Skills for journalists in print and digital media

Archive for the ‘Five Stages of a Story’ Category

Crafting a narrative account of the Deepwater Horizon explosion

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Nieman Storyboard continues its highlight list of “Notable Narratives” with the New York Times account of the April 20, 2010 explosion that destroyed the Deepwater Horizon oil rig and set off the catastrophic oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. As part of the “Notable Narrative” treatment, reporter David Barstow, who wrote the story, explains how the story took shape, the internal mechanics of working with other reporters on narrative, and the story’s structure.

One excerpt from Barstow’s excellent discussion:

“Handling the complexity of the technology, along with the number of different characters on this rig that in and of itself is a foreign place for most readers, this was the narrative challenge. How do you structure the piece so that you create a sense of pace and narrative and keep people going through this experience and put them as much as possible in the shoes of some of the people on this rig during this couple-hour period of time? The way I tried to deal with that was keeping the focus relentlessly on the one day and on this one 9-minute period of time. That was the frame that helped anchor the piece.”


Written by mroberts8

03/21/2011 at 5:00 pm

Storytelling 6: Outline the story, frame a choronology

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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

Grann on great storytelling

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In a recent interview for Nieman Storyboard, New Yorker writer David Grann makes excellent points about the early stages of a story, structure, and the revision stage, all in pursuit of a compelling storyline.

On the finding the focus:

For me, the most important part of the process is finding the story idea. If I can find the right idea, I can get out of the way and do a good story. There are many journalists I admire who can make magic or gold out of almost any material, but I have less confidence.

In all these stories, I’m looking for multiple elements. On one level, there is a story that is compelling, there are characters that are interesting, but also there are some intellectual stakes—and perhaps the story in there that has the highest stakes is the story about Cameron Todd Willingham, who was executed in Texas and may have been innocent.

On structure:

I spend a lot of time on it. I was a very bad newspaper writer. I never could do inverted pyramids and get the important information up top. I tend to think in stories naturally, as if I were sitting down to tell someone the story. I do think a lot about structure and to try to find a compelling way to tell a story. I spend a lot of time doing very elaborate outlines and think a good deal about structure and when information should be revealed.

On paring back when there is too much material:

Even when you’re doing magazine stories that are very long by the standards of magazine writing, you have to be somewhat ruthless with digressions. Because I do a lot of research, and I’m very obsessive about my research, especially when there are elements of history, one of the things I like to do is to deepen them through texture and history. If I’m doing a story on the water tunnels, you’ll learn the whole history of how these tunnels were built and the history of the sandhogs digging them.

The trick is to insert the amounts of this material that will help and deepen and enrich a story without bogging it down. I almost invariably write too much on the history but put it all in there and then go back and ruthlessly say, “What’s essential? How can I tighten it so that it doesn’t overwhelm the story?”

Even though Grann is talking about longer magazine pieces, the same tactics apply to most any piece of newspaper enterprise writing, good storytelling at any length, and fall into the tasks and skills embodied in the Five Stages of a Story model.

Written by mroberts8

04/14/2010 at 5:26 pm

Accountability: Choices in watchdog coverage

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Holding those in power accountable is the heart of public service journalism. But sometimes reporters and editors think too narrowly about the possibilities.

Accountability does not just mean illegal. Accountability journalism is a matter of (a) citing a standard and then (b) showing how the subject  has fallen short or violated the terms. So think of “accountability” along a range of standards when covering a beat.

Consider this range of standards:

  • Illegal
  • Violation of policies, standards
  • Inefficient (i.e. costs, manpower)
  • Misleading; not as promised
  • Deceptive; fraudulent
  • Dangerous
  • Potentially harmful

Now consider the possibilities and examples here off a City Hall beat.

Illegal: The subject has violated the law. Pure and simple. (e.g. Department head embezzles money.)

Violation of policies, standards: Sometimes this takes digging deeper into city policies that may not be well known. Or if the city policy is vague, digging into similar policies in other cities, or national standards put forth by professional associations or other credible experts. (e.g. City building inspectors fail to follow up on condemned building notices as outlined in city policies. City employees expense personal travel expenses on official trips. City’s review policy for municipal judges far more lax than other cities, and below what the state Supreme Court recommends.)

Inefficient: This usually comes about by doing the math and making smart comparisons. Sometimes there are related standards. Other times the comparisons might run over periods of time or be struck between similar-size cities. (e.g. City finance department’s old computer system makes fast and immediate budget projections impossible. City spends twice what other similar-size cities spend for road repairs.)

Misleading, not as promised: Here the comparison is between what the subject said or promised and what actually happened. Sometimes inefficient and misleading combine. Often this is just recalling what was said in the past and comparing to the results in the present. (e.g. Mayor promised to install open bidding process on city projects — but a year later has not.)

Deceptive, fraudulent: This occurs when bad things are happening (e.g. inefficient) and the subject is willfully lying or covering up the failure. (e.g. City managers cover up overtime expenses to meet budget restrictions.)

Dangerous: When practices — even accepted practices — pose an immediate danger on any level. This can involve public health, money, staffing, etc. The task here is to articulate and prove the danger. (e.g. City water department has not updated its water testing procedures in 20 years, leaving public vulnerable to various pollutants.)

Potentially harmful: A variation on dangerous, but without the immediate threat. These stories look further into the future and may track a worrisome trend, project the math, or in some way identify a problem that has not yet occurred but soon may. (e.g. Rules on lobbyists are far more lax than in other cities, which could lead to undue influence by outside interests in coming budget negotiations.)

Again, the task for each level is to articulate a standard and then prove how it is missed or violated. In many cases, that means going outside the subject of the story for sources with expertise, perspective, proven standards, or other metrics that set up the case to be made.

