Let’s say you walk into a bookstore with about $25 in your pocket on the prowl for a good read. You pick up one volume, open to the beginning and read a short chapter called “Leaflets”:
“At dusk they pour from the sky. They blow across the ramparts, turn cartwheels over rooftops, flutter into the ravines between houses. Entire streets swirl with them, flashing white against the cobbles. Urgent message to the inhabitants of this town, they say, Depart immediately to open country.”
That’s a fine opening, I would say. I like the setting, defined by action. I like the little mystery of what “they” are. I like the text within a text, suggesting a city under siege.
It’s fair to say that other folks like that beginning too. It opens All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr, the novel that just won a Pulitzer Prize for fiction.
I’ve been a Pulitzer juror on five occasions, and I know the drill. There may be more than 300 candidates in a category, and your job is to find three finalists. Your default position is to reject, reject, reject (in Pulitzer parlance to throw it under the table). To have a chance, your prose has to grab a juror by the throat. Leads matter. And your first lead in a series or a collection matters most of all.
With that theory in mind, I have sifted through the Pulitzer Prize winners of 2015. I am about to award an ancillary prize for best lead. In addition to the winner, I will honor two finalists and three honorable mentions. The prize is lunch with me – their treat.
- I will only consider the lead of the first story in any entry.
- Categories compete against each other. Leads are leads.
- Long leads are not punished, but shorter ones get extra points.
- If I don’t get the point of the story in three paragraphs, you’re under the table.
- Unusual elements get extra points, as long as they don’t distract from the focus of the story.
My favorite metaphor for a good lead comes from John McPhee. The lead is a “flashlight” that shines down into the well of the story. You don’t have to see all the way to the bottom, but you do have to see into the darkness.
So let’s begin:
The winner of the prize for best Pulitzer lead for 2015 goes to the Post and Courier, Charleston, South Carolina. The story “Till Death Do Us Part” won the award for Public Service and was written by Doug Pardue, Glenn Smith, Jennifer Berry Hawes, and Natalie Caula Hauff.
“More than 300 women were shot, stabbed, strangled, beaten, bludgeoned, or burned to death over the past decade by men in South Carolina, dying at a rate of one every 12 days while the state does little to stem the carnage from domestic abuse.”
Analysis: Important information is packed into those 44 words, yet it doesn’t feel like one of those “suitcase leads” where the reporter stuffs everything into a small container. It works because it begins with subject and verb, making the meaning early. Going against conventional wisdom, it is written in the passive voice, but with an amazing sequence of vivid verbs. The voice is authoritative and confident, taking the reader from shocking statistics and violent language at the top to the complicity of state government at the bottom. It does not surprise me that this series won both a Pulitzer and an ASNE Writing Award. Cheers.
To Diana Marcum of the Los Angeles Times for the story “Dreams Die in Drought,” winner of the prize for feature writing:
The two fieldworkers scraped hoes over weeds that weren’t there.
“Let us pretend we see many weeds,” Francisco Galvez told his friend Rafael. That way, maybe they’d get a full week’s work.
Analysis: This lead was almost the winner. Marcum writes a 32-word scene with action, character, dialogue and setting. It captures the economic and human devastation of the drought in the West in a single remarkable action: workers hoeing weeds that were not there.
Recognition as finalist also goes to Rob Kuznia of the Daily Breeze (best name for a newspaper!) in Torrance, California. His work on corruption in a school system won a Pulitzer for local reporting.
“The superintendent of the Centinela Valley high school district negotiated a contract so loaded with out-of-the-ordinary perks that he managed to amass more than $663,000 in total compensation last year.”
Analysis: Only 30 words in that lead, but they manage to be informative, colorful, with a hint of outrage. The word “loaded” is, well, loaded, but in a good way. The hyphen necklace of “out-of-the-ordinary” is quirky, but efficient. “Perks” is a great journalism word, as is “amass.” That big ugly number seals the deal.
To Adam Nossiter, the New York Times, for international reporting, out of Guinea. Headline: “Fear of Ebola Breeds a Terror of Physicians”:
Eight youths, some armed with slingshots and machetes, stood warily alongside a rutted road at an opening in the high reeds, the path to the village of Kolo Bengou. The deadly Ebola virus is believed to have infected several people in the village, and the youths were blocking the path to prevent health workers from entering.
“We don’t want any visitors,” said their leader, Faya Iroundoune, 17, president of Kolo Bengou’s youth league. “We don’t want any contact with anyone.” The others nodded in agreement and fiddled with their slingshots.
Singling out the international aid group Doctors Without Borders, Mr. Iroundoune continued, “Wherever those people have passed, the communities have been hit by illness.”
Analysis: This scene is 114 words, and we have yet to get to the nut paragraph. But this telling scene prepares us for it. Everything works for me here: the name and age of the speaker, the name of the village, the slingshots and machetes, and the narrative notion that the characters think of the arrival of health workers not as a blessing, but as a curse.
To Mary McNamara of the Los Angeles Times, winner for criticism. The essay “Behold, Your Creation” describes how television viewers have transformed the medium over the last decade.
Here are a few things that did not exist in American television 10 years ago:
Binge-watching; recapping; scripted series on networks devoted to old movies, science and history; zombies; streaming services; popular series that end just because the story is done; film-franchise adjacency; shows that begin as miniseries and then continue indefinitely; multiplatform viewing; two concurrent versions of Sherlock Holmes; A-list film directors; television shows devoted to talking about television shows; live tweeting; micro-audiences; immediate remakes of British series; any remakes of European series; European series; subtitles; cord-cutting; horrific violence; series in which the cast stays the same but the story changes; series in which the title stays the same but the story and cast change; really good computer graphics; comedies more dark than funny; amazing international locations; an overabundance of stories characterizing the many ways in which television has changed in the past 10 years.
Analysis: That lead of 146 words not only pushes the envelope, it busts right through the paper and steals the stamp. But the author knows the power of a good inventory, which feels like we are flying over a vast territory, looking down and mapping all the landmarks. She does this with the help of journalism’s orphaned mark of punctuation: the semicolon – 25 of them, a new Pulitzer record!
To Zach R. Mider of Bloomberg News, winner for explanatory journalism, for his work on corporate tax avoidance. (Full disclosure: Zach is a Poynter summer grad. Proud of you, dawg!)
The only operetta ever written about Subpart F of the Internal Revenue Code made its debut on a rainy Sunday evening in May 1990, in a Fifth Avenue apartment overlooking Central Park. In bow ties and spring blazers, partners of the law firm of Davis Polk & Wardwell dined on lobster prepared by a Milanese chef. Then everyone gathered around a piano, and a pair of professional opera singers, joined by the few Davis Polk men who could carry a tune, performed what sounded like a collaboration of Gilbert & Sullivan and Ernst & Young.
The 13-minute operetta, Charlie’s Lament, told how the party’s host, John Carroll Jr., invented a whole category of corporate tax avoidance and successfully defended it in a fight with the Internal Revenue Service. The lawyers sang:
The Feds may be screaming,
But we all are beaming
’Cause we’ll never pay taxes,
We’ll never pay taxes,
Never pay taxes again!
Analysis: One of the most reliable forms of narrative is the text within a text, and what could be a better example than the lyrics of a made-up operetta. The scene has the feeling of something truly corrupt, a contemporary, corporate Satyricon that eases us into a story that will reveal the dark genius of corporate greed.
Congratulations to all the winners. Call if you want to do lunch.