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Hook, Line, and Thesis

Posted on Sunday, August 31, 2014 at 2:07 PM

Once you've hooked your reader with a compelling lead, make sure your story delivers a sound thesis.

By Peter P. Jacobi

Over the years, we've devoted considerable space to the discussion of leads: how they should (1) attract attention, (2) establish the subject, (3) set the tone, and (4) guide or bridge into the story.

They're important. Story beginnings are important. But even the best can be spoiled, even nullified, if what comes thereafter fails to follow up or follow through on the lead's hints or promises. The problem tends to converge on number 2, the task of establishing the subject. Within the confines of the lead, only so much establishing can comfortably be done. More often than not, there does need to be an expanded effort to let readers know what the story is about. The lead needs a thesis to complete it. The story needs a thesis as an informational doorway into its heart and sinew.

I lose patience rather quickly when I lose a sense of direction, when the writer leaves me wandering and wondering, wandering aimlessly and wondering what I should be gaining from further perusal of the copy. I can be titillated or tempted for only so long. I want to be told why I should be spending time and effort with the article in question, and I tend not to wait too long. For me, and I suspect for many readers, the lead may entice, but the thesis is necessary to make the sale.

Three Compelling Examples

I've chosen three good examples, those that made the sale, to show you what I have in mind.

In a recent Smithsonian, I came across Abigail Tucker's article, "Quantum Mechanic." Here's how she begins her story: "At the age of 18, Saumil Bandyopadhyay had five peer-reviewed papers to his name, but no driver's license. His busy schedule was partially to blame -- he spent much of high school in an electrical engineering lab at Virginia Commonwealth University wearing a hairnet and tinkering with nanowires. Since his dad was a professor there, he always had a ride home.

"But in truth, driving terrified him. He winced at the mere mention of a merge. 'The collision possibility is very real, ' he says one day at home in Glen Allen, Virginia. He'd started learning on his mom's Honda Civic, but soon dropped the notion."

OK. It's written in a lively fashion. It's about an eccentric. I 'm tempted, but I 'm already asking myself, just what is this piece about? Fortunately, the author begins to clue me in, I'd say just in time. Tucker continues: "Instead, he worked even harder on the magnum opus of his young career: a unique infrared detector, which may one day reduce car crash rates by allowing vehicles to sense each other in fog or darkness. The nanoscale contraption, which to the uneducated eye looks like a silver postage stamp, might also someday help spy on stellar nurseries, detect hidden land mines, and monitor global warming."

At this point, I begin to understand why the editors of Smithsonian gave this fellow space in their "Ten Innovators Who Are Electrifying Your World" issue. I now have a why for continuing to read the article.

On the front page of a New York Times sports section, I find a story by Jere Longman with a Philadelphia dateline. "The football players at Martin Luther King High School gathered in a semicircle like a tired and rain-soaked choir," he writes. "They placed their arms around one another's shoulders and began swaying to a call and response.

"'Who the King?'

"'We the Kings!'

"'Who the King?'

"'We the Kings!'

"'Who the King?'

"'We the Kings!'"

We have the start to a promising scene, and if I were into sports, I'd likely stick around for a while. Since I 'm not that much into sports, upon starting to read the article, my critical guard began to manifest itself. Longman must have sensed that the likes of me would want some sort of resolution right about now in the story.

He obliges: "What was once unthinkable to many players had become intimate and binding. Most of King's current roster played last season at archrival Germantown High School in northwest Philadelphia. Few could have imagined the schools merging, the teams playing as one.

"When King last defeated Germantown in their annual Thanksgiving Day game, in 2010," Longman continues, "the players brawled with fists and helmets. The police intervened. But austerity has trumped rivalry. Facing a $304 million budget shortfall, the chronically troubled Philadelphia School district closed 23 schools in June. The closings included Germantown, one of the nation's oldest high schools.... Most of its students would now attend King."

The combination of lead and thematic expansion provides a package inviting enough for me to go on and benefit from a meaningful article, one definitely worth reading, not only because of the specific case but how this Philadelphia merger is a metaphor for others around the nation.

In an issue of Research & Creativity, published every so often by Indiana University, I found an article titled "Forced Feeding" by Lauren Bryant. She made her way into the piece this way: "If you're a parent, you've been there. You're grocery shopping with kids in tow, when you round the corner of a towering display. Suddenly, you're in the cookie aisle. The pleading begins.

"'Mommy, I want the chocolate covered peanut butter cookies. Please!' says your 6-year-old.

''Nooooooo,' whines the 8-year-old. 'I want the chocolate sandwich ones covered in white fudge! Please, Mom, please.'

"'No way,' says your 10-year-old. 'We're getting the chunky chocolate chip ones. That commercial with the singing cookies in the convertible is awesome!'"

There's the set-up: a probably make-believe mom and her three probably make-believe children at the supermarket traversing the cookie aisle, with a predictable result, one often not make-believe at all. Bryant now has to convince me to stick around.

She writes: "The cracker and cereal aisles are hardly different (who knew there was cereal in the form of a fat chocolate straw?), and you end up leaving the store with a small pile of foods you know your children should rarely eat."

The next paragraph begins: "Walter Gantz understands. The chair of Indiana University Bloomington's Department of Telecommunications and a 30-year veteran of media research, Gantz is lead author of the recently released Food for Thought: Television Food Advertising to Children in the United States."

I now understand why this article has been published in an Indiana University publication: There's been a study, and an IU scholar has been at the front and center of it. The clue reveals the author's purpose and allows me to decide whether or not to finish the article.

Please give your reader a complete package: make sure that in a beginning-middle-end story, you make that beginning informationally complete. Provide a thesis.

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.

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