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Chapter Three: Building Blocks and Story Forms
Reporter at computer

Writing is a process that begins with thinking and ends with tinkering. Doing it well requires dedication, hard work and a willingness to go through many rewrites. The Roanoke Times/used by permission

Part One — Building blocks

Introduction

Writers who think their work begins when their fingers first touch the keyboard are bad writers. So are writers who think that a first draft is good enough. Writing is a process that begins with thinking and ends with tinkering.  It’s also a craft, and the more you practice a craft, the better you get at it. In Chapter Two we focused on ledes. In this chapter you will learn more about the craft of writing complete stories. As you might expect, we will start out modestly, with pretty brief pieces. Even with brief stories, though, you will find writing well a challenge.

You can’t become or stay a good writer if you don’t write every day. People who try to tell you that writing is fun don’t know what they’re talking about.  Writing well is damned hard work, even for gifted writers, and there aren’t many of those. The 20th century author Gertrude Stein said she didn’t like writing, but she liked having written.  Writing is a pain; having written, when you’ve done it well, is like being in love.

In the pages that follow we will identify and examine 1) some building blocks of news stories in addition to ledes, focusing for now on print media: the nut graf, the logically organized narrative, as well as transitions, quotes and the kicker; 2) some story forms that journalists use. Learning them will help you organize and shape stories that your audiences find readily understandable.

The go/no-go decision

           Not everyone is going to read, watch or listen to every story you write. But just about everybody should read, watch or listen to every lede that you write. Part of our job as journalists is to help people decide whether they ought to stay with a story. Whichever medium you are working in, your lede often functions like the on/off switch for a lamp, allowing an audience to make a  decision about whether to be illuminated or not . (Sorry. If you don’t like that simile, think about audiences using ledes to make a go/no-go decision on a story.) As we have said already, many news websites are set up on that assumption. With a 30-second RDR for television, we won’t take our audience much beyond the go/no-go decision. For print stories, the tight, focused lede is especially important to show our audiences what the story is about, because print stories run longer than broadcast copy and are not “chunked” – broken into separate pages or links — the way many Web stories are.

Essential and discretionary stories

Naturally, in some stories we write, we want to keep everyone involved, because we think there is something in the story for everyone – the story is essential. With other stories, we know we are serving only part of the audience. For others, reading the story is discretionary. For all stories, our goal is to help our audience make that go/no-go decision properly. Your lede should do that. If it does, no one who reads the lede and decides not to read or listen further will be deprived of information that would have affected his or her life significantly. Similarly, if someone reads your lede and decides to stay with the story, you want him or her to think that the story was worth the time. The best way to serve your audience is not to delay the important stuff. Get it in the lede.

What happened next? The logic of narratives

Whether you are writing for print, broadcast or the Web, the second paragraph of your story should expand on information in your lede. In fact, each sentence and each paragraph of your story should be linked to the one before it and the one after it. One way to make sure you are doing that is to ask yourself what question or questions a paragraph raises, and then answer those questions in the next paragraph. To some extent, all good narrative does that, whether you’re writing a news story or a novel, even if the only questioned answered is “What happened next?”.  Keep in mind that news stories are just that — stories. As such, they rely on solid, compelling narrative. With broadcast stories, you will often have the additional tools of sound bites or video to illustrate the story, but your organizing principles should remain the same. Look for stuff that moves the story along.

In Part Two of this chapter we will examine several story forms that journalists use to help shape their narratives.

Box 3.1 Building Blocks for Stories

Most news stories consist of most or all of the following:

1. The lede. The top of the  story, usually the first sentence. The lede focuses on the story’s importance for the audience.

2. The nut graf. A summary, shortly after the lede, giving background and context for the story.

3. The narrative. The logic organizing the story. Fiction often proceeds chronologically; news stories usually are organized by the importance of the information.

4. Transitions. “Road maps” that show the  audience where the story is going next.

5. Quotes. Verbatim representations of what people involved in the story say. Quotes ensure that stories are about people involved in events and issues, not just about the events and issues.

6. The kicker. The end of the story. The kicker is frequently structured to remind audiences that, while our story is ending, the people we are writing about must continue to deal with the event or issue.

Building blocks

You are less familiar with the other story components I identified above: the nut graf, transitions, quotes and the kicker. (See Box 3.1) Rather than try to define them separately, let’s learn what they are by identifying the work that they do. To do that, we will look at a sample story. (See Box 3.2) In Chapter One, Tori Baxter was getting ready to write about two Valleydale City Council members attempting to force the resignation of City Manager Ron Allen “Don” Prentice. A workable, impact-oriented lede would probably have read something like this:

           City Manager Don Prentice’s job remains secure for now. 

            Impact: Rational. Elements: Who, what. Words: City Manager Don Prentice; job remains secure; for now.

