Monday, September 21, 2009

A brief history of the telegraph, newspapers, and war

First, the background. I may have mentioned that my background is in journalism. Let me assure you that I learned the lessons of that trade well.

Let's take the headline for example. Pick up your local newspaper and read any given headline. I'd wager that there is a noun and verb in it — not withstanding my dad's favorite exceptions — and that the first paragraph of the story expands on that headline. That's because the headline is actually taken from the information in the lead (or first) paragraph.

That lead paragraph probably contains the answers to those famous journalistic questions
of who, what when, where, why, and how. Or at least answers to most of those questions. The
rest of the article expands on those "5Ws and H."

Now for the history lesson part of today's post. Any ideas why articles are written that way? Anyone?

Well, war played a big part of it. Read a pre-Civil War newspaper article and you'll find the flowery language of the day. There's a good chance the article will start with a weather report. Much different than today's writing style!

Styles changed during the American Civil War.

First, thanks to the invention of the telegraph, newspapers could send their reporters to the battle field and have those reporters send back stories in a timely manner. The telegraph was much faster and more reliable than a horse and rider.

But, of course, there was a downside. Both the Union and Confederate armies used the telegraph to relay information, as well. This ranged from supply requests to troop movement orders. As you can imagine, the other side didn't want their enemies to have more supplies or to receive reinforcements!

The easiest way to keep the enemy from getting their needed information? Cut the telegraph lines!

Thus, reporters who were used to starting their stories with the daily weather report would often find their articles cut off in mid-transmission. The newspapers back home may not have gotten to the part about which side won the battle when the lines were cut. So a new style of writing was born. The type that adds all the important info up front and the details to follow. (That way, if the lines got cut, the newspaper still had a story they could run!)

What does that have to do with fiction writing?

Easy. The principle is the same. Mostly.

Clearly in my mystery novels, I don't want to start with "Miss Scarlet did it with a candlestick in the conservatory," but I do want to make the story interesting enough that the reader will want to continue. I want to "hook" them in.

A good novel — mystery or not, paranormal or not — hooks the readers from the first paragraph. Recently I read the best opening paragraph I've had the pleasure to read in some time:

“For the third time that morning I shut my eyes tight in the absolute and certain knowledge that I was about to die. Around me, people were screaming. Lots of people, but the prospect of dying in company did nothing to alleviate the terror.”
— "First Drop" by Zoe Sharp

What a great opening paragraph!

And then there are the opening lines that stay with you, long after the name of the author or the novel has left your brain. (Anyone know where I can find the book that starts out: "She was the alpha and omega: the beginning and the end." ? I know I read it in high school...)

So share your favorite opening lines. Let's vote on the best ones!



Sandra Sookoo said...

haha! The post I'm doing is almost identical to this LOL :-)

Nichole R. Bennett said...

Great minds think alike! ;)