Every writer knows that readers look at their first sentence first, and that lead determines the success of their piece. They try to come up with a great lead to hook their readers.
Actually, readers enter the top of a story in this order:
PHOTO > TITLE > CAPTION > TEXT.
If the package includes pull-out quotes, sidebars, graphics, or boxes, some readers may enter through any of these. Ten percent of readers skip the caption, but the sequence is always the same: photo(s), title (or headline), caption (or cutline), text. The only person who reads the lead first is its author.
Now you’re thinking, “Nonsense, I don’t read that way. Nobody does.” But all research confirms this pattern, which I call “the path.”
Notice where the lead falls in that sequence: fourth, last. Something in a fourth position isn’t a hook. The photo is the hook, and the headline or title does a little more hooking. Captions bridge, but don’t hook. The lead is too late in the sequence to hook anybody.
Now it gets more complicated. Whatever the reader reads first sets expectations. Readers immediately begin to predict what comes next, the content of the whole piece, and the likelihood of their understanding it. If their expectations are met, they feel smart and guided, and keep reading. If their expectations fail, they feel stupid and don’t trust you, and they stop reading.
Readers scan the photo and headline first, and those two set the expectations, not the lead. To manage your story’s success, you need to get involved in everything above the beginning of your text, where writers normally don’t tread: photo, title, caption.
First of all, help the photographer. That relationship succeeds when you work as equals, not as THE WRITER and some other guy who decorates your fabulous text with pics. If possible, gather materials with the photographer present, trading suggestions and discussing what you find and how you might use it. Failing that, make sure the photographer knows what the story is about and its content and style. Help the photographer (or photo chief or designer) select the pictures that best bring the reader into your story. Remember that photographers select aesthetically (color, composition, focus, etc.) while you want the best predicter. After the piece appears, thank photographers for good work.
Second, always suggest headlines and titles. An editor will finish them, but may not think about the title as predicter. I submit suggested headlines with everything I write, often half a dozen of them. No editor has ever published a single headline I wrote; I’m just not good at it. But I get great headlines because my suggestions supply them with key words and ideas.
Third, volunteer to write picture captions, or just submit them anyway. Captions bridge between the photo and headline into the text, often providing an enticing piece of information for the reader.
Let’s look at an example of path thinking. The photo shows a banker catching ducklings that have hatched on the façade of his bank building, and are leaping out of the nest toward the sidewalk. The photo doesn’t include the name of the bank or its logo. The headline reads, “Banker Rescues Fledglings in Mid-Air.” (I told you I’m not a whiz at headlines.) The caption reads, “Joel Armstrong, a senior loan officer at Sterling Savings Bank in Spokane, snags a mallard duckling on its maiden flight.” (Not so hot at captions either.) The caption supplies the name of the hero and his bank. See how the photo, headline, and caption work together to deliver the reader with enough intriguing information to read your wonderful lead?
Sometimes path thinking gets us out of tricky situations. A New York Times story on the Taiwan Computer Show has a photo of a touch screen. A strange shape perches on the fingertip poised over the P-key. Readers are likely to read the story wondering about that fingertip device and become confused when it does not appear. The caption solves the problem: “A model’s floral fingernails tapping a computer with Microsoft Multi-Touch software, one of many touch-screen devices shown.” The caption saves readers from distraction.
So if the lead doesn’t hook readers, what does it do and how do you write them? That’s my next blog. Stay tuned.
[Got any anecdotes of struggling with the top of a story?]