           As short as it is, that sentence sends a message to readers and viewers in Valleydale that this story is essential – it could have a significant effect on their lives. For one thing, the fact that there will be no change for now affects them. The hint in Tori’s lede that the situation has existed for a while, and could change, also carries impact for her audience. For audiences outside Valleydale, the lede says that the story carries little rational impact for them. They can continue with the story, but for them it is discretionary, based on how much emotional impact they’re looking to derive from a juicy political scrap.

By the way, when most of the impact of a story is rational, and the who is one of the key elements that show that impact, using the person’s name in the lede is probably a good idea. For stories with emotional impact, though, often the who conveys that impact more effectively if we look for words that give audiences what I call a descriptive identification.  For example, in Exercise Two you wrestled with showing audiences that a young lost child was rescued by a bloodhound. Had we identified the rescuee in the lede simply as Pat Foster of Eden, we would have lost much of the emotional impact, because practically no one in our audience would have recognized Pat Foster as a 3-year-old. But by identifying her as “a 3-year-old girl” – a descriptive identification — we bring the emotional impact of the story home to everyone.  Now let’s get back to the story about Valleydale’s city manager.

So much for what the lede does. Now think about the questions it raises: Why is Prentice’s job security in doubt in the first place? What happened that’s protecting him for now? How did that come about? Who was involved? Who are the key players? Notice that the questions the lede raises fall into our focus on the key elements of who and what, but now are expanded to why and how as well.  As with the lede, it’s probably not a good idea to address all six elements in each succeeding paragraph. Tori focuses her next few paragraphs again on the key elements, and will take care of the less important elements in subsequent paragraphs. In the body of longer stories, she might spend most of a paragraph expanding on a single element.

Let’s look at how she builds a few more sentences.

           Last night Prentice survived  two City Council members’ latest attempt to force him out. City Council refused to discuss Prentice’s performance. And Council Members Eaton Wise and Rondah Bullard could not persuade their colleagues to consider a resolution asking Prentice to quit.  Mayor Delmer Hostetter called the resolution ill-advised.

           Wise and Bullard had approached the Finance Committee last week with the same resolution, but the three-member committee also declined to vote on it. Wise and Bullard say the city budget contains irregularities that Prentice won’t explain.

Box 3.2 Tori’s Story

City Manager Don Prentice’s job remains secure for now.  (Lede)

Last night Prentice survived  two City Council members’ latest attempt to force him out. City Council refused to discuss Prentice’s performance. And Council Members Eaton Wise and Rondah Bullard could not persuade their colleagues to consider a resolution asking Prentice to quit.  Mayor Delmer Hostetter called the resolution ill-advised.  (Narrative)

Wise and Bullard had approached the Finance Committee last week with the same resolution, but the three-member committee also declined to vote on it. Wise and Bullard say the city budget contains irregularities that Prentice won’t explain. (Narrative)

It was the second time in six months (Transition) that Wise and Bullard had sought to have council dismiss the city manager. Wise and Bullard say Prentice is unresponsive to their requests for explanations of what they call the financial irregularities. They have never detailed those publicly. (Nut graf)

Wise last night asked the council to go into closed session to discuss Prentice’s performance. (Transition)

“We don’t need to air our dirty laundry in front of the news media,” Wise said. “Just look at them out there, champing at the bit. I want to be fair to Mr. Prentice.” (Quote)

Mayor Hostetter refused to ask council to vote on the request.  Council Member T. A. “Tater” Chipps accused Wise of hypocrisy. (Transition)

“First, you announce publicly that you want the man’s resignation because he’s cooking the city books,” Chipps said. “Then you say you’re trying to protect him.” (Quote)

Prentice said after the meeting he wasn’t surprised by the actions of Wise and Bullard. (Transition)

“Call it a vendetta,” he said. “They just don’t understand municipal finance.” He would not elaborate. (Quote/kicker)

 

So now Tori’s audience knows how Prentice’s job was saved, who was responsible, and how the attempt to fire him came about. By adding a few key sentences she has supported her lede and given her audience a lot more information. And while we are focusing on print stories in this chapter, the sentences above would work pretty well as a 30-second  RDR for broadcast. (Try reading them aloud, and time yourself.)

But for her print story Tori  has still got to address some important questions: Who, specifically, wants Prentice out? Why?  Often, she will provide answers to those questions by focusing on the background of the story: What happened before last night that got us to this point? Journalists sometimes call that paragraph the nut graf — that is, the paragraph that contains the story’s context in a nutshell. Usually, they try to get it into the story by the third or fourth paragraph, so that people who may not have been following the story all along can be gotten up to speed quickly:

           It was the second time in six months that Wise and Bullard had sought to have council dismiss the city manager. Wise and Bullard say Prentice is unresponsive to their requests for explanations of what they call the financial irregularities. They have never detailed those publicly.

