My penultimate favorite chapter in "Championship Writing" by Paula LaRocque is "Avoiding the predictable." (Of course, if you read last week's post, you knew I was going to write that.)
Writing coach LaRocque's book is full of advice on different topics; the subtitle is "50 ways to improve your writing," and we're at the next-to-last in my mini-series of ten posts on my favorite tips. Today's topic is meant to keep us away from predictability, especially in leads -- the first sentence of the story (or post, as the case may be).
LaRocque cautions against such "seasonal silliness" as tying the story to a holiday or season, whether it has anything to do with the event or not, as in "Yesterday was April Fool's Day, but it was no joke when Dottie Varnes' new BMW was stolen from the Jefferson St. parking ramp."
She also has a category she calls "Duh leads." (She worked in Dallas at the time, so it's not a Chicago-accented corruption of "the.") They're "duh" as in "Hey, no foolin', I know."
But don't try to get around the things your readers know by providing a "list lead," LaRocque cautions, because that's all it is. "It makes a poor start because, without a context, it says nothing."
But don't think that LaRocque is just spending this chapter saying "No, no, no." She avoids that beautifully in her counsel about "The answer is no leads," the "Have you ever noticed?" openers on which many writers get caught. (For example, here.) She writes that questions "can work well if carefully handled," but suggests avoiding "those that evoke a 'no,' a 'who cares?' or a 'beats the hell outta me.' "
Her marvelous example of a "working" question lead comes from Neil Strauss of The New York Times:
" 'How many people have you killed in your lifetime? Have you shot them with a cap gun or a cocked forefinger in a game of cops and robbers? Have you blown them up with a laser or torn their heads off in a video game?
" 'Simulated murder has become an accepted form of play in American culture. Such games are the only way we're allowed to live out our destructive impulses without crossing moral or legal boundaries.'
"Strauss' lead shows us," LaRocque adds, "that in certain hands, everything works -- even devices that in uncertain hands have become threadbare."
It's advice from a great editor and/or coach like LaRocque that can make uncertain hands more certain of writing techniques.
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Suddenly, there's only one post left in the series. It will appear next Monday, Jan. 23, on the topic of "Fresh approaches." To receive it as soon as it appears, subscribe by clicking the button at the top of the post. I never send spam, and you may unsubscribe at any time.