Skills for journalists in print and digital media

Storytelling 4: Microcosm, telling details, and meaning

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Sometimes the point of crafting a “story” is to bring an issue or trend into focus via the experience of one person. They become a microcosm of a larger subject. This approach can be very powerful. The trick is to be very clear from the start just what part of their overall experience is the story.

Too often, editors and reporters venture down this path with the notion of “putting a face on the news.” Done badly, this can amount to little more than some emotive quotes, long passages of general background and biography, and a hazy focus about just what the “news” is supposed to be in this tale.

Working with microcosm still means having a sharp focus going in. And that comes from solid reporting on the issue, the numbers, the trends. Know what you want to show, based on facts. Then find the person who lives that experience. The big mistake at this point would be not having all the facts and trends in hand, grabbing someone who seems to be involve in the subject, and just accepting their experience as telling.

And its important to note here that emotion or reaction is not enough. Very easy to obtain. But great stories that work in a microcosm vein are about experience — action, choices, struggles, changes — not just feelings associated with that experience.

Example: In a story about how the working poor are dealing with cutbacks on state supported health care, reporting reveals people have far less contact with doctors and less access to medication. Your subject can easily be quoted about how this feels. Or, you can show something:

Robert Wilson sat on the couch in his family’s Eastwood apartment with a notebook and pencil. No matter how many times he added or subtracted, the result was the same: There was not enough money to buy prescription medicine for his two daughters and his diabetic wife.

Wilson makes $9 an hour with a small waterproofing company. The job does not offer health insurance, and Wilson cannot afford the $8,000 a year on private insurance for his family. He qualifies for Medicaid coverage for his two children. But he risks losing that coverage if he works overtime. And without overtime, he cannot make ends meet each month.

Every month, Wilson scratches numbers on his pad trying to figure out a way to buy medicine for his wife or pay doctor’s bills and the bank loans he has taken out to cover emergency care.

Robert and his wife Kathy recently shared a bad cold. She got a 10-day antibiotic prescription from a hospital pharmacy. He couldn’t afford his own, so they shared hers.

Two things about this short example.

Instead of just sharing random facts and experiences about the plight of the Wilson’s, the focus, based on earlier reporting, was on access to doctors and medication. The reporter knew the subject well enough to see it in the Wilsons’ lives and capture the facts, action, and choices in a notebook.

Then, by selecting only telling details per the subject, the passage shows how that abstract trend — less access to doctors and medication — plays out in one person’s life. A quote on how all this feels could be included later on. But the use of telling detail, in both dramatic and summary narrative, is how good storytelling engages the reader’s senses and sensibilities, conveys information and meaning, and elicits a reaction.

Storytelling 1: Touching shared emotions

Storytelling 2: Chronology is your best friend

Storytelling3: Pick a main character

Storytelling 4: Microcosm, telling details, and meaning

Storytelling 5: Subtext and universal experiences

Storytelling 6: Outline the story, frame a chronology

Storytelling 7: Writing that shows, lets readers feel

Telling description


Written by mroberts8

02/22/2010 at 4:57 pm

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  1. […] Storytelling 4: Microcosm, telling details, and meaning […]

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