Weekly Writing Tips: The Importance of a Strong Story Opening

The Weekly Writing Tips are a collection of best practices for writing and reporting at Global Voices. July's tips are brought to you by Brazil editor Taisa Sganzerla.

Happy weekend, everyone, and welcome to July's Weekly Writing Tips!

This is Taisa Sganzerla, I'm Global Voices’ Brazil editor. I'll be taking over the WWT this month! And it's my first time, so I hope you guys find this useful.

For this first installment, I'd like to talk about the importance of drafting a strong story opening.

The first paragraph normally sets the tone and mood of your story, and it's in those first few seconds that your reader will decide whether to proceed reading or move on to the next browser tab, so it's worth putting some effort into it.

The rule in news writing is to start off with a standard lead — a factual, to-the-point summary of the story that answers that famous 5 Ws: who, what, where, when and why.

But depending on the subject, there are many other creative ways to begin your story. You can start with a character and how his or her personal story relates to the overarching narrative of what's happening. Or you can describe the scenery in which the story takes place.

In my years of working in media, editors have always frowned upon stories that start with a quote, but I particularly wouldn't write this off immediately: in some situations, a strong quote might make a great opening.

Here are a few non-standard story openings in GV posts that I particularly like.

Check out how Fernanda Canofre, one of our Brazilian authors, started off with the context before explaining the point of the story in the post “Mexican Soap Opera's Gay Couple Thrown Back into the Closet on Brazilian TV“:

Brazil has long been known around the world for its soap operas. When the election of Gorbachev’s successor fell on a holiday in 1996, the Russian government aired the finale of “Mulheres de Areia” (Sand Women) to encourage voters to stay in town and head to the polls. “Escrava Isaura” (Slave Isaura), about a white woman raised as a slave during the colonial era, became a huge hit in communist China and Cuba in the 1980s.

It was through telenovelas that Brazilians became acquainted with modern-day controversies, such as surrogacy, modern slavery, the landless workers’ movement, human clones, bioethics and so on. Whether they are good drama or just poorly written romances, it's indisputable that telenovelas have been an important tool to introduce social debates in the country — even if most of the times in a pretty clichéd and conservative way.

Or this post by Public Radio International that starts with a description of the scenery where the story takes place:

Take a step back from Zanzibar’s white sand beaches and big hotels and you’re in a very different world. One where the island’s dusty, inland villages largely go dark once the sun sets. This is when the differences between people who have electricity and those who don’t are most pronounced.

This post by GV author Pantha Raman Reza about the arrival of monsoon season in Bangladesh does the same:

Somewhere there was someone knee-deep in water, somewhere a car had broken down in the middle of the road because of engine failure, and somewhere traffic congestion had become a nightmare for the city dwellers. This was how Bangladesh welcomed the beginning of the monsoon season this year as heavy rain saw drainpipes block and streets turn into rivers.

I also really like how Janine Mendes-Franco started off this post with a little line that might help convey empathy in the reader for the story.

Imagine being born in a country and then being told you have no rights as a citizen; that you're not wanted there. That is exactly what has been happening, for quite some time now, to Dominicans of Haitian descent.

Did you know: Recently, while working for the first time in a English-language daily, I learned that hard news leads in English are almost always one sentence, normally 30 words tops. Meanwhile, standard news writing in my native language Portuguese holds that a lead is usually one paragraph consisting of two to three sentences, with a maximum of 100 words. I wonder how it is in other languages!

At GV we are very flexible with openings, so let's take this opportunity to exercise our creativity when writing them! :-)

See you next week!

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