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Narrative Leads

A lead is an invitation, a tease, bait. A lead is the net you cast out to catch your readers in an ocean of electronic distractions. The stronger and wider your lead, the more readers it will catch.

So far we have worked with straight-forward news leads, inverted pyramids and teasers. But I would now want you to start paying attention to a different type of opening: the narrative lead.

Narrative leads vary in length and form according to the length and style of your article, but their role is always the same: to establish the mood of your piece and to let the reader know what your story is about. Unlike inverted pyramids, narrative leads do not summarize your article. Instead of saving the reader from reading the full story, narrative leads push him/her deep into it.

Below I listed a few good examples of strong narrative leads curated by’s Chip Scanlan. Please read them and be ready to answer the next few questions in class:

1- Can you classify them by style or genre?

2- Which one is the most appealing to you and why?

3- How do you think you could produce a narrative lead for an audio/video story? Do multimedia narrative leads follow the same structural rules?

After taking a look at the examples, please read Bob Baker’s Six questions to ask yourself before you type that anecdotal lead and answer the following question:

4- What story you’ve written for our class so far that would have read better with a narrative lead?

Baker proposes a test to justify our use of the anecdotal lead. The “[…] basic test is: Does the anecdote actually represent the greater truth of the story?”

Here are the examples:


A waiter fond of poet Ralph Waldo Emerson attends morning prayers at his church, steps across the street and hijacks a school bus. Owing $15,639.39 in back taxes, wielding what he says is a bomb, Catalino Sang shields himself with disabled children.

Follow my orders, he says, or I will kill the kids. “No problem, I will,” says driver Alicia Chapman, crafty and calm. “But please don’t hurt the children.”

The saga of Dade County school bus No. CX-17, bound for Blue Lakes Elementary, begins.


“Terror Rides a School Bus” by Gail Epstein, Frances Robles and Martin Merzer
The Miami Herald, November 3, 1995


The past came to claim Aleksandras Lileikis this week. It knocked on his door on Sumner Street in Norwood, shattering his quiet present and shocking the friends and neighbors who thought they knew the man in the yellow house. It knocked on all of our doors, pointing to the genocide of more than 50 years, demanding that we hear the stories and seek the truth.


“A summons from history” by Susan Trausch
The Boston Globe, Sept. 23, 1994

JERUSALEM, Nov. 4—A right-wing Jewish extremist shot and killed Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin tonight as he departed a peace rally attended by more than 100,000 in Tel Aviv, throwing Israel’s government and the Middle East peace process into turmoil.


“Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin is Killed” by Barton Gellman
The Washington Post, Sunday, November 5, 1995


Her weight’s gone up. Gray hairs have sprouted. She’s gotten used to flat shoes instead of heels and eggplant-shaped dresses instead of the gowns and furs she used to wear. But after a decade in prison for having her husband killed, Betty Lou Haber, closing in on 50, is still as polite and sweet sounding as ever.

“There’s never a night that I go to bed and don’t say my prayers,” she said last week. “I just do the best I can.”

And that’s why Albert Haber’s surviving children are worried.


“A murder story” by David Finkel
St.Petersburg Times, May 26, 1985


HAVANA—This is the moment when, in my dreams, I begin to cry. And yet, I’m strangely calm as I go up the stairs to the apartment of my childhood in Santos Suarez, the only place that, after all these years, I still refer to as la casa, home.


“A sentimental journey to la casa of childhood” by Mirta Ojito
The New York Times, Feb. 3, 1998


Karubamba, Rwanda—Nobody lives here anymore.

Not the expectant mothers huddled outside the maternity clinic, not the families squeezed into the church, not the man who lies rotting in a schoolroom beneath a chalkboard map of Africa.

Everybody here is dead. Karubamba is a vision from hell, a flesh-and-bone junkyard of human wreckage, an obscene slaughterhouse that has fallen silent save for the roaring buzz of flies the size of honeybees.


“Only Human Wreckage Is Left in Karubamba” by Mark Fritz
Associated Press, May 12, 1994


A healthy 17-year-old heart pumped the gift of life through 34-year-old Bruce Murray Friday, following a four-hour transplant operation that doctors said went without a hitch.


“It Fluttered and Became Bruce Murray’s Heart.” By Jonathan Bor
Syracuse Post-Standard, May 12, 1984


SAN QUENTIN—In the end, Robert Alton Harris seemed determined to go peacefully, a trait that had eluded him in the 39 violent and abusive years he spent on earth.


“After Life of Violence Harris Goes Peacefully” by Sam Stanton
The Sacramento Bee, April 22, 1992


At 12:30, my husband and I were having a pleasant lunch in a restaurant. At 1:30, we were back home, sitting at the kitchen counter planning a trip to Vienna and Budapest with cherished friends. At 2:30, I was walking out of the hospital emergency room in shock, a widow, my life changed forever, beyond comprehension.


“Facing the void of a life and a love lost in a moment” by Joan Beck
Chicago Tribune, July 12, 1993


Let’s talk about tattoos.


“Tattoos and freedom” by Michael Gartner
The (Ames, Iowa) Daily Tribune, Oct. 7, 1993


BELFAST, Northern Ireland—The specter of the Shankill Butchers, an infamous sectarian murder gang that ravaged Roman Catholic ghettos a decade ago, is rising again on the pitiless streets of North Belfast, where fear and grief are running heavy from fresh homicide raids.


“Communion, tenpence, and terror along the wall” by Francis X. Clines
The New York Times, May 27, 1988


MANILA, Ark.__It killed first, then it came into town.


“Tornado sneaks into Manila, killing 2 kids just as sirens wail” by Bartholomew Sullivan
The (Memphis) Commercial Appeal, April 17, 1998


Hide the school-age children and call out the American Civil Liberties Union and the People for the American Way. The Bible is coming to television, right out in public where everyone can see and hear it__or, anyway, that version of it to be aired on Arts & Entertainment for four nights beginning Sunday (8-9 p.m., EST).


“The ‘good book’ on prime time by Dorothy Rabinowitz
The Wall Street Journal, Dec. 14, 1992


MOUNTOURSVILLE, Pa.__They knew them as the girl who spilled the fries in the car. Knew them as the boy who shot baskets and lighted the candles at church. Knew them as the girl who wrote poetry and played the piano.


“Small town grieves 21 dead” by Ken Moritsugu
Newsday, July 19, 1996


It was about 8:45 Thursday morning when I walked into the Hermosa Beach Police Department with two dozen Krispy Kreme doughnuts and a 12-pack of Coors Light.


“A few Coors Lights might blur the truth” by Steve Lopez
Los Angeles Times, June 29, 2001