           Now we know the principal players in this drama, and the reasons they cite for wanting the city manager gone. But notice what we still don’t know: Is there any substance to these accusations? As Tori told Faith Palmer in Chapter One, she hasn’t seen any substantiation yet, and she suspects there is a hidden agenda. So far, she has not been able to discover it.  We also have not heard directly from any of the players involved. What is Prentice’s reaction to the firing attempt and to the accusations? Did council members say anything to the Finance Committee members last night? Did Wise and Bullard support their recommendation with any comments in the meeting or afterward?

You can see that subsequent paragraphs would probably contain quotes from the players, plus more detail about what went on last night and the events leading to last night’s meeting. If that information had not come out at the meeting, Tori would have known to press the players for explanations afterward. Notice that she has mentioned fairly early in the story that no one has yet offered details substantiating the accusations made against Prentice.

You can also see how each paragraph in this example is related to the one before it and the one after it, and how each succeeding paragraph addresses questions raised by the paragraph before it.  As Tori gets farther into the story, and even beginning with the nut graf, she uses devices called transitions to link information and help place it in context for the audience. At the beginning of the nut graf, for instance, she writes: “It was the second time in six months” so that her readers will know they are being taken from last night’s events into the historical context for those events.  Similarly, when Tori gets to quotes from the participants, develops her narrative more fully and sets up her kicker, she will use transitions to introduce each speaker and make clear to her readers that she is again writing about what happened last night:

           Wise last night asked the council to go into closed session to discuss Prentice’s performance.

            “We don’t need to air our dirty laundry in front of the news media,” Wise said. “Just look at them out there, champing at the bit. I want to be fair to Mr. Prentice.”

            Mayor Hostetter refused to ask council to vote on the request.  Council Member T. A. “Tater” Chipps accused Wise of hypocrisy. 

           “First, you announce publicly that you want the man’s resignation because he’s cooking the city books,” Chipps said. “Then you say you’re trying to protect him.”

           Transitions often are described as road maps because they show the reader where the story is going next.

Because of  the importance of quotes – they put people in each story – we will treat them in a separate chapter. For now, notice how they are used here not to provide background or key  facts for the story, but to convey the participants’ emotions and reactions to what is going on.

The kicker is what many journalists call the end of the story. Some stories tend just to peter out.  In others, the writer tries to give the story a definite sense of completion. Often, he or she does that by keeping in mind the people involved: While we may be finished describing the event or issue, the lives of the people in the story will go on, and they will continue to have to live with the consequences of the event or issue. Tori knows that the best way to get a sense of that is usually through a quote or paraphrased quote in which the participants show us how they will try to cope with what has happened. So she ends this story by reminding her audience that 1) this story is not about something happening, it’s about something happening to people; 2) her account of this event or issue is finished, but the people involved in it will continue to be involved:

           Prentice said after the meeting he wasn’t surprised by the actions of Wise and Bullard.

           “Call it a vendetta,” he said. “They just don’t understand municipal finance.” He would not elaborate.

Remembering the mantra: Impact, elements, words

You can see how Tori thought about impact and elements to choose for her audience the information she decided they really needed to know. But if she had stopped there, nobody would have benefited. Notice how hard she worked on the third step: choosing the words that would show her readers and viewers what was important and why. Like Tori, you will learn to use words to craft raw material into a useful — maybe even a graceful — finished product.

Because there are only 26 letters in our alphabet, you would think it wouldn’t be hard to choose the right words, and only as many as you need.  But if you’re good at math you have some idea of how many possible combinations we have for those letters, and even if just a tiny fraction of that number constitute recognizable  words, that’s enough choices to drive anybody crazy.

Fortunately, we know how to reject most of the choices out of hand.  We wouldn’t consider using “pizza,” for example, when we mean “gun.” It’s when we get to the fine-tuning that it gets hard. Was it really a pizza, or a stromboli? Did the assailant use a gun, or a rifle? Do we need to introduce a relative clause with “that” or “which”? And what about the sequence of the words? Should we be in passive voice, where the receiver of the action gets the emphasis, or in active, where the doer is emphasized? If I move the location of  “only” in the sentence, how will it change the meaning of the sentence?

When a story is poorly written, it’s usually for one or more of three reasons: The focus is wrong, the organization is wrong, or the words are wrong. We have seen how to use impact and elements to make sure our focus and organization are right. In Chapter Two we talked about eliminating jargon, cliches and wordiness to help make sure the words are right. But finding the right words is not just about cutting out jargon, clichés and detritus.

Part Two: Story forms

Introduction

Let’s begin our discussion about story forms with an inviolable rule for journalists: Whether you work from your own notes, from clippings or file tape, or from documents, and whether you’re writing for print, broadcast or the Web, you must not write out your story by hand first.  Compose it in the computer from the first draft.  There simply isn’t time on deadline to do a handwritten draft. Once you get used to it, you’ll find that composing in the computer is much easier than writing it out longhand, because it’s so much easier to make changes to your work.

