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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

Storytelling 3: Pick a main character

Telling description


Written by mroberts8

February 22, 2010 at 4:57 pm

Storytelling 3: Pick a main character

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Good stories usually revolve around a main character. As you begin to frame and report a piece with an eye toward storytelling, settling on a main character is an important early step.

A main character can be a single person, a group of people, or even an organization. In selecting a main character you are simultaneously settling on a point of view and a theme or premise.

Point of view does not mean an opinion, but rather a perspective, a vantage point, a central focus through which the story unfolds. In classic story structure, a main character encounters a complication, grapples with the complication, and then resolves the complication. So the selection of a main character is also the selection of the complication and storyline.

Imagine a movie about a big family wedding. Many possible storylines are contained in that situation. If the main character is the bride, perhaps its a story about balancing family pressures with her fiance. If the main character is the groom, perhaps the story is about last minute fears about commitment. Mother of the bride. Ex-boyfriend. Sister. Even the band. When you select that main character, their complication becomes the center of the story, the foreground, and everything else is of relative value, interest, or attention based on that central focus.

Imagine a story about a controversial pieces of legislation coming up for a vote in your state legislature. You might attempt a setup piece about the bill, its impact, its supporters and detractors. But that story could devolved into a list-like recitation of facts and events. Instead, thinking of a main character, perhaps the story is about the legislator who has pushed the bill through, or the legislator who has led the fight against the bill. Without taking a position on the bill’s value, a good story with either main character instead focuses on the deeper, more universal storylines of how a person tries to prevail, overcome the odds, stand up for values, or whatever that main character’s story might be. Along the way, the factual information about the bill and process is woven into the piece, but is not the story.

And, again, a main character in this example could be a group of people (e.g. a coalition of legislators behind the bill or lined up against it), or an organization (e.g. a political party, an industry group, another state or federal agency). All may be part of the landscape, but to craft a story you need to select one, a main character, as the vehicle for your tale. That may be a matter of interest, access, or news value.  In many cases you may have several choices. The important thing is to select one and then report and frame our story around that main character.

Storytelling 1: Touching Shared Emotions

Storytelling 2: Chronology is your best friend

Storytelling 4: Microcosm, Telling Details, and Meaning

Written by mroberts8

February 4, 2010 at 10:06 pm

Storytelling 2: Chronology is your best friend

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The best starting point for planning and writing a compelling story is a good timeline. The timeline is not necessarily a big part of the finished piece. But planning a good story starts with understanding the time frame, those parts of the story that occurred before the start of the time frame (exposition and context that must be worked in), and if necessary where the tale did or may go at the end of the story.

A timeline helps structure early reporting by focusing on a clear understanding of the chronology of events, the cause-and-effect that occurs, and how the timeline may naturally break down into chapters or sections. As Jon Franklin notes, narrative power comes from “chronology with meaning.” Building and studying a timeline is about discovering the patterns and meaning that comprise the story.

This applies to timelines that run over weeks or months, as well as a timeline that may run just a day or less. And that clear sense of chronology also applies to key moments or scenes, so a timeline could involve something as short as a conversation.

Consider the opening of this story about how a mercury spill unfolded at an Arizona high school:

Maylene Byers’ Physical Science class was reviewing a set of articles. Students worked in groups in a classroom located next to a science laboratory in one of several buildings that make up the Agua Fria High School campus.

Two boys sitting in front weren’t paying attention. One was a junior, the other a freshman. They had noticed a plastic bottle on the open shelf next to their desks. They removed the screw cap, looked inside, and swirled around a metallic liquid they did not recognize.

Curious, they poured some onto the floor to see what would happen. The boys liked how the liquid balled into tight beads. The freshman scooped it up from the floor and put it into an empty Gatorade bottle.

Byers walked over to see what the boys were doing. Looking down, she thought the droplets on the floor were small BBs and swept them into her hand. She dropped the mercury into the trash and told the boys to get back to work.

Byers did not realize the freshman still had both bottles of mercury, which he slipped into his backpack. After class, the boys each took a container and went their separate ways, unaware they were carrying a dangerous substance.

Two types of chronology or narrative are at work here. Summary narrative compresses time and summarizes a series of events. Dramatic narrative slows down for a scene that is in the moment, unfolding in real time. In this passage, the summary gives way to dramatic narrative, then backs out to summary. The accuracy of this account — in both forms of narrative — begins with a clear, accurate chronology.

