How Writers Start Stories That Make Readers Want to Keep Reading

A June 17 post showed how the creators of the hit television show “The Sopranos” used the first hour of the show to create scenes that made viewers want to know what happened next. The television approach, by writer David Chase, was similar to how print journalists—especially when doing narrative journalism—create a scene or scenes that make the reader keep reading.

A look back at the leads of five Washingtonian stories that had a big impact on readership and won National Magazine Awards.

Winner of the 1982 National Magazine Award for Reporting was John Pekkanen’s story “The Saving of the President” about how doctors at George Washington University Hospital saved President Reagan’s life after an attempted assassination in March 1981; the story was in the August 1981 Washingtonian. The lead:

About 2:30 on Monday, March 30, President Ronald Reagan walked out of the VIP entrance of the Washington Hilton Hotel after speaking to a labor audience. As a reporter shouted, “Mr. President, Mr. President,” a series of shots, sounding like firecrackers, were fired. Secret Service agent Jerry Parr instinctively pushed the President into his waiting limousine, which sped away.

Winner of the 1985 NMA for Public Service was “Where Have All the Warriors Gone?” by Nick Kotz and a team of American University students. Published in July 1984, it was about the Pentagon then being led by men who behaved more like corporate managers than soldiers. The lead:

On a 160-acre farm, retired Colonel Robert G. Dilger sits at the controls of a tractor, cutting hay. Air Force colleagues call the feisty 50-year-old a “pilot’s pilot.” They also say that Dilger, the flight leader who flew F-4 Phantom jet fighters on 180 missions and never lost a pilot, should be commanding an air wing instead of raising a herd of Appaloosa horses.

Winner of the 1985 NMA for Service to the Individual was “How to Save Your Life,” by John Pekkanen, published in March 1984. It was about finding the best emergency care at Washington area hospitals. The lead:

It was a cool, clear Thursday night, a little past ten. Four boys sat in a parked car on the bank of the Potomac River near Stafford, Virginia, a small town about an hour south of Washington. They listened to rock music on the radio and talked of girls and sports, passing the time the way country boys had since the invention of the automobile.

Winner of the 1988 NMA for Reporting was “Life and Death on the Fast Track,” By Ramsey Flynn and Steven Kaye, an investigation and reconstruction of an Amtrak-Conrail train collision on January 4, 1987. Published in November 1987, the lead:

The images flicker in his mind, sometimes when he’s driving, sometimes when he’s trying to sleep. He finds himself aboard the train in the moments surrounding the crash. He sees the impact in slow motion, hears the roar, feels the grip of steel twisting around him.

Months after the fiery crash of the Colonial, Dr. Roger Horn still imagines it a dozen times a day.

In a hot and  crowded congressional hearing room in July, he finds space to sit cross-legged on the floor, balancing a heavy briefcase on his lap to take notes. He has testified many times since that Sunday afternoon in January when sixteen people died in the collision of the Amtrak passenger train and three Conrail locomotives near Baltimore. Now he waits his turn to take his private anguish public once again.

Winner of the 1990 NMA for Feature Writing was “Like Something the Lord Made,” by Katie McCabe, about Vivien Thomas, an African-American surgical assistant at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. Thomas never had the chance to go to college but was a genius in the Johns Hopkins operating room and physicians there said he could have been a great surgeon. Published in August 1989, the lead:

Say his name and the busiest heart surgeons in the world will stop and talk for an hour. Of course they have time, they say, these men who count time in seconds, who race against the clock. This is about Vivien Thomas. For Vivien they’ll make time.

Dr. Denton Cooley has just come out of surgery, and he has 47 minutes between operations. “No, you don’t need an appointment,” his secretary is saying. “Dr. Cooley’s right here. He wants to talk to you now.”

Cooley is suddenly on the line from the Texas Heart Institute in Houston. In a slow Texas drawl he says he just loves being bothered about Vivien. Then, in  47 minutes—just about the time it takes him to do a triple bypass—he tells you about the man who taught him that kind of speed.

Some of these leads may seem very indirect—What’s the story about?— but keep in mind that magazine layout allows the editor to give the reader more information before seeing the lead than the typical newspaper layout. In “Life and Death on the Fast Track”—the lead appears on page three of the layout. The opening spread gives the reader a striking illustration of the train crash with this head and deck:

Life and Death on the Fast Track

On the first Sunday of 1987, moms and dads are sending kids back to college, football fans are tuning in the Giants-49ers playoff game, and at 12:35 p.m. Amtrak’s Colonial 94 is leaving Washington’s Union Station. Just north of Baltimore, the train rounds a curve at 120 MPH and the engineer sees three blue Conrail locomotives dead ahead. Here is how five lives intersected at that terrible, avoidable point of impact.

Speak Your Mind