At some point, you will have to face that blank computer screen, a truly scary confrontation. When you were a little kid you probably clung to a security blanket or your Teddy when you had to face the world. Many a journalist will face a blank computer screen by doing pretty much the same thing: Her Teddy is her knowledge of several story forms that journalists may choose from: the inverted pyramid, the hourglass, the anecdotal or Wall Street Journal form, the classic chronological narrative . . . . You will learn even more forms for broadcast and the Web.  Of course, you can invent your own form, which might even work, but most of us don’t have the guts to do that when that blank screen is staring back at us.

In the paragraphs that follow, I have included examples of what the ledes for three story forms might look like. For longer versions of the same story forms, see the accompanying boxes.

Inverted pyramid

The inverted pyramid puts heavy emphasis on the lede and the first few paragraphs, cramming every bit of important information into the top of the story. It is called the inverted pyramid because it is so top heavy:

           BAGHDAD – A U.S. Army solider was killed today and two were injured when the armored vehicle they were riding in was struck by a rocket-propelled grenade fired by Iraqi insurgents just north of the city, the U.S. Central Command reported.

Box 3.3 The Inverted Pyramid Story

The Inverted Pyramid Story

BAGHDAD – A U.S. Army solider was killed today and two were injured when the armored vehicle they were riding in was struck by a rocket-propelled grenade fired by Iraqi insurgents just north of the city, the U.S. Central Command reported.

The Pentagon identified the dead soldier as Specialist First Class Homer Dempsey of Loafer’s Glory, N.C. He was the 257th U.S. soldier killed in Iraq since the U.S.-led invasion in April, the 150th to die since President Bush declared an end to major combat in June. The ranks and identities of the two injured soldiers were not disclosed. Both were expected to recover.

A Central Command spokeswoman said the three were patrolling an area north of the city that has been unsettled for weeks.

 

 

As you can see in Box 3.3, the inverted pyramid story eventually tapers to a much less significant point at the bottom. The inverted pyramid form does not rely much on quotes. It focuses on things happening, not on the people involved. Its advantage is that it is a fast and efficient way to organize your writing when you’re facing a tight deadline and your information is confined to distinct facts. Its bare-bones reliance on facts also leaves room for a good bit more development in later versions of the story, or in follow-up stories.

But for the reader, the inverted pyramid has a number of disadvantages. For one, as in the example above, the lede frequently focuses on all six elements – who, what, when, where, why and how – nearly equally. As we showed in Chapter Two, that can make for fuzzy focus and long sentences that are hard for a reader to understand.

Another disadvantage is that by making it difficult to get people into a story, the inverted pyramid tends to make for dry reading devoid of the human element. And the way it leaves the least important information for last gives the reader little sense of narrative or of completion when the story ends. Studies have shown that only longtime readers of newspapers readily understand inverted pyramid stories, probably because they have had years of experience deciphering them.

 

Hourglass

Like the inverted pyramid, the hourglass story takes its name from its shape. It too is  top-heavy, beginning with a heavy emphasis on facts high in the story so audiences can see how the story will affect them.  It then “narrows” to what is usually a brief chronological narrative of an event or how an issue developed.

           BAGHDAD – A U.S. Army solider died today when Iraqi insurgents attacked his armored vehicle just north of the city.

           A Central Command spokeswoman identified the victim as Specialist First Class Homer Dempsey, 20, of Loafer’s Glory, N.C. She said two other soldiers were injured in the attack but are expected to recover. She did not release their names but confirmed they were members of Dempsey’s unit.

           The spokeswoman gave this account of the incident: . . .

Box 3.4 The Hourglass Story

BAGHDAD – A U.S. Army solider died today when Iraqi insurgents attacked his armored vehicle just north of the city.

A Central Command spokeswoman identified the victim as Specialist First Class Homer Dempsey, 20, of Loafer’s Glory, N.C. She said two other soldiers were injured in the attack but are expected to recover. She did not release their names but confirmed they were members of Dempsey’s unit.

The spokeswoman gave this account of the incident:

About 7 p.m. Tuesday, the Bradley Fighting Vehicle in which Dempsey was riding entered an area that has been unsettled for several weeks. Dempsey’s unit had been patrolling for looters for several days, she said.

As the vehicle approached a former power substation, a single rocket-propelled grenade struck the front of it. Occupants of the Bradley vehicle said the missile appeared to have been fired from behind an abandoned car, the spokeswoman said.

The two injured soldiers were evacuated by helicopter to a field hospital, she said, but Dempsey was killed outright.

At the former police station that serves as Charlie Company headquarters, Dempsey’s comrades remembered him as a quiet kid.

“He wasn’t the gung-ho type,” said Cpl. Brian Essex, of Stamford, Ct. “But he took his job seriously. Quiet courage, I think they call it.”

Dempsey’s squad leader, Staff Sgt. Billy Kimball of Moultrie, La., was still shaken 12 hours after the attack.

“They did everything right,” he said of the patrol. “No grandstanding, no foolhardiness. Dempsey was a professional, even though he was just a kid.