One thing reporters and editors often underestimate in planning and writing stories like this is the amount of time and detail that goes into building the overarching timeline and the chronology of even short scenes. Think of the painstaking detail in flipbook animation and how once the pages are set and flipped the visual chronology comes to life.

And that coming to life is the goal. Stories built on quotes present readers with digested narrative information, second-hand information. Stories built on clear chonologies allow readers to experience information and reaction emotionally. That’s the chemistry of great storytelling.

Story Telling 1: Touching Shared Emotions

Story Telling 3: Pick a Main Character


Written by mroberts8

January 21, 2010 at 4:45 pm

Indirection in writing, and how to fix it

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Eleanor Gould Packard was for over 50 years a grammarian and proofreader at The New Yorker.

Her passion as an editor was the pursuit of clarity. When she died in 2005, New Yorker Senior Editor Deborah Garrison said, “Eleanor’s understanding of grammar goes deeper than stuff like making sure subjects and objects agree. It’s about the architecture of the sentence and the paragraph. And it’s about the architecture of the thought behind the sentence and the paragraph.”

One of Packard’s pet issues was “indirection,” defined as “the practice of obliquely insinuating new information into a narrative as if the reader already knows it – a technique feature writers often use to jam facts into tight space and achieve a knowing tone.”

Newspaper writing is full of “indirection,” and is one of the primary reasons readers turn away from newspaper stories. An awareness of the damage indirection can do in a story should be part of every writer’s and editor’s set of language skills.

Examples of indirection:

“The 36-unit apartment building burned in just two hours.”

“Acme Real Estate, the Tristate’s third largest commercial real estate firm, will purchase Allied Real Estate.”

“The hard-hitting third baseman, twice voted MVP of the Central Valley League, went hitless in the struggling ninth-place Cardinal’s weekend doubleheader.”

To remove the indirection, each sentence could be broken up so the information is delivered in a simple, logical order, closer to how people speak.

“The apartment building burned in just two hours. It had 36 units.”

“Acme Real Estate will purchase Allied Real Estate. Acme is the Tristate’s third largest commercial real estate firm.”

“The hard-hitting third baseman went hitless in the Cardinal’s weekend doubleheader. The struggling team is now in ninth place.” (The “twice voted MVP of the Central Valley League” is not only indirect but irrelevant in this context.)

Unfortunately, jamming information into tight spaces is what newspaper reporters and editors do. Some do it in an effort to pack more stuff in limited space. Some do it to achieve that knowing tone. In either case, readability suffers and we have given readers one more excuse to stop reading.

Attention to indirection, particularly in the opening paragraphs of a story, can be a very valuable part of the revision and editing process. The immediate benefit is improved clarity. Ideas are clearly stated. Sentence length tightens. Non-essential information is pruned. Comprehension and reader satisfaction can only go up.

And clear writing lays bare the “architecture of the thought.” Another way to say this is that brevity reveals both weakness and strength. If the thought is a good one, it will shine through. If not, then peeling away the husk makes it easier to spot and fix the problem.

Written by mroberts8

January 20, 2010 at 4:02 pm

Storytelling 1: Touching shared emotions

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Red West and Souleymane Sy Savane in Goodbye Solo

Going into 2010, I think one thing that will differentiate news sites in an increasingly competitive environment will be the ability to tell good stories. And good stories, no matter the subject or tone, share the ability to show people something about themselves. Stories that resonate with readers work on a two levels.

The tale: A well-crafted account of something happening to a main character. Most work along the classic three-act narrative line of introducing a main character and complication, the main character’s struggle with the complication, and then a resolution.

The touch: Great stories tap into universal feelings, experiences, or patterns that readers identify with on a deeper, emotional level. The struggle of the main character reflects or becomes the struggle of the reader. Great stories touch something deep inside that is witness to our inner selves.

Catching up with movies this holiday season, I was reminded of this after watching two very different movies back to back. The first was Avatar,  James Cameron’s 3D extravaganza with uses impressive technology and special effects to tell the story of a man trying to bridge the conflicts between humans and the Na’vi of the planet Pandora. The second was Goodbye Solo, the story of a poor Senegalese cab driver in North Carolina who begins to worry one of his regular customers wants to kill himself.

Both movies, on the level of the tale, are about an outsider drawn into close proximity with strangers in an attempt to save lives. On the level of the touch, they do not compare. Avatar channels numerous collisions of culture movies, from Dances With Wolves to Alien Nation, for the familiar mix of mistakes, tension, newbie-flops humor, and predictable acceptance such stories usually provide. Goodbye Solo goes much deeper, past the cultural differences  to visceral sensations of loneliness, hope, joy, and uncertainty that comes with being human.

