I stumbled upon a new app the other day called “Longform,” which is pretty much just what it sounds like. It curates a collection of longform magazine articles by date, publication, writer, subject matter, et al and recommends stories based on your reading habits.
Pretty cool, right? I’ve quickly become addicted (I’ve had the app less than a week) and it was a great tool when Prof. Katherine Reed of the Missouri School of Journalism tasked me to analyze some leads (or ledes) for a chance to score tickets to the True/False Film Festival.
I picked one story I found on “Longform” and my two other all-time favorite magazine pieces to break down and discuss what works, what doesn’t and what’s “worth the risk,” in Katherine’s words, or “original.”
To be totally transparent, here’s the full email she sent my class:
Hi, there… Want a shot at those T/F tickets? Blog by 8 AM on Thursday about leads. Here’s what you must do:Find three leads from any news source — or from a magazine (these are very different in construction and pace) and blog about what makes them good, bad or “worth the risk” (original).Have FUN with this. Leads are the best part about writing journalistically — though they aren’t easy to do well.People who participate get a shot at the movie tickets. Best, Katherine Katherine Reed Associate professor Public safety and health editor The Columbia Missourian
Here’s our first story: “A Liar Standing Next to a Hole in the Ground” from Outside Magazine.
Before we even mention the lead, that’s a pretty awesome headline. It’s also what Mark Twain famously called a gold miner. Here’s the lead:
The old prospector was convinced it was gold, but the geologist couldn’t say for sure. Very small knuckles of a yellow mineral attached to cubes of pyrite were in question.
Already, we’ve got a subject (gold/not gold) and two characters we know are going to be at odds (prospector and geologist). Without having to explicitly define these characters — by simply describing a scene — we’ve got all that under control and in the mind of the reader.
Six of us stood around the rusty iron door that served as our camp table and was now piled high with ore and canvas sample bags inked with GPS coordinates.
“Us” is my favorite word of this entire lead. Too often, people get caught up using first person in longform writing. Here, we get that first person style, but we do it without injecting “I” and demanding the writer be the subject of the story. The writer is just another character in the story.
Flint Carter, the prospector, tipped back his cowboy hat, pulled a thin brown cigarillo from the chest pocket of his overalls, and lit it as the sun set over Arizona’s storied Cañada del Oro.
“That right there would make any miner happy,” he said, nodding at the table. He picked up one of the samples and held it to the dusky light. He moved his hand over the rock, covering it in shadow. “If it’s gold, it shines even when it’s shaded.”
Beautiful. We get dialogue and action all in one.
Jason Price, a Ph.D. candidate at the California Institute of Technology with seven years of mineral exploration under his belt, including stints with four different gold companies, snickered at the comment.
“The only real way to tell if there’s gold in it is to send it to a lab,” Jason said. I pressed him about the yellow knuckles. “I just don’t know.… We’re dealing with an uncommon suite of minerals.”
My least favorite phrase in journalism is “quote stacking.” That term is used by those who don’t understand the true value of reporting. For example, some people would say putting these quotes one on top of another is “quote stacking.” Really, it’s a way of describing action and characterization. It gives us a back-and-forth conversation and introduces us to the institutional knowledge of Flint and Jason as it relates to what is actually gold.
There’s so much more from this story I wish I could share with you. It’s a really wonderful example of how to establish character and a reason why I love journalism so much: because truth is stranger than fiction. Do take some time to read this piece on your own.
What I love about this lead is how airtight it is. All of the important details are there. All of our important characters we’ve learned so much about. Flint is this good ol’ boy optimist who really wants to find gold. Jason is a learned geologist. He’s scientifically trained and skeptical. He gets it. There’s a wonderful playfulness to the tone used to describe the clash of these two mindsets. These two could be eating bowls of cereal next to one another and still produce some lively banter. Terrific lead.
The next piece we’re looking at is a throwback to February 1991 and William Nack’s Sports Illustrated feature “O Unlucky Man” about deceased boxing champion Sonny Liston.
A funny story about this article: I had the chance to interview Bill Nack for my documentary side-project “Humans of Horse Racing” and I asked him for pointers about how to construct compelling longform. His major point was to use scenes, lots and lots of scenes. Every point you make should have a scene attached to it. Scenes should be composed of action, so always try to find compelling action to write about.
