Start with the headline…dear


“SCORPIO (Oct. 24-Nov. 21): No one can argue with your powers of conversation. You make language dance. Insightful without being overbearing, you’re a joy to be around. And you are about to meet your match.” ~ Holiday Mathis, “Horoscopes,” American Statesman [Austin, TX] 6 Jan. 2010, final ed. : D2.

Ha! My horoscope is way behind. I met my match years ago.

It was the fall of 1999, and I was right in the middle of one of my best stories, when my husband began to wave his hand in that circularĀ  motion–the universal symbol for “Get on with it”– and said, “Start with the headline.”

He was actually my pre-husband then, and I hadn’t known him long, and he was telling me I wasn’t a joy to be around. I burst into tears.

He patted me and apologized. (And no doubt wondered what he was apologizing for.)

I cried some more, mourning our relationship’s untimely end. Because I was incapable of starting with the headline.

I am a Southerner. When I share an anecdote or impart information–such as the conversation I had with Cousin Bob at the post office yesterday–I am genetically programmed to start at the beginning. I may need to go back three generations before I can get to the core communication.

To properly set the stage, I must introduce Cousin Bob’s parents and grandparents, and possibly his great-grandparents, and maybe his aunts, uncles, brothers, and sisters. I have to say who married whom and why and how many children they had. I have to mention economic status, level of education, and geographic location. I have to describe outstanding traits and idiosyncrasies as well as interesting interrelationships, such as major quarrels, grudges, and feuds.

When I finally get down to Cousin Bob, I have to flesh him out as well.

Then, once I get the plot moving, I sometimes need to digress and pull in anything else I think might be helpful.

It takes time.

But I’veĀ  sat on enough front porches listening to old people talk to know the rule: Never start with the headline.

Still, in the interest of continuing romance, I made an effort. And in the interest of same, my pre-husband said no more about my tendency to mosey.

A couple of years later, however, taking a course in legal writing, I heard the lawyer at the front of the room say, “Start with the headline.” In other words, when you’re writing a legal memo or a case brief, state the conclusion; then explain how you got there.

The light dawned. My pre-husband had a law degree. He was trained to start with the headline. He didn’t want me to tell my stories backwards. He just wanted me to talk like a paralegal. Eleven months later, I emerged from the university with an official certificate in paralegal studies and an unofficial certificate in interpersonal communication, probably a first for that program.

Still, starting with the headline seemed a dreary thing for both writer and reader. How can the reader understand the headline before he’s met all the characters, seen where they live and how they’re related? And isn’t starting with the headline like reading the last page first? All the suspense oozes out.

I was so glad fiction doesn’t have to start with the headline.

A few years later, however, I decided to try my hand at writing a mystery. I set it in a small Southern town populated with characters whose family relationships go back several generations. I developed an intriguing plot. I jumped into the action. I wrote several chapters, revised them, and handed them off to a friendly writer.

She handed them back with some positive comments and a great big, “GET THE BACKSTORY OUT OF THE FIRST CHAPTER.”

In other words, start with the headline.