« Vetting Your Editorial Content | Home | Edit Your Own Magazine? »

Start Your Story Right

Posted on Wednesday, February 27, 2013 at 10:02 AM

Take the time to think, gather, and select information for the best lead.

By Peter P. Jacobi

As I write this installment, the third season of Downton Abbey is in midstream. When you read this, it will probably be long gone, and fans will be anxiously awaiting the fourth. But I've been reading reports and reviews of this dynamo import from Great Britain. As result, a subject has come to mind: Leads.

Yes, I've written about leads previously and often. But we all know how important they are and how troublesome they can be to get right. They serve four purposes, which I've preached before: (1) to attract attention, (2) to establish the subject, (3) to set the tone, and (4) to guide the reader into the story.

My perusal of the Downton Abbey literature brought additional reflections and considerations. Let me, as we get this column underway, share two beginnings that I came across.

The first is from the Denver Post and was written by its television critic, Joanne Ostrow: "On the verge of any historic shift, some people rise to the occasion, enunciating a modernist attitude, others stubbornly cling to what worked in the past, a few enrage their loved ones by pushing for faster, more radical change, and still more are oblivious, mired in smaller concerns and unable to see the culture evolving around them. That's true whether the new wave brings loosening standards of dinnerware, the admission of women into the workforce, or the possibility of forgiveness for one who has transgressed.

"All are topics for contemplation, along with terrific wardrobes and period effects, as the Brit hit 'Downton Abbey' opens its third season on PBS Sunday night."

The second lead initiates Robert Bianco's coverage for USA Today: "Steaming into the '20s, Downton Abbey comes roaring back to life. Not that this exemplary period-soap was deadly last season by any stretch of the imagination; it's hard for a series this well-acted, and filled with this many well-developed and justifiably well-loved characters, to be anything less than entertaining.

"But there was a troubling, even if slight, drop-off in quality in last year's run, as if the second-season attempt to tackle World War 1 jarred the show off its axis. Too many people wandered by without registering, and too many plot points wandered astray. In honor of the drama's fondness for discretion, let's just vow never to speak again of Robert's dalliance or the disappearing would-be heir.

"Happily, all that is behind us, and what lies ahead for Downton fans is a first-rate run of episodes that feels less hectic and more tightly focused on the family core."

What Is Your Intent?

Both beginnings have professional sheen. They differ in purpose. The first is informational in nature; it brings readers up to date on the series by reminding them where events left off at the end of the previous year and offers a push, a "Hey, you might as well sit yourself down in front of your set Sunday to find out how the story moves forward." The second opening, though it also urges an active look ahead, provides a more judgmental reminder of what we saw and heard last season.

In determining how to get a story underway, be sure to know your intent. What are you trying to get accomplished? Simply introduce a subject? Bring the subject up to date? Strive to be an insider with the resources to provide little known, behind-the-scenes information? Tell the story? As a tease, describe some of what will be shown? Explain how and why this evening soap has struck such a chord? Lead with an opinion? Engender contemplation?

Know your intent, and act accordingly. The success of a lead depends not only on what material, what detail, you choose to include but how you plan to use it. Information can work differently, depending on what you make of it and how you employ the language and what sort of atmospheric thrust you inject.

It is instructive when the media supply a packet of coverage examples that show different minds meeting differing goals, as has been the case with Downton Abbey. Here are a few more lead samples.

Informational Lead

From Reuters, a news service, the informational: "Cousin Matthew, Lady Mary, and the rest of the clan will be back to their post-Edwardian shenanigans on Sunday. The period drama has become Britain's biggest television export since launching three years ago. It has been sold to more than 100 countries and is up for three Golden Globe Awards this year, including TV drama (Michelle Dockery) and best supporting actress (Maggie Smith).

"'We've set a show in a very recognizably English genre,' said Downton Abbey executive producer Gareth Heame. 'It's a genre that can't be done in America and isn't really done anywhere else in the world.'"

Instructively Critical Lead

From Alessandra Stanley in The New York Times, the instructively critical: "A lot of time and discussion have been spent deciphering the extraordinary success of Downton Abbey, but it's actually pretty simple. This series about British aristocrats and their servants is Fifty Shades of Grey: soft-core pornography, but fixated on breeding and heritage rather than kinky sex.

"The infamous Fifty Shades S-and-M trilogy by E.L. James began as an e-book and became a publishing sensation by adding a frisson of Story of O-style bondage to an old-fashioned romance novel. And Downton Abbey, which was supposed to last only one season, is beginning its third on PBS Sunday and is basically a romance novel with a thick dollop of The Forsyte Saga. The books have gall; the television series has Galsworthy." Stanley goes on to make her case.

Analytical Lead

From The Huffington Post's Maureen Ryan, the analytical: "This court will now come to order. In the dock today, we find Downton Abbey ... a phenomenon whose popularity rivals that of Justin Bieber and Homeland put together....

"You probably won't be able to avoid the third season of Downton, even if you'd wanted to, so we might as well review the show's strengths and sins together. Oh yes, there are sins to be found, or rather, a series of mostly avoidable mistakes that are almost up there with mistaking the shrimp fork for the dessert fork.

"I kid because I know what Downton Abbey is -- it's unquestionably one of television's most contrived confections, and there's nothing wrong with contrivances as long as they serve a greater purpose. But what is that purpose, exactly?" Read on in The Huffington Post.

Confrontational Lead

From The Atlantic's James Parker, the confrontational: "At what point in the history of domestic service, I wonder, did lords and ladies start saying Thank you to their staff, instead of just kicking them into the fireplace? When did it begin, this treacherous acquisition of personhood by the dishwashing classes? Was there perhaps a single, pivotal moment, deep in some ancestral pile, when a purple-faced baronet looked upon his vassal and experienced -- wildly, disconcertingly -- the first fizzings of human-to-human recognition? Blame Saint Francis of Assisi. Blame Charles Dickens.

"By the early 20th century, at any rate, the whole master-servant thing was plainly in ruins. Individuals were everywhere. The housekeeper had opinions; the chauffeur had a private life; and the gentleman found himself obliged to take an interest, however slight, in the affairs of his gentlemen's gentleman. 'And what will you do with your weekend off, Bassett?'

"I know all this -- lest you doubt my expertise -- because I've been watching Downton Abbey, the ludicrously popular aristo-soap currently airing on PBS's Masterpiece Classic." And I invite you to read the entertaining rest in the February 2013 issue of The Atlantic.

Plan Your Leads Carefully

There are more samples in my files, but let the above serve to prove the point: It takes careful thought on your part, along with careful gathering and selection of information, to get the start of your story right. Yes, leads are hard. But we love them for what they can accomplish.

Peter P. Jacobi is a Professor Emeritus at Indiana University. He is a writing and editing consultant for numerous associations and magazines, speech coach, and workshop leader for various institutions and corporations. He can be reached at 812-334-0063.

Add your comment.

« Vetting Your Editorial Content | Top | Edit Your Own Magazine? »