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Feature Leads

The best rule in feature writing is to observe no rules, aside from those of basic journalistic style and structure. The best lead for the feature story is a natural extension of the story - nothing forced or contrived without consideration to the tone or subject of the story. More bluntly stated, the best lead is the lead that is relevant, grabs the reader's attention and fits the mood of the story.

The following are novelty leads. They should be used with caution and never forced to fit a story. When a novelty lead serves the purpose of grabbing the reader and holding his attention while establishing the tone of the story, it should be used without reservation.

Literary Allusion: Relates a person or event to some character or event in literature.

To have been ordered into battle to attack a group of windmills with horse and lance would have seemed to Joe Robinson no more strange an assignment than the one given to him Thursday by Miss Vera Newton . . . (The literary allusion is to Don Quixote.)

Historical Allusion: Relates a person or event to some character or event in history.

Napoleon had his Waterloo. George Custer had his Little Big Horn. Fortunately, Napoleon and Custer faced defeat only once. For Bjorn Borg, the finals of the U.S. Tennis Open have become a stumbling block of titanic proportions.

(Or) Washington's trip across the Delaware was child's play compared with Dave Jason's span of the Big Lick River. Astride a six-foot log, he chopped his way across the ice-bogged river yesterday.

Contrast: Compares extremes - the big with the little, the comedy with the tragedy, age with youth, rich and poor - if such comparison is applicable to the news event.

His wealth is estimated at $600 million. He controls a handful of corporations, operating in more than 20 nations. Yet he carries his lunch to work in a brown paper bag and wears the latest fashions from Sears and Roebuck's bargain basement.

Pun: A novelty that uses a pun to quirk the reader's attention.

Western High's trash collectors have been down in the dumps lately.

Description: (Site)

The road to Nsukka in eastern Nigeria is rutted and crumpled, the aging asphalt torn like ragged strips of tar paper. In the midday heat, diesel trucks hauling cassava and market women to the next town kick up clouds of fine yellow-orange dust that lingers in the air. Strings of one-story cement buildings in dull pastels with brooding eaves hug the roadside here and there marking small pinpoints of commerce; hand-lettered signs proclaim the "Decency Food Canteen," "God's Time Hotel," "Praise the Lord Watch Repairers."

Description: (Person)

Diana Ross is wearing no lipstick. She is lounging around on a hot and muggy late afternoon. The windows are raised high throughout her Fifth Avenue apartment. She is dressed in black short shorts and a matching sleeveless blouse that plunges low in the front. She is also wearing fishnet stockings and burgundy suede boots. Three or four bracelets jangle on her left wrist. Her long nails are the color of pearl, nearly iridescent. She curls up in a corner of the sofa and sips orange juice through her unpainted lips.

She is 37 years old, divorced, the mother of three children, who this afternoon are out at the country house in Connecticut. Diana Ross is in town to attend to business: approving and disapproving photos of herself, working on an album. She is, by her own assessment, entering a new phase of self-determination. She thinks of her career in terms of "cycles": the Supremes, Diana Ross and the Supremes, Diana Ross as solo, Diana Ross as movie star, and now Diana Ross as mistress of her own fate.

She leans back and puts her hand to her forehead. "There's just so much I don't know about. It's so funny. I was really a pampered, chaperoned, protected teenager - all the way through my twenties. I'm just now beginning to take on responsibility. And it's time. It's right. It's in order. I finally know it's not healthy to be pampered."

Description: (Event)

The air inside the darkened gymnasium is heavy with the heat of an uncommonly prolonged North Carolina summer. Smoke from some tin containers placed around the basketball court lends a touch of mystery to the scene.

The thick smoke rolls into the intense light of floor-level arc lamps, then up against a raft of lights hovering like a Steven Spielberg spaceship. Out of the dark, a white-clad figure appears, bounding a basketball. Michael Jordan drives for the basket in one of his many crowd-pleasing moves, ball tucked under his arm, then scooped up and over into the hoop. All of the way to the basket, Jordan's tongue sticks out, curled up in an expression of pure joy at his defiance not only of imaginary defenders but of gravity itself.

Capsule or Punch Lead: Uses a blunt, explosive statement to summarize the most newsworthy feature.

The dream is over.

The Beatles are back!

One Word: Uses a blunt, explosive word to summarize the most newsworthy feature.


That's the best term to describe the Rattler girls' basketball team, which notched its 15th consecutive win Friday night.

Miscellaneous Freak Leads: Employ ingenious novelty to attract the reader's eye. This list can be extended indefinitely, to the extent of the reporter's writing ability and imagination (tempered only by accuracy and relevance).

For sale: one elephant.

The City Park Commission is thinking about inserting that ad in the newspaper. A curtailed budget makes it impossible to care for "Bobo", a half-grown elephant lodged in special quarters at Westdale Park.

Parody Lead: Mimics a well-known proverb, quotation or phrase.

Whisky, whisky everywhere, but 'nary a drop to drink.

Such was the case at the City Police Station yesterday when officers poured 100 gallons of bootleg moonshine into the sewer.

