Four Ways to Open a Science Story

9 March 2013 by Matt Shipman, posted in Uncategorized

Photo credit: nh313066/stock.xchng

There are many ways to begin a story. And finding the right opening line can make writing the rest of the story much easier. Finding the right opening line is also important if you want the reader to keep reading.

I am not the first person to say this. Tim Radford’s famous “Manifesto for the Simple Scribe” lists the all-important first line in rule number 12, which says (among other things) that “there is always an ideal first sentence.” But how do you find that ideal first sentence?

This question came up recently when I was speaking to an undergraduate science writing class. In response, I talked about four broad types of ledes – or introductory paragraphs – for science stories. I’ll explore these four categories here. I want to stress that this is not an exhaustive list; some of the categories can overlap, and there are many others that I don’t touch on at all. But these thoughts should, hopefully, serve as a good starting point for conversation.

Mystery

Some science stories begin with a line that simply begs to be explained. I don’t mean that they are written in technical language that can’t be understood; I mean that they capture a reader’s imagination and almost force the reader to find out what is going on. Carl Zimmer is particularly adept at this.

He wrote one of my favorite ledes: “In 1941, a rose killed a policeman.” After I read that first line, I had to keep reading. Ultimately, the piece was about antibiotics and the microbiome. Some readers might have been put off if the story had begun with a reference to the microbiome, but by the time you got to the nitty-gritty details, the story had built up enough narrative momentum to propel readers through to the finish line.

More recently, Zimmer led a piece this way: “This is a story about the discovery of an organ that measures twelve feet long and four inches wide.” Again, the reader is compelled to keep reading. (And, again, the subject matter may otherwise have caused some readers to steer clear.)

Humanize It

It might be difficult to get people to read a story about microbiology. It could even be a challenge to get people to read about something as eye-catching as a crime, if the crime happened some place far away. But if you open the story by making it about a person, you can usually get someone’s attention.

Deborah Blum used this approach powerfully in a piece that begins: “Your daughter died. Your daughter died thousands of miles from home.” Any reader, or at least any reader who is a parent, can immediately connect to the story. Even if they don’t yet know exactly what the story is about, they recognize it as every parent’s nightmare. Maybe it’s because I am the father of three daughters, but that lede was like a punch in the gut. I kept reading.

For a less direct example, I’ll point to Melinda Wenner Moyer. Earlier this year, she started a piece this way: “David Gems’s life was turned upside down in 2006 by a group of worms that kept on living when they were supposed to die.” Gems, Wenner Moyer quickly explains, is a researcher who uses a specific species of roundworm to study the biology of aging. But by making the first sentence focus on Gems, rather than his work on cellular damage caused by oxidation, Wenner Moyer pulls the reader in. Readers can’t identify with (or perhaps even understand) oxidation, but they can identify with a person.

Make It About the Reader

People love reading about themselves, so making the story about the reader is often a good bet – especially if you’re writing about something that touches on the reader’s health or can save them time or money. This technique may be overused (and is often misused), but it’s not necessarily a bad idea.

Gisela Telis wrote a piece for ScienceNow that begins like this: “If you were plagued by pimples in your teen years, you may have bacteria to blame—but not all of them.”

As her story notes, more than 80 percent of people in the United States have experienced acne. That means that most people can relate to her lede. Former acne sufferers may want to read it to find out what was behind their condition, and those still dealing with acne will keep reading to see if there’s anything they can do about it.

External News Hook

If you can tie your story to something that is the subject of significant public attention, odds are good that you can tap into that interest — even if the subject is something silly.

I wrote a blog post in February that begins this way: “In early February, astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson said on Twitter that the superhero Thor’s hammer (aka Mjolnir) ‘weighs as much as a herd of 300 billion elephants.’ News outlets pounced on this, and the news was quickly circulating online. Sadly, Tyson was wrong.”

I did not do this to pick on Tyson, whom I admire. I wrote that lede because I wanted to talk about physics and materials science, and tapping into the superfan enthusiasm of comic book enthusiasts was a great way to do it. It worked.

For more ideas about crafting good opening lines, check out this Storify that Maryn McKenna made following a session she led at ScienceOnline with David Dobbs on what science writers can learn from genre novels. There’s some great stuff there.

Now I turn it over to you. How do you approach writing the opening lines of your stories? Please share any tips, tricks or questions you might have in the comments.

PS: Please admire my restraint. I did not mention “It was a dark and stormy night” even once.


6 Responses to “Four Ways to Open a Science Story”

  1. Sarah Reply | Permalink

    I love the idea of the 'mystery' opening, that would definitely work for me! Very similar concept to writing a good opening 'hook' in fiction.

    Personally I dislike the 'humanize it' approach. I find this a bit of a lazy cliche, especially in health or medical-related stories where it seems to be almost obligatory to start with someone's personal experience of the issue, then have the 'science bit' sandwiched in the middle, before finishing by telling us what it means for the unfortunate person introduced at the beginning. There has to be a more original way of presenting these stories!

    Also, for me, it's offputting because I simply don't care about that person, and don't understand why I'm supposed to. A single anecdote tells us almost nothing -- I want to hear about the facts and the data: what exactly do we know and how do we know it? It's an annoyance for me to have to skip over the sentimental human-interest stuff to get to the actual content.

    I may not be typical of the average reader, of course!

  2. Michelle Baker Reply | Permalink

    These are wonderful - thank you! I particularly love the examples. And I do know how much time it took to cull them from all the good (and bad) writing available to us.

    I work with government biologists, so I teach storytelling in scientific publications. And I'll be sure to add a few of these techniques, with proper credit of course.

    I'm actually little disappointed that you didn't reference the "it was a dark and stormy night." The principal elements of a good story are quite simple - descriptive setting, compelling characters, and enticing plot - in that order.

    Start with the place that you're studying:

    Deep beneath the rippling waters of Lake Michigan, -

    Introduce your character:

    - resides the lake sturgeon, a broad-snouted fish renowned for its longevity -

    Then state your plot, succinctly:

    - who now needs our help to ensure its survival into the next decade.

    I like the method because it also provides an outline for the author to follow. Hope it helps. And thanks again for the great suggestions - Michelle

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