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Five Stages of a Story


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Five step process for producing and coaching stories, with four story templates or forms.

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Five Stages of a Story

  1. 1. Five Stages of a Story Most editing books work on the assumption that any editor can change any story in any way, and that reporters can improve their work by reading the changes in the paper the next day, intuiting the concepts behind them and applying them in the next story. Missing from this scenario is one human being talking to another. Coaching involves nothing more than talking with writers in certain ways. • Coaching does not take much time and may save time. • Coaching can take place at different stages of the writing process. • The coach asks good questions and listens. • The coach is not afraid to tell the reporter what he or she thinks. • The coach communicates values. Roy Peter Clark and Don Fry, Coaching Writers Five Stages of a Story Michael Roberts, The Arizona Republic
  2. 2. Focus 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 Strunk and E.B. White, The Elements of Style 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. William Blundell, The Art and Craft of Feature Writing 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. Roy Peter Clark and Don Fry, Coaching Writers 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. Thomas Boswell, Washington Post By the way, when you’re telling these little stories, here’s a good idea: Have a POINT! It makes it so much more interesting for the listener. Neal Page (Steve Martin) to Del Griffith (John Candy), Planes, Trