Skills for journalists in print and digital media

Storytelling 6: Outline the story, frame a choronology

with one comment

Comes the time to sit down and begin your story. First develop an outline that, in most cases, lays out the chronology of events. Once the timeline you’ve reported is complete, the question is what part of that timeline will be your story.

Consider the simple diagram below as your completed outline timeline. Each vertical hash mark represents an important moment or development in the story.

But that does not mean your piece needs to cover the entire timeline. So the next step is to settle on the point or meaning of the story you want to tell, and then identify which part of the timeline contains the material that will tell that story most effectively.

In the second diagram below, the yellow portion represents that portion of the total timeline that will be used to tell the story. Events that come before the yellow section become “exposition,” or material that may need to be woven into the story to help explain how events developed. Events that fall after the yellow portion are likely irrelevant, or may be briefly mentioned in touches of foreshadowing.

They key is to be clear in your mind about the story you want to tell — in terms of events and meaning — and then be disciplined about focus. Selecting a portion of the total timeline to focus on also allows for greater detail and variations in pace. And in addition to weaving exposition (earlier events) into the story, the occasional use of flashbacks can bring important moments into play in the flow of the partial chronology you’ve selected.

Next you will divide the highlighted chronology into sections. Using classic story structure, consider the three-act model wherein the first block introduces the main character and the conflict or complication, the second block shares how the main character works to resolve the problem, and the third block conveys the resolution.

With that basic story structure in place, go through your notes to determine what material goes where, including dialogue, description, exposition, etc. Jon Franklin, in his book, Writing for Story, recommends using file cards, with one card per scene or key moment. Note on the card what happens, the telling details, and the meaning of this specific event. How does it advance the story? What does it reveal? Lay the cards out in a line, like a storyboard, and try to see and feel the story as that sequence of events conveys. Franklin calls this “chronology with meaning.”

Determine if the meaning is the one you wanted to convey to readers. Are there scenes or moments that blur the meaning, take readers off on an unnecessary digression? Or is there a missing piece, either within the time frame you’ve selected, or an element of exposition needed to shore up a gap? This is how you preview the story you want readers to see and feel.

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

05/07/2010 at 5:45 pm

One Response

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  1. I came across this post, and I totally thought this was a blog about writing novels, fictional stories. Then I find that this blog is about journalism! How interesting. Thank you for the post, although it was not intended for fictional writers, it was actually very helpful. I always knew that journalists were storytellers, I just didn’t realize how close we were in the methods we use to tell a story. Very interesting.


    05/07/2010 at 8:43 pm

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