The Three Seconds Lead

Spilled Ink Issue 84 Jul, 2010

Call it a ‘lead’, a ‘hook’ or a ‘peg’—in writing it means one thing, those first few
line in a story that beckon, inform, invite, attract and entice. “Based on the lead,” says a noted writer, “a reader makes a critical decision: Shall I go on?”

“The lead is more important” than any other part of the story, says another, “because you will never get to the end if you don’t have a good lead.” One writing instructor estimates that it takes only “Three seconds and the reader decides to read or move on to the next story. That’s all the time you have to catch the reader’s glance and hold it; all the time you have to entice and inform.”

Rishi Amatya’s lead to his story ‘Kartik Nach’ caught my attention while editing last January’s ECS magazine: “It’s nearly midnight, but Ram Krishna Tamrakar is not sleeping, nor is Hari Man Shrestha. Unlike the scores of people who have just turned up to watch the final dramatic dance recital of the famous Kartik Nach, there is a lot of responsibility riding on their shoulders...”

This is an example of a ‘direct lead’, one that quickly reveals what the story is about, states something important about it, or introduces the theme. It’s good because it fires the imagination with provocative notions: “midnight”, “not sleeping”, a “dramatic” dance drama, and “a lot of responsibility riding...” In three seconds you know enough to want to know more, especially whatever it is that has kept Ram and Hari up past midnight.

Amendra Pokharel used the lead to ‘Nepalese Theater’ in April’s ECS to introduce the theme: “For many, Nepalese theater happens to be an unexplored territory. Theaters
provide an opportunity to come alive with the ancient traditions and culture of this sacred land, and offer a peek into the country’s state of affairs, in the most entertaining way there is.” In two sentences he’s promised that the story will explore ancient traditions, reveal something of the country’s state of affairs, and is entertaining. “It’s a go!” says the reader.

There are also ‘delayed leads’ that lure you in with hint and innuendo. The first few lines from Raymond Chandler’s short story I’ll be Waiting (detective fiction from the 1930s) begins: “At one o’clock in the morning, Carl, the night porter, turned down the last of three table lamps in the main lobby of the Windermere Hotel. The blue carpet darkened a shade or two and the walls drew back into remoteness. The chairs filled with shadowy loungers. In the corners were memories like cobwebs. [New paragraph] Tony Reseck yawned... [and two sentences on] He frowned...” There are some great descriptive word images here (the iconic Chandler’s hallmark): the time, place, remoteness, “shadowy loungers”, “memories like cobwebs” and Tony’s frown. (Read the whole story at

So, how do you write a good lead? Imagine you have to tell a friend what the story is all about, in three seconds. It’s got to be short and promising or your friend (the reader) will move on. “Be concise”, one writing teacher advises. “The more a reader trips over your words, the less effective your point is and the less likely he is to keep reading. Lead sentences that extend more than a few lines and require taking lunch or bathroom breaks are too long.”

“We’ve got him” was the lead to a January 2004 story in the New York Times about the capture of Saddam Hussein. Short. Catchy. Enough.
Good writing!