Skills for journalists in print and digital media

Storytelling 5: Subtext and universal experiences

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One more element to consider as you plan, report and sit down to write a piece that has strong storytelling qualities.

Great stories usually work on two levels: The particulars of character, time, and place. And then the deeper subtext, theme, or storyline that touches on more universal, shared experiences. It is this second level that hooks and affects the reader.

A universal experience may be how a person overcomes great disappointment, how a person loves but is rejected, or how a person takes on an enormous challenge to help another. In fiction, a dozen stories could be set in a dozen different times and places and still be about the same thing. Love stories are love stories.

The added challenge in journalism is that you cannot make up the time, place, and characters. But you can consider, identify, and work with the universal experience that lies beneath the surface. Consider a story about a parent struggling to raise a severely handicapped child who loses much needed insurance. Beneath the particulars of the case, what is the universal experience at work here?  To figure that out, you need to have selected your main character, the window of chronology that will contain your tale, and the meaning you find in the details.

Say the main character is the parent, the universal experience might be sacrificing or fighting for one’s child. If the main character is the child, perhaps the universal experience is a sense of isolation or fear. Both of these and more may be swirling around the situation. But to craft a story you need to make some choices and bring what you see into focus.

There is a wonderful example of how this works in John Steinbeck’s 1950 novella, Burning Bright. The story concerns an older man and his young wife who long to have a child. The woman gradually realizes her husband is probably infertile, and decides to become pregnant, in secret, by another man.  In the first chapter, the couple are circus performers. In the second, the story continues but they are a farm couple. In the third and final chapter, as the story continues, the man is captain of a ship. The particulars of the story shift, but the storyline and deeper universal experience unfold without interruption.

Again, in fiction, one can select a set of particulars. In journalism, the particulars are reported. But in both cases the universal experience that connects with readers, that allows readers to quickly empathize and see themselves in the story, is a critical part of effective storytelling.

And the way to let that universal experience reveal itself is to keep the story simple, free of unnecessary detail or too much detail about the particulars. When there is too much detail, the piece becomes more of a report about a specific situation. When you limited the details to only those telling details that move the story along and reveal character, then the pattern of the universal experience reveals itself and readers are engaged.

Here is a recent example from my own newspaper. The Arizona Legislature has decided to close many state parks as part of its budget cutting. After a series of news stories on the decision, we sent a reporter out to cover one of the first closings. Homolovi Ruins State Park is the site of an ancient Hopi settlement. The piece by reporter Casey Newton is, on the surface, an account of  the closing of the park. But deeper it is also the story of people losing jobs they love. Strong reaction to this story, I believe, was based on the effective chemistry between the details and the deeper universal experience of losing a job. As one reader commented about the story online: “There is a lot in this story.”

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


Written by mroberts8

04/02/2010 at 12:28 am

Posted in Newstraining, Stories

2 Responses

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  1. […] Earlier, an ongoing series of posts on storytelling. […]

  2. […] Storytelling 5: Subtext and universal experiences […]

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