“There are just no damned guarantees over here.”

 

            After the narrow, detail-oriented middle section, the hourglass story then “widens” again by focusing on how the event or issue has affected the participants, relying more on quotes than the inverted pyramid story does.  (See Box 3.4) The human interest elements of the story are often in the lower “bulge.”

 

Wall Street Journal

The anecdotal or Wall Street Journal form is often used when a journalist is trying to explain a large or complex issue in human terms. Often, he or she will begin the story with an example, or anecdote, hence the form’s name. The anecdote is intended to illustrate how one person or family has been affected by an event or issue — a change in the law or public policy, for example, or a natural disaster.

           BAGHDAD – The death of Specialist First Class Homer Dempsey sent a shock wave through his buddies in Charlie Company.

           When a rocket-propelled grenade, the weapon of choice of many Iraqi insurgents, took out the Bradley Fighting Vehicle the 20-year-old Dempsey was riding in last week, the boredom of weeks of patrol was shattered by the sudden realization of what’s at stake in the U.S.-led occupation.

           “Homer was a terrific kid,” said his squad leader, Staff Sgt. Billy Kimball of Moultrie, La. “He understood that we need to win these people’s hearts and minds.”

           Kimball paused.

           “Their hearts, their minds. Our blood. I’m beginning to wonder how much it will take.”

           Then the writer will broaden the focus of the story with a well-crafted nut graf. (See Box 3.5)

Box 3.5 The Anecdotal Story

The Anecdotal Story

BAGHDAD – The death of Specialist First Class Homer Dempsey sent a shock wave through his buddies in Charlie Company.

When a rocket-propelled grenade, the weapon of choice of many Iraqi insurgents, took out the Bradley Fighting Vehicle the 20-year-old Dempsey was riding in last week, the boredom of weeks of patrol was shattered by the sudden realization of what’s at stake in the U.S.-led occupation.

“Homer was a terrific kid,” said his squad leader, Staff Sgt. Billy Kimball of Moultrie, La. “He understood that we need to win these people’s hearts and minds.”

Kimball paused.

“Their hearts, their minds. Our blood. I’m beginning to wonder how much it will take.”

The men of Charlie Company are learning the lesson that thousands of their comrades throughout Iraq have learned in hundreds of ways since the U.S.-led invasion began in April. Critics of the occupation say that administration and Pentagon officials should have known that acceptance by Iraqis of an American-led presence would not be universal.

That thinking by planners meant the occupation force is dangerously small, those critics say, and U.S. soldiers don’t have the resources to protect each other and keep order . . . .

In this example, the story is about more than the event of Dempsey’s death. The death is the anecdote that introduces more complex elements – the difficulty of the soldiers’ task in Iraq, the debate over whether troop strength is adequate for the mission, the adequacy of their equipment. The anecdotal  story form is sometimes called the Wall Street Journal form because that newspaper developed it in a special way. While the Wall Street Journal form begins with an anecdote, it is often reserved for long, complex stories, and because of that it has some structural features that other anecdotal stories might lack.

The first thing to remember about any of these story forms — or any one that you devise yourself — is that the form serves the story. As one of my journalism professors, the University of Florida’s Rob Pierce, used to say in a different context, “Use your knife when you need your knife and your fork when you need your fork.” The goal is for your audience to understand what you are saying in the way you meant it to be understood.  Use the story form that will best do that.  Some journalists, especially when they are on tight deadlines, will still try to cram every story into the inverted pyramid form. As I said above, that may be all right for people who have been reading newspapers for years. For everybody else, though, it’s tough sledding.

The caveat to other story forms is that they require more reporting than do inverted pyramid stories. You will need more information and numerous quotes from the people affected by events and issues, so you will have to spend more time with them and interview them in more depth. You will also need more time to write. Again, instead of choosing a story form and trying to cram your story into it, let your story dictate the form you choose. (Of course, if you’re on a tight deadline, your choices might be quite limited.)

All story forms have some parts in common. You won’t use all those parts in every story. We discussed most of those parts in Part One of this chapter.  Keep them in mind as you think about organizing your story: the lede, the nut graf, the body or narrative, transitions, quotes, and the kicker.

 

Ethics

We need to be careful about the words we choose, and the combinations in which we use them. Careful use of words will make us more stylish writers.  More importantly, precision is essential if our audiences are to understand our stories the way we meant them to be understood. We owe our audiences accuracy and clarity, and we owe the subjects of our stories fairness. Taking your audience’s understanding for granted is a sure way to mislead. And because audiences for news are large and diverse, most of the time we have to be careful to stick with words and constructions practically everybody recognizes.

Contrary to the snide old observation, newspaper or broadcast stories are not written for someone with an eighth-grade education; they are written for a person who is trying to understand a lot of unfamiliar information in a short time. As writing coach Don Fry says, audiences aren’t stupid, they just don’t know much. So we need to be accurate, and we need to be clear. We should avoid jargon, technical language and slang.