Stories like Avatar are told on a well-plotted surface, with obvious themes, dull blocks of exposition, and heavy-handed emotional billboards to cinch the deal. Stories like Goodbye Solo are told in strings of moments, glimpses, an accumulation of telling details, the “chronology with meaning” Jon Franklin refers to when talking about great narrative.

Telling those kinds of stories requires skills of observation and the ability to report for story as much as for information. This involves capturing action, dialogue, and telling details, and then the ability to recreate the experience (not just the event) for readers to illicit the same emotional response.

Watch for most posts on how to do that in early 2010 in a series on storytelling skills for print and digital journalists.

Storytelling 2: Chronology is your best friend

Written by mroberts8

December 28, 2009 at 9:29 pm

Sentence length

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scissorsOne of the easiest ways to change and improve your writing is to tighten the average length of your sentences. This is especially true for journalists given to journalese and all its dependent clauses, excessive modifiers, and information packing. Attention to sentence length will force a variety of other decisions about focus, word selection, paragraph structure, and rhythm.

Most sources agree that a 15-20 word limit is a good target. Sentences of that length are easier to read, so readers understand and retain more. Sentences in that range also tend to focus clearly on one thing, and avoid branching or blurring the essential point.

A post on the Readability Monitor blog takes into account words, syllables and even characters when framing an ideal range for a readable sentence:

Sentences have three units of measure: words, syllables and characters. And so we may take the following as the new guideline: “Over the whole document, make the average sentence length 15-20 words, 25-33 syllables and 75-100 characters.”

Give it a try. Not every sentence has to fall exactly in that range. But severely limit the number that exceed 20 words, and vary the rhythm with even shorter sentences. This will work on many other aspects of your writing just as adding weight transforms an otherwise routine workout.

Written by mroberts8

October 30, 2009 at 9:37 pm

Posted in Editing, Writing

Telling description

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A key to adding narrative touches to a story is using telling description. That means description that conveys important information, rather than description just for description’s sake. Think of it as stimulus-response in storytelling. Something happens, something is revealed, and a reader can react emotionally. Telling description avoids processing thoughts or feelings for the reader and instead leaves a space for the reader to react.

As Saul Pett, an AP feature writer once put it: “Don’t tell me the situation was dramatic and expect me to take your word for it. Show me how it was dramatic and I’ll supply the adjective.”

Compare two versions of the same passage from a series called “Christopher’s Cancer”:


The Wilson family relied on optimism and deep faith to face each day’s challenges, but even Chris has occasional doubts and a child’s questions.

“I want to be around to watch Mallory grow up,” he’d tell his dad.

He wanted to play baseball again. Occasionally he wondered aloud why kids get cancer.

“Dad, I’m not going to make it, am I?” he asked his father one day when they were talking about his spreading tumors.

“Well, son, you just never know what God’s plan is,” Barry answered quietly.

Chris thought for a moment and made up his mind.

“I’ll just have to keep planning like I’m going to.”


“Dad, I’m not going to make it, am I?”

Barry Wilson pulled his car out of the Children’s Hospital parking lot. He and Chris were heading for Johnny’s Toys to spend Chris’ gift certificate. Minutes before, doctors had told Chris they were out of options for treating his brain cancer. He had maybe a few months to live.

“Well, son,” Barry answered quietly, “you just never know what God’s plan is.”

Chris thought for a moment.

“I’ll just have to keep planning like I’m going to.”

Which one is more visceral?

By processing the feelings in the draft, and deciding they add up to “...optimism and deep faith…,” the writer is assuming a lot. Left alone to process the second passage, a reader may reach the same conclusion, or more likely put their reaction into their own words. What the second passage does is get out of the way through telling description and dialogue and let the reader feel the story directly.

Jon Franklin once said,  “As far as I’m concerned, ‘narrative’ has nothing to do with length.  It’s chronology with meaning.”

Chronology is expressed through telling description, which delivers the meaning for readers to feel.

William Blundell, in The Art and Craft of Feature Writing, defines good description this way:

…the trained storyteller serves readers by using description only with certain purposes in mind. The highest of these is story progression.

The purpose of description is to create pictures of photographic quality in the reader’s mind, not blurred images that make him squint and wonder what he is looking at. Description must be sharp.

Readers prefer people to places and things, so the storyteller injects humanity into his descriptions whenever he can do so legitimately.



Written by mroberts8

October 30, 2009 at 6:28 pm

Posted in Stories, Writing