The denouement comes when after working out the standard, the reporter confronts the subject with clear evidence of how it has been missed or violated. But often the bulk of the story is more explanatory, laying out the standards and the proof of how the subject has fallen short. The best avoid much he said / she said exchanges and instead focus on making a strong case.

This is the essence of good watchdog coverage of government, schools, health care, and other important public institutions, private companies, and powerful individuals. It is also time-consuming work that requires digging, critical thinking, and beat knowledge, things readers rely on us to provide.

Written by mroberts8

02/17/2010 at 12:07 am

Five Stages of a Story: Part 3

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There are techniques reporters and editors can apply to the tasks of the Idea and Organize stage. Most are critical thinking approaches to help focus the idea. Consider:

IDEA stage

Story mapping: Map the story idea as a web. Lay out all aspects of the idea. Select the most important part of the “map” as the focus of the story and the reporting to come.

Central question: Identify the central question at the heart of your story idea. Then set out to answer that question.

Premise: Frame your idea as premise (rather than a fact) and set out to prove or disprove the premise. Remain open-minded as the reporting progresses.

Point of view: Write your topic or question in the middle of a circle. Around the circle list all the people with a connection to the story. Decide which person’s point of view might be the best way to report and tell the story.

Reader questions: Ask five questions a reader would ask about the topic. Set out to answer those five questions.

Five whys: Ask “why” five times. Each “why” should take you deeper into the topic and closer to the central question or central premise.


Story mapping: Re-map the story with all the information accumulated through reporting. If using a specific point of view, re-map the story with the selected point of view at the center.

Theme statement: In a sentence or two, express the central point of your story, the heart of your story. This can be the answer to your central question or a restatement of the central premise. Use the theme statement to help determine what material stays in the story, what is left out.

Jot outline: List key points in the order they will appear in the story. Consider story focus, length and packaging.

Story forms: Select a story form that will help shape the story. Consider inverted pyramid, block, wine glass or layer cake forms. (See related post on Story Forms.)

Five Stages of a Story: Part 1

Five Stages of a Story: Part 2

Written by mroberts8

10/17/2009 at 12:10 am

Five Stages of a Story: Part 2

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The five stages of a story are: Idea. Report. Organize. Draft. Revise.

Each stage has a specific task that much be completed before moving on to the next stage. Skipping or not completing a task means it carries over into the next stage. Reporters and editors who find themselves trying to complete two, three or more tasks in one stage doom their work to failure.

Here are the tasks for each stage:

Five Stages of a Story

Idea: Many stories get off to a bad start when the initial idea is too vague. Even when not much is known about the subject, move beyond a simple topic (i.e. crime; poverty; water conservation) and try to frame a central question that seems to be at the heart of the story.

Report: With that question in hand, report until the question is answered.

Organize: Consider all the information. Reconsider what seems to be the central point of the story. Use that central point (well-shaped idea; one thing) to organize and structure the story, package or other content.

Draft: Produce a first draft to the plan.  Adjust as needed, but if all the conversations in the preceding stages were effective, this should be a time to focus on the elements of writing.

Revise: Revise and polish to the plan.

Five Stages of a Story: Part 1

Five Stages of a Story: Part 3

Written by mroberts8

10/16/2009 at 11:39 pm

Five Stages of a Story: Part 1

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The five stages of a story is a process through which reporters and editors can work together on a story — or any other content. At the heart of the process is a continual emphasis on focus. Here are several quotes to help define what focus means in this process.

William Strunk, E.B. White, The Elements of Style:  Choose a suitable design and hold to it. A basic structural design underlies every kind of writing. Writing, to be effective, must follow closely the thoughts of the writer, but not necessarily in the order in which those thoughts occur. This calls for a scheme or procedure…planning must be a deliberate prelude to writing. The first principle of composition, therefore, is to foresee or determine the shape of what is to come and pursue that shape.

William Blundell, The Art and Craft of Feature Writing: Artful and impeccable use of the language is less important in storytelling than you think. A well-shaped idea, convincing illustration and interpretation of it, and sound story structure count for more. Lacking these, the writer who follows all the instructions on fine-tuning his prose in all the book’s extant will produce a well-written failure.

Roy Peter Clark, Don Fry, Coaching Writers: Perhaps the central step in the writing process, focus gives a story unity and coherence. Most stories should be about one thing. The writer should understand and capture the heart of the story and offer it to the reader. Focus determines what to toss out as well as what to include. Many problems, especially disorganization, result when stories lack focus. Writers and editors search for focus by using a variety of tools; writing the lead, coming up with a headline, making a list of the most important points in the story, and developing a theme or point statement.

Thomas Boswell, Washington Post: The most important thing in the story is finding the central idea. It’s the one thing to be given a topic, but you have to find the idea or the concept within that topic. Once you have that idea or thread, all the other anecdotes, illustrations and quotes are pearls that hang on this thread. The thread may seem very humble, the pearls may seem very flashy, but it’s still the thread that makes the necklace.

When a story idea is focused, one is able to see the “basic structural design” and “determine the shape of what is to come and pursue that shape” — which means focus leads to structure. The focus is “a well-shaped idea” that leads to a successful story. And that is why “most stories should be about one thing,” with the well-shaped idea as that one thing. Not necessary a simple, one-note idea. But an idea that is clear about the story’s meaning. And that idea or one thing becomes the thread upon which reporters and editors can build a structure, string information, quotes, anecdotes and all the other building blocks of a story in a logical sequence and in the right proportions. That is focus.

Five Stages of a Story: Part 2

Five Stages of a Story: Part 3

Written by mroberts8

10/16/2009 at 11:17 pm