s mysterious and formidable, capable of taking Hiccup and his dragon partner Toothless out of the sky with casual ease. She’s knowledgable: Two decades of studying dragons means she knows Toothless’ anatomy better than he does. She’s wise. She’s principled. She’s joyous. She’s divided. She’s damaged. She’s vulnerable. She’s something female characters so often aren’t in action/adventure films with male protagonists: She’s interesting.

“Too bad the story gives her absolutely nothing to do.”

The writing is punchy and clear and free of typos. The content is interesting. But the packaging is wrong. It’s like finding a grease-stained, hideous cardboard box housing a pristine diamond ring.

Interestingly, the very next sentence, after the gobbledygook, is exactly what I wanted to read as a first sentence in the story:

“There’s been a cultural push going on for years now to get female characters in mainstream films some agency, self-respect, confidence, and capability, to make them more than the cringing victims and eventual trophies of 1980s action films, or the grunting, glowering, sexless-yet-sexualized types that followed, modeled on the groundbreaking badass Vasquez in Aliens.”

It has everything you would expect in a lead sentence following the headline. It tells you who and what this article is about (strong female characters in films). It gives you a sense of time, telling you the when. And, although it’s a bit nebulous, the where is there (America or western cultures or film studios, etc.). The why is also there — why should we read this story (there is a “cultural push” to change how female characters are portrayed in popular films).

Personally, I would have left out that last clause referencing the Vasquez character, but this sentence grabs me, even though it’s a bit long. Now I want to read, because now I feel like I want to hear examples of poor women characters and I want them compared to strong women ones.

Here’s another example of burying the lead, from an article in The Guardian. I’d like to try an experiment, if you would allow me. Read the opening two paragraphs, and then make up a headline in your mind and write it down. Then come back to this post and see what the story really was headlined. Here’s how it started:

“We remember anniversaries that mark the important events of our era: September 11 (not only the 2001 Twin Towers attack, but also the 1973 military coup against Allende in Chile), D-day, etc. Maybe another date should be added to this list: 19 June.

“Most of us like to take a stroll during the day to get a breath of fresh air. There must be a good reason for those who cannot do it – maybe they have a job that prevents it (miners, submariners), or a strange illness that makes exposure to sunlight a deadly danger. Even prisoners get their daily hour's walk in fresh air.”

Any ideas? My headline would be “Inhale the fresh air of anniversaries” or something similar. But of course I was way off. The actual headline is, “How WikiLeaks opened our eyes to the illusion of freedom.”

To be fair, there is a clue in the opening paragraph, when the author uses a bit of foreshadowing by alluding to the mysterious importance of “19 June,” which happens to be the day that Julian Assange was “permanently confined to the apartment that houses the Ecuadorian embassy in London.”

Not exactly on par with D-Day or 9/11 or the coup that overthrew one of South America’s best hopes for a democratic future, Salvador Allende, but certainly an important moment for anyone who cares about the importance of open society and free information.

However, by alluding to intense historical moments in the past, we’re set up to think that June 19 would be on par with such events. Assange’s confinement is only as historically relevant as the opinion of the person reading this story. He is alive and remains influential, unlike the thousands killed during Operation Neptune at Normandy or during the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.

Of course in this instance, the author is attempting to convince the reader, why June 19 is as important as those other dates, but in this author’s humble opinion, that argument is poorly delivered. As much as I personally respect what Assange has brought to the table, it would be difficult for anyone to convince me that his asylum is on par with those other events. He can still function on some level. He is not dead. He is not in prison. His “confinement” is more annoying than anything else.

By assigning Assange’s confinement alongside those events, it immediately shuts down my interest. And herein lies the core problem with burying the lead or using hyperbole to make a point — It does nothing to open the minds of those who would normally disagree with you. Instead, it merely reinforces the opinions of those who already agree with you. It’s the proverbial “preaching to the choir” technique that adds little to the intellectual discourse that is imperative to our time.

Secondly, the use of foreshadowing in an opening paragraph sends shivers of annoyance up and down my spine. It almost appears as a cheap trick, like some hullabaloo tactic to reel in the audience that is usually used by snake oil salesmen. I’m not trying to be overly picky or tear apart the author’s writing, which is clear and often poignant. However, foreshadowing is a complex tool that when used with haste, and within hyperbole, it is more distracting than magnetizing. Instead of being hooked on the narrative by the time I learn what June 19 means, I’m angry.

One could argue that is the author’s intention, to make me angry. Personally, I would argue that this method is useless and will never win me over or open my mind. Ever.

It has become en vogue for modern bloggers and authors and journalists to be as wordy as they see fit, perhaps because there are no space constraints on the web. For centuries, authors often were forced to condense their writing. The longer their prose, the more expensive it would be to produce, and the more scrutiny would be placed on the quality of their craftsmanship.

This new freedom has spawned the death of the informational lead. On virtually every website, from the mundane to the monstrous, from the hip to the hyperlocal and everywhere in between, leads are found buried, often several paragraphs in. They often sadly sit in a coffin built by 200 words of warm-up that have a tenuous connection to article’s subject.

Let me be clear: I do not think there is an intentional effort by writers to bury the lead. Perhaps they want to find a common ground through which to connect to their readers before jumping into a story. And sometimes this method works, but certainly not all the time.

Perhaps part of the problem is the grandiosity used in headlines these days. Headlines can be so ridiculously sensational that one would feel ostracized from society if one didn’t read the story. Then when the sad and poor lead sentence doesn’t measure up to the glitzy and glamorous headline, we’re often left disappointed. It’s like an encounter with an externally beautiful person whose magnetic yet superficial charm rakes in single-serve friends but whose internal ugliness impedes the development of lasting and meaningful relationships.

So let’s be more honest with our headlines and more poignant with our leads. Let’s think of the reader first, not maximizing web hits. Let’s think of the quality of our craft. Let us consider each word we write to be a soldier in the army of our prose. It’s not the number of soldiers that matter, as history has shown. It’s instead the quality of their leadership and training.

Let us lead our soldiers onto the battlefield of the blank page with gall and wit, not cutesy tricks and contrived hyperbole. Like Huxley said in “Brave New World”: “Words can be like X-rays if you use them properly — they’ll go through anything. You read and you’re pierced.”  

Hopefully this article did some piercing. If not, offer a better take and we’ll all be better for it.

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