After the interview, Nack scurried into a side room and grabbed a copy of My Turf, his anthology of his best work, and signed the copy right in front of me and handed it over. It’s used as a textbook at the Columbia School of Journalism, he said. “Read the one on Sonny Liston,” he told me. So I did, over and over. Eventually, I forgot Nack signed the book, and I took a pen and highlighter to it and annotated the article to look at scenes and action. Oops.
Anyway, here’s the lead:
It was already dark when she stepped from the car in front of her house on Ottawa Drive, but she could see her pink Cadillac convertible and Sonny’s new black Fleetwood under the carport in the Las Vegas night.
Where could Charles be? Geraldine Liston was thinking.
“Lead with action,” was one of the things Nack told me. And here we do have action. We have Geraldine Liston stepping out of her car wondering where her husband is. It seems like a very benign action, but it sets a scene, poses a central question (where’s Sonny?) and it’s suspenseful. Sonny Liston is the champion of the world. Where the Hell is he?
All through the house the lamps were lit, even around the swimming pool out back. The windows were open too, and the doors were unlocked. It was quiet except for the television playing in the room at the top of the stairs.
It’s so eery! If you’re not freaking out at this point, what is wrong with you? The doors are unlocked. The windows are open. The TV is on. This is Sonny Liston’s house. This doesn’t just happen.
By 9:30 p.m. on Jan. 5, 1971, Geraldine had not spoken to her husband for 12 days.
At this point, you can probably figure he’s dead. Twelve days, even in the social media-less world of 1971, is a long time.
On Christmas Eve she had called him from St. Louis after flying there with the couple’s seven-year-old son, Danielle, to spend the holidays with her mother. Geraldine had tried to phone him a number of times, but no one had answered at the house. At first she figured he must be off roistering in Los Angeles, and so she didn’t pay his absence any mind until the evening of Dec. 28. That night, in a fitful sleep, she had a vision so unsettling that it awakened her and sent her to her mother’s room.
”I had the worst dream,” Geraldine says. ”He was falling in the shower and calling my name, ‘Gerry, Gerry!’ I can still see it. So I got real nervous. I told my mother, ‘I think something’s wrong.’ But my mother said, ‘Oh, don’t think that. He’s all right.’ ”
This is the most amazing anecdote. The wife sees her husband die in a dream. That’s crazy.
In fact, Sonny Liston had not been right for a long time, and not only for the strangely dual life he had been leading — spells of choirboy abstinence squeezed between binges of drinking and drugs — but also for the rudderless, unfocused existence he had been reduced to. Jobless and nearly broke, Liston had been moving through the murkier waters of Las Vegas’s drug culture. ”I knew he was hanging around with the wrong people,” one of his closest friends, gambler Lem Banker, says. ”And I knew he was in desperate need of cash.” So, as the end of 1970 neared, Liston had reached that final twist in the cord. Eight years earlier he was the undisputed heavyweight champion of the world — a 6 ft. 1 1/2 in., 215-pound hulk with upper arms like picnic roasts, two magnificent, 14-inch fists and a scowl that he mounted for display on a round, otherwise impassive face. He had won the title by flattening Floyd Patterson with two punches, left hooks down and up, in the first round of their fight on Sept. 25, 1962; 10 months later he had beaten Patterson again in one round.
I want to keep pasting more of this story below, but I won’t because it’s really long. I love this opening because of how inane the action seems to be, but really it’s ominous and messy and hangs in the air over the rest of the story like a violent storm cloud. It shakes you.
Think about the action Bill Nack used. He wrote about a boxer who died of a heroin overdose and decided to lead the story with his wife getting out of her car. Talk about chutzpa. Nack holds his punches (no pun intended) with the really great action once he’s got you hooked, once he knows you want to keep reading about how Geraldine finds Sonny dead in their bedroom, a foul odor emanating from his body. That’s a spooky good lead.
The last article I’m analyzing is Tim Keown’s “Everything’s on me” about Floyd Mayweather and all his money. Here we go:
THE SCENE in the parking lot of the Mayweather Boxing Club in Las Vegas has devolved into an extended documentary on the perils of celebrity.
This is a really neat stylistic move Keown uses. He sets you up by telling what to pay attention to: a scene is coming. But before we even get to the scene, I’m going to tell you what you need to know about it.