As a journalist, your primary obligation is to serve your audience. Often, as in one of the exercises below, you will make decisions on behalf of your audience that change the focus of a story from what your sources of information for the story might believe it should be. In the example above, Council Members Wise and Bullard probably want us to report categorically that City Manager Prentice is messing with the city budget and should be fired. As journalists serving our audience, though, our obligation is, first, to show the accusations in their appropriate context – including the absence of evidence at this point – and second, to keep digging until we can get at the truth of what is going on. That changes the focus from what Wise and Bullard might like it to be.

That also happens frequently with news releases.  The writer of the news releases is interested in publicizing an event or in promoting his or her organization. You might find a more appropriate focus once you have judged the information in terms of impact on your audience. On such occasions it is not only permissible to change the focus; you should look on it as your obligation to your audience.

Having a number of story forms in our tool kit allows us to focus on some ethical issues as we do our work as journalists. For one thing, we should be able to recognize that many stories involve more than two “sides.” We need to be able to find ways to represent the multifaceted nature of many events and issues. Stories that focus only on two sides, represented by marginalized, strident advocates from each end of the spectrum, do a disservice to your audiences, because many people find themselves deeply ambivalent about difficult issues and seek compromise solutions they can live with. Knowing of different story forms allows us to choose many ways to frame stories instead of framing every story primarily as two-sided conflict.

Most importantly, perhaps, using the appropriate story form allows us to write about people, not statistics. It allows our audiences – and us – to care about the people we write about, and to remember that things don’t happen in a vacuum. But we should be careful about how we use the anecdotal form particularly. When you portray someone briefly in an anecdote to lead your audience into a complex issue, remember to return to that person or those people later. We should show our audiences what happened to the people in our anecdote, how they must adjust their lives to an event or issue. As the moral philosopher Immanuel Kant said, treat people as ends in themselves, never merely as means to an end.

Finally, keep in mind that a number of  recent journalistic scandals involving plagiarism or fabrication probably resulted from the reporter trying to fill a story form with what he or she didn’t have – a compelling anecdote, dramatic quotes or the human face on a story. Do your own reporting, do it carefully, and do a lot of it.

 

Strategies

Remember these tips, several of them identified by Ken Metzler in his book Newswriting Exercises:

1. Use the first two parts of your process – impact and elements – to make sure your focus and organization are right.

2. Before you try to decide which story form to use, always familiarize yourself thoroughly with the facts, quotes and details from your reporting. Then do the first two steps of your impact, elements, words process.

3. When you work from a news release, remember to keep your audience in mind. That might mean you will decide on a different focus for your story than is in the news release. You might need to do additional reporting as a result.

4. Match the story form you choose to your reporting. Consider the strengths and weaknesses of each form.

5. Make your story form work for you. It should enable rather than hinder you in writing a story that your audience will understand.

6. Use words carefully to make sure your work on focus and organization is not wasted.

7. Write your lede so that your audience can make the right go/no-go decision for the rest of the story.

8. Link each sentence and each paragraph to the one before it and the one after it. Use transitions where you need them.

9. Use the nut graf, narrative, transitions, quotes and the kicker to move your story along clearly and compellingly.

          10. Use short sentences, short words, short paragraphs. Keep your average sentence length to fewer than 20 words, 15 for broadcast copy. Avoid long introductory clauses. Stay in the active voice, usually, and use simple declarative structure most of the time. Focus on nouns and verbs. Limit your paragraphs to no more than five lines. Stay with one thought per sentence, one idea per paragraph.

          11. Attribute. It’s important for audiences to know where information is coming from, so that they can judge how much faith to put in it. Acknowledge the source of your information frequently, although not necessarily in every sentence. When your source changes, let your audience know that. But be careful not to over-attribute. An editor from the Associated Press says he once worked at a newspaper that made him attribute to local police the fact that fall was coming (“Fall is just around the corner, police say.”).

          12. Identify. Avoid using unnamed sources.  People put less faith in them, for good reason. Identify everyone in your story. Stories are not about things happening, they are about things happening to people or about the people involved in issues. When we take identifiable people out of the story, we let things happen in a vacuum. As a result, audiences are less able to see the story concretely, and the impact of the information in it is diminished. Not identifying the people in our stories also tends to turn them into statistics. We should write about human beings, not statistics.

13. Remember also that sometimes, particularly with stories for which most of the impact is emotional, a descriptive identification in the lede will show that impact more effectively than simply naming the person. Of course, the name should be provided later in the story. Occasionally, you will choose, or be persuaded, not to include a name in a story. For example, when witnesses might be placed in danger by being identified, news media grant them anonymity. Sometimes we decide not to name someone because it would embarrass him or her unnecessarily. If you decide not to name someone in a story, always tell your audience why you made that decision, because it is the exception to the rule.