Direct Address Lead: Speaks directly to the reader on a subject of widespread interest or appeal.

Do not expect any pity from the weatherman today. He forecasts a continuation of the bitter Arctic cold wave that has gripped the city for a week.

Staccato: Consists of a series of jerky, exciting phrases, separated by dashes or dots, used if the facts of the story justify it.

Midnight on the bridge . . .a scream . . .a shot . . .a splash . . .a second shot . . .a third shot. This morning, police recovered the bodies of Mr. and Mrs. R. E. Murphy, estranged couple, from the Snake River. A bullet wound was found in the temple of each.

Anecdotal Lead : Uses an event to represent the universal experience.

It was 1965 and the Dallas Cowboys were making good use out of an end-around play to Frank Clarke, averaging 17 yards every time a young coach named Tom Landry pulled it out of his expanding bag of tricks.

One day, Clint Murchison, owner of the Cowboys, wondered aloud in Landry's presence how successful the play might be if Bob Hayes rather than Clarke ran with the ball. Hayes, after all, was the world's fastest human.

"Tom gave a lot of mumbo-jumbo about weak and strong side and I nodded sagely and walked away," Murchison told the Dallas Morning News three years ago.

A few weeks later, Landry called a reverse. Bob Hayes got the ball. "We lost yardage," Landry recalled this week, "and I haven't heard from Clint since."

Sequence or Narrative: Places the reader in the midst of action.

Trainer Eddie Gregson was walking 10 feet behind his Kentucky Derby horse, Gato del Sol, when they emerged from the quiet of the stable area at Churchill Downs and began that long trek around the clubhouse turn toward the saddling paddock. There were 141,009 people packed into the Downs last Saturday afternoon - a warm, bright day in Louisville - and thousands lined the clubhouse turn, a few yelling at Gregson as the colt strode by. "What's the name of your horse?" Less than an hour later, that nameless horse stood in the champion's ring.

Then and Now: Shows progress over time.

The Rio Grande once flowed through here, a wide and robust river surging between steep banks as it followed a southward course hugging the state's curvy profile.

No more.

Four-plus years of drought in West Texas and the neighboring Mexican state of Chihuahua have turned the storied river into a trickle meandering through mud and gravel fields adorned here and there with discarded tires.

(Or) The year was 1964. Lyndon Johnson had swept into the White House by the largest landside victory in American history. The Beatles owned the Top Ten. And a 23-year old ex-Marine opened up a small westside Mexican restaurant. Today, Luis Alvarado is a millionaire many times over, and his restaurants are found in cities from Boston to Austin to San Diego.

Question: Serves best when a problem with reader appeal is the crux of the story. The question should have direct relevance to the reader - not a cliché like, "Have you ever been poor?"

You think you have it bad? Consider Ron Mullens. Once vice president of a major real estate corporation, he is today penniless. Once married to a beautiful model, he is now wanders the back roads of America alone, in search of a smile and whatever odd jobs fall his way. You think Ron Mullens is upset by this turn of events? Not on your life. "I gave it all up - the money, the glamour, the security - for the opportunity to see America as it really is," he said.


Are you tired of hormone as cultural myth, as shorthand for swagger and machismo, ferocity and obnoxiousness, the bearskin beneath the three-piece suit?

Do the ubiquitous references to "testosterone poisoning" and "testosterone shock," to "testosterone-fueled heavy metal" and "testosterone-crazed oppressors" make you feel a bit, well, testy? Do you think it unfair to blame one lousy chemical for war, dictatorships, crime, Genghis Khan, Gunga Din, Sly Stallone, the NRA, the NFL, Stormin' Norman Schwarzkopf and the tendency to interrupt in the middle of a sentence?

Ready to give the so-called male hormone a break and return all testosterone clichés with a single pound of a drum?

Retire away. As it turns out, testosterone might not be the dread "hormone of aggression" that researchers and popular imagination have long had it. It might not be the substance that drives men to behave with quintessential guyness, to posture, push, yelp, belch, punch and play air-guitar.

If anything, researchers say this most frightened of hormones might be a source of very different sensations: calmness, happiness and friendliness, for example.

Quote: As a general rule, avoid quote leads. When used, the quote should be dynamic and capture the theme of the story. The following lead comes from a story about Joely Fisher, who plays Paige Clark on the TV series, Ellen.

"People usually have two completely different opinions of what my life must have been like growing up," said the actress Joely Fisher, 28, a child of the short (1967-69), unhappy union between Connie Stevens, the sex kitten of 1950s TV, and Eddie Fisher, the singer and former matinee idol. "Half think it must have been so difficult, and the rest believe I got everything I ever wanted," added Fisher. "I see my life as wacky yet grounded."

She was raised in a mansion in Beverly Hills and was well-fed, well-educated and well-traveled. so what was the problem? An absentee father was a self-confessed drug addict and a mother whom Fisher describes as a "sexpot."

By Bobby Hawthorne
Former Director, Interscholastic League Press Conference
Please see that Bobby Hawthorne and the ILPC are appropriately credited.