That’s how you win a reader over super quickly. Who doesn’t want to read about the “perils of celebrity?” Who doesn’t want to see that play out in a parking lot of all places? The situation has “devolved,” you say? Sign me up to watch.
There’s a betting slip on the loose worth $80,000, earned on the merits of the Miami Heat’s first-half performance about two hours earlier on this Friday night, and the quest to find it has everything but a circus-music soundtrack.
Let me just stop right here to point something out: this is amazing. $80 grand on the loose, y’all.
It’s not about the money. Really, it’s not. Floyd Mayweather Jr. bets a lot, both in frequency and amount, and this betting slip is not extraordinary in any way. Just the night before, he lost $50,000 on the first half of the Thunder-Lakers game before doubling down on his beloved Thunder and winning $100,000 in the second half. This is a man who later that night will put on a pair of pants he hadn’t worn in a while and pull four grand out of a pocket the way you or I might find a five in the dryer. Trust me: Eighty grand won’t change his life.
In this one paragraph, we’ve got three scenes that tell us a lot about Pretty Boy Floyd, then we get an analogy, which is mind-blowingly great. Analogies are there to compare something the reader doesn’t know to something he/she does know. As a reader, I have no idea what it’s like to pull four grand out of my pocket, but I do know finding a five means I can treat myself to Starbucks after a day of work. That’s a great feeling.
Mayweather is standing next to his sleek four-door black Mercedes, one of the more sedate of his roughly two dozen cars, and is wondering out loud how many people he might have to fire over this debacle. A few leggy, extravagantly dressed women watch laconically, waiting to follow the champ to dinner. Curtis Jackson, publicly known as 50 Cent, sits in the passenger seat of the Mercedes, watching the events unfold with passing interest. Several members of Mayweather’s loosely defined payroll are shuffling about in an unreserved panic, particularly those who were at one time in possession of the bag, the slip’s last known residence.
Again, pausing to say this is awesome: $80 grand is missing, we’re standing outside a Mercedes threatening to fire everyone in sight, there are gorgeous women around and 50 Cent just happens to be there.
The bag is important. The bag — or The Bag, more like — is a small leather duffel home to Mayweather’s walking-around cash and gambling slips. Everyone must know where The Bag is at all times, for it is not unusual for the spirit to strike Mayweather and cause him to ask, with no warning, “Where my bag at?” The chain of custody is stricter than most evidence rooms.
Do you know where the bag is? Because I don’t know where it is. In fact, it’s kinda crazy that this guy has a posse to locate his bag. I forget my jacket in the newsroom on an almost daily basis. I leave things in my car. This guy has people assigned to his bag and they somehow managed to lose the yearly income of a doctor from the “Life” board game.
This is why I love this story so much. Keown leads with the most preposterous thing he can get his hands on. If his story is going to be about the force of Mayweather’s personality changed how boxing matches get promoted and how fighters make money, he’s gotta show the largess of Floyd right away. Mission accomplished.
So those are the three leads I chose to analyze for a chance at True/False tickets and kudos to you if you stuck it out through this entire post and made it to this point.
But a discussion of leads is never complete unless you factor in some verse and poetry. I won’t bother to comment on these, but here are some exceptional poetic verses that open songs, ballads and poems. Enjoy.
- “Mean,” by Taylor Swift
You, with your words like knives
And swords and weapons that you use against me
You, have knocked me off my feet again,
Got me feeling like a nothing
You, with your voice like nails
On a chalk board, calling me out when I’m wounded
You, picking on the weaker man
- “Blackbird,” The Beatles
Blackbird singing in the dead of night
Take these broken wings and learn to fly
All your life
You were only waiting for this moment to arise.
- “Along Comes Mary,” by The Association
Every time I think that I’m the only one who’s lonely
Someone calls on me
And every now and then I spend my time in rhyme and verse
And curse those faults in me
- “You Can Call Me Al,” by Paul Simon
A man walks down the street
He says why am I soft in the middle now
Why am I soft in the middle
The rest of my life is so hard
I need a photo-opportunity
I want a shot at redemption
Don’t want to end up a cartoon
In a cartoon graveyard
Dogs in the moonlight
Far away my well-lit door
Mr. Beerbelly Beerbelly
Get these mutts away from me
You know I don’t find this stuff amusing anymore