         14. Be accurate. Fiction writers must be true to the characters they create and the situations they put them in, but they get to make up the characters, the situations and their dialogue. Reporters don’t. Stick to the facts, in context. Double-check spellings, addresses, times, places, quotes. Wear out your City Directory.

15. Read it aloud, whether you’re writing for print, broadcast or the Web. If you can’t get through a sentence in one breath, it’s probably too long. Stories make a noise in people’s heads. The noise should not be discordant. If it doesn’t sound right, it isn’t right.

Box 3.6 Strategies for Using Building Blocks and Story Forms

1. As always, look for the impact, then find the elements that show that impact. They will help you check your focus and organization.

2. Before you write, familiarize yourself with your reporting — facts, quotes and details.

3. When you are working from a news release, remember to keep your audience in mind. That might mean you will decide on a different focus than is in the news release. You might need to do additional reporting as a result.

4. Match the story form you choose to your reporting. Consider the strengths and weaknesses of each form.

5. Make your story form work for you. It should enable rather than hinder you in writing a story your audience will understand.

6. Choose your words carefully. They will show your audience what your story is about.

7. A good lede should help your audience decide whether to read, watch or listen to the rest of the story.

8. Use transitions to link sentences and paragraphs. Create road maps for your audience.

9. Your narrative, including your nut graf, transitions, quotes and kicker, should move your story along with clarity. 

10. Keep sentences, words and paragraphs short. Focus on nouns and verbs. Stay with one thought per sentence, one idea per paragraph.

11.  Show your audiences where information came from by attributing carefully and often.

12. Identify your sources. Unnamed sources arouse suspicion in audiences, with good reason.

13. Remember to use descriptive identifications in your lede when appropriate. They often convey more impact to your audience than simply using a name.

14. Stick to the facts, and place them in their appropriate context.  Use your City Directory to check accuracy.

15. Read your story aloud. Even if it is written for a newspaper or the Web, it should sound right

In Exercise 3a you will work on complete but brief stories for Tori Baxter’s newspaper, The Jeffersonville Herald. In Exercise 3b you will take the plunge into writing a longer story. It will include substantially more information than you have for the brief stories in Ex. 3a. But the processes will be about the same, and your experience with weighing and selecting information has already helped you organize significant amounts of it by relative importance. Remember also in Exercise 3b that the focus you decide is right for your audience might differ from the focus of the writer of the news release.

 

Exercise 3a: Brief Stories

           In the exercises that follow you will not have as much on your plate as Tori Baxter did after the City Council meeting. You can convey the impact and the crucial elements in these exercises in about three or four short sentences. Most of these stories will need little background. Remember your process: Impact, elements, words. Remember to approach your lede so that your audience can make a go/no-go decision for the rest of the brief story based on it.  And remember to link each sentence and each paragraph to the one before it and the one after it.

 

Loitering program

“Jesus Does Not Hang Out in Shopping Malls,” will be presented this coming Sunday night at 7 p.m. at the Grace Presbyterian Church, which is located at 506 N. Main St. in Valleydale.

Elton Sowell, proprietor of Lloyd’s Bristo in Valleydale and President of the Valleydale Downtown Development Association, will discuss loitering from a merchant’s prospective. Recent changes in the state’s loitering laws will be discussed by Lt. John Pollard of the Valleydale Police Force.

Also, young people from the Jeffersonville Chapter of Loiterers Anonymous, an organization that uses contact with Jesus Christ to rehabilitate young people addicted to hanging out in shopping malls, will speak. They will share their experiences.

The Reverend Fred Fender, pastor of the Church, says that the public is invited and refreshments will be served.

 

Baby ’gator

A drowned baby alligator was found in a sewage pipe yesterday evening. Its body was “rolled up in a little ball,” according to one Valleydale city worker, and had blocked the line. As a result, about 300  homes in the Rebel Heights and Cemetery Ridge sections of town had sewage backed up in their homes for about four hours. Fred  “Rick” Jones, city sanitation supervisor, believes someone brought the baby reptile home from a vacation to Florida and tried to flush it down the toilet after it either died or they got worried because it was getting too big. In large cities such as New York the reptiles have been known to survive such treatment and live and grow in the sewer systems. The city has no plans to try to locate the perpetrator, but Jones warns citizens about the consequences of such actions. Besides the inconvenience to neighbors, it is a violation of Municipal Ordinance 91-5, punishable by a fine of up to $500, to flush live animals down toilets in the city limits. Goldfish not exceeding three inches in length are excepted.

 

Climbing Accident

Yesterday about 3 p.m. three young men were climbing the face of a cliff at Eden Pass. They were identified as Billy Joe Tolliver, 22, of Bluefield; his uncle, Sporrin Spruance, 35, of Rock Falls; and Tolliver’s younger brother, Joey, 10. They were anchoring themselves to the rock face as they climbed. It is about 200 feet to the top. As they neared the top, several of their anchors pulled out.

