Do you want to grab your reader’s attention immediately? Most of us do. To accomplish this, your opening sentence needs to be captivating.
In the writing trade your opening sentence is called a “lede”. It’s one of the most crucial and underutilized travel writing techniques. But it can make such a difference to the quality of your piece!
If you want to engage your readers right from the start, the lede is your single most important tool. Also known as a “hook” (and sometimes spelled “lead”) it activates your audience to keep reading and to see where you’re going with your story.
You can use many different types of ledes. And all of them will command your readers’ attention if done well.
Here are 12 of my favorites, placed in ascending order of difficulty. Unless otherwise noted, examples of ledes are from my own travel stories.
Amazing! One (or two) dramatic words can snag your reader’s attention. If you see an opportunity to use one word that best encapsulates your story or travel experience, use it. But do make sure you continue on to elaborate on the key word or your story will lack credibility and punch. It will fizzle out.
Here’s a two-word lede that I used in a story about the Roman Gold Mines in Wales:
For dramatic destinations, use a sentence of short and simple words to create a vivid picture in our minds. These ledes encourage imagery and help us imagine the place.
Vivid descriptions set the stage for the rest of the story. Here are three of my descriptive ledes:
A short, true story (usually written in italics) about an aspect of the destination gets our attention smartly.
In the National Geographic story “Uncommon Kingdom”, Archer Mayer begins his story:
This lede lets you immediately picture yourself in the car - and wonder about a place where you need to wait for the dogs to figure out your intentions.
An interesting quote can introduce your destination storyline. Make sure your quotation is appropriate for the destination you’re writing about. If it’s even a little off base, it will sound nonsensical.
Leading with the right quote puts your readers into the story immediately.
Your question should provoke and engage your audience. Make it controversial versus banal. You might have noticed I started this article with a question. It led you into the main subject of the story.
Recently Bill Nye began a National Geographic article with the question:
It’s a simple question but one that made me stop, think about it, and then wonder why it was important. All done in a split second, I kept reading to find out more.
That’s what you want your readers to do with your ask-a-question ledes – stop, think, and then keep reading.
Readers love to see facts and figures about a destination if presented in an interesting way:
The action lede places yourself in a dramatic scene, then reverts back to the beginning of your story.
Can you think of something surprising that you can hint at early in your story, and answer or elaborate on later? This is often done in soft news stories, where the surprise point comes in the first paragraph and the news comes later.
It can also be used in travel stories, like this one about a bespoke umbrella-maker in Italy:
The surprise is with the number of umbrellas we buy and lose. We want to know what comes next. Maybe we’ll learn how to stop buying and losing all those umbrellas!
Make a controversial cultural statement and then explain it or destroy it.
Revealing a shocking, startling, or interesting fact about a place is an effective way to command your reader’s attention right from the start. It begs for more details and context.
Your shocking fact(s) can be positive or negative, and your goal is to make your reader curious.
Likewise, placing yourself in a shocking or tense situation grabs our attention and holds it—we want to see how you got out of the sticky situation.
In this National Geographic Traveler article named “Not So Easy Rider”, writer Andrew McCarthy begins:
Going quickly from an ordinary moment to a shocking one gets our attention.
Here’s an example from an article in National Geographic Traveler by Neil King called “Obsessions Swimming”:
... ask yourself what it is about your destination or experience that resonates with you. Can you distill this thought or this feeling down into one word, one sentence or an anecdote?
The first thing you should ask when writing your travel piece is, “What is going to be my lede?” Find your focus before you proceed.
Thumb through several travel stories in magazines and books, and identify each lede sentence or paragraph. This is fun!
You’ll become proficient at identifying ledes very quickly. And this will quickly transfer to your writing as you gather ideas and insights from other professionals.
How many stories have you read that begin like travel advertorial, similar to these?
You lose your reader immediately with these kinds of starts. Their eyes
glaze over and they stop reading. A good lede saves you from going
down this misguided path.
This is a common way beginner travel writers kick off their stories. It seems so easy but it’s actually lazy. Using “I” means you can’t be bothered crafting an interesting or clever lede, and it screams “beginner” to magazine editors. You don’t want your story to read like your sixth grade vacation report.
It’s not difficult to correct this error. Instead of saying “I’m in London walking along the banks of the Thames, enjoying seeing the Londoners walking briskly to work”, say “Walking along the banks of the Thames, I enjoy seeing the Londoners walking briskly to work.”
There's more you can do to improve this lede, but removing "I" at the beginning is a good start.
Don’t use them in your ledes or in your stories.
Passive words make your stories flop around like a fish out of water, gasping for air. Passive tense is using any versions of the verb “to be” – you can learn more is a separate story I wrote about readability.)
This article has 12 of my favorite travel ledes, but there are plenty more. Travel writers need to be proficient with several types of ledes. Having a variety of ledes in your toolbox helps you vary your openings and focus your articles.
If you want your readers to finish your stories, you have to be fast off the mark. Get better at writing attention-grabbing sentences and your travel stories will be off to a moving start.
With dynamic and active words, you’ll create a satisfying and emotional experience that will engage your reader. If you can do this in your lede sentence, you’ll crush it!
Roy Stevenson is a professional travel writer and the author of www.PitchTravelWrite.com. Over the past ten years, he’s had more than 1000 articles published in 200 magazines, trade and specialty journals, in-flights, on-boards, blogs and websites and has traveled on assignment around the U.S. and to dozens of international destinations.