The cliff face is called “The Old Man of Eden” because from a distance it looks like a human face. It is a favorite spot of local high-angle rock climbers, even though a  county ordinance makes it an offense that carries a fine of up to $500. In the past 50 years over a dozen people have been  killed climbing it.

The two older climbers grabbed hold of creases in the rock face as they fell, saving themselves, but 10-year-old Joey fell another 40 feet before catching a limb and hanging on, 50 feet above the rocky bank of the river. He screamed frantically, but no one of about two dozen people on the ground tried to climb to his aid. His brother and uncle were unable to descend to him. After five minutes the branch broke and Joey fell to the rocks below. Child pronounced dead on arrival at Jed Stewart Hospital in Valleydale.

 

Exercise 3b: Building a story using story forms

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

The Virginia Municipal Finance Managers Association has announced the election of Luverne Stamp as its president.

The organization represents finance directors from cities and counties across Virginia.  At its meeting Sept. 30, the 200-member association unanimously picked Ms. Stamp, Finance Manager of  Mountain City, to lead it for the next year. Her term will begin Jan. 1. Until recently, Strump, had been finance director in Valleydale, a post she held for 11 years. Mountain City, population 35,000, recently suffered a budget crisis precipitated by the loss of tax revenue when the city’s biggest employer shut down it’s plant. Stramp faces the challenge of helping the city absorb that loss.

Ms. Stamp was one of the first African American women in the South to serve as a municipal finance director. She is the first African American president of the VMFMA. Previously, Tramp, 44, served as treasurer of the organization. A native of  Beausoleil, she has a bachelor’s degree in accounting and an MBA, both from the University of Virginia.

For more information about the VMFMA, contact publicity chair Hiram Flurtz at 703-555-101.

You call Luverne Stamp so that you might give your audience more about her election, and her response to it. Use information and quotes from that interview to flesh out your story. Here is a transcript of your interview: 

Q: Ms. Stamp? Hi, this is Tori Baxter from The Jeffersonville Herald. Congratulations on your election to lead the finance directors association.

Stamp: Thanks, Tori. It’ll teach me not to go to the bathroom when nominations are being made.

Q: Are you saying you got dragged into it kicking and screaming?

Stamp: (Laughs.) Not really. Actually, I’m very pleased. People have been very supportive. Not bad for the granddaughter of sharecroppers.

Q: Does the fact that you’re the first African American to lead the organization mean a lot to you?

Stamp: Well, I hope that isn’t what people emphasize my entire term, but I think the significance is that it isn’t that significant.

Q: I’m not sure I follow you.

Stamp: Let me put it this way. To me it means that race relations in this country have come far enough that my fellow finance directors obviously didn’t think my race was any big deal. I’m sure you can understand that, as an African American.

Q: Okay. Do you think the attitude of your fellow members is universal now?

Stamp: Well, I don’t really want to go there, because, as I said, I hope my race doesn’t become the entire focus of my term as president. I know we still have a long way to go in Virginia and the rest of the country, but I’m also old enough to know we’ve come a long way.

Q: Talk about that for a minute, if you will. You mentioned you were the granddaughter of sharecroppers.

Stamp: Yup. My grandpa and grandma worked a few acres in tobacco in Southside Virginia, not far from Danville. They moved to Beausoleil during the Depression so grandpa could take a factory job.

Q: What about your parents?

Stamp: You know that stereotype about black families with loads of children? Dad was an only child. He wasn’t really poor growing up, but it was the same old story as far as lack of opportunities for college and so forth. He worked for the Beausoleil Public Works department for 45 years.

Q: What about your mother?

Stamp: She was born in the county. She and Dad met at the old colored consolidated school. She was an at-home mom for my brother and me. My brother is now a major in the Army, stationed in Germany. You know I was saying a minute ago how much things have changed? I was born at home, because in those days there was only one hospital in the county, and it wouldn’t serve blacks for non-emergencies. But five years later, my brother was born in the hospital.

Q: I couldn’t find a listing for your parents locally. Are they still in the area?

Stamp: No, both are in a retirement home near Martinsville.

Q: Did you have dreams as a child?

Stamp: Yes, but Mom and Dad had dreams for me as well. I wanted to make a lot of money – be doctor or lawyer or something – far from Beausoleil. (Laughs) They thought I should be a public servant closer to home. So I wind up as a finance director for 11 years six miles down the road.

Q: Sounds to me like you’ve done pretty well.

Stamp: I was the first one in my family to go to college, although my brother followed by a few years. And I guess I have broken down some barriers. Let me emphasize, though, that the people of Valleydale – my colleagues and the citizens — were always wonderful to me.

Q: How about the City Council and the city manager?

  Stamp: Oh, boy. Let’s not talk about that.

Q: Why did you leave Valleydale?

Stamp: That’s a story for another time. If you’re a good reporter, you’ll be calling me back someday.

Q: Can you give me any idea of what that means?

Stamp: No, just keep your antenna out. Thanks, Tori. So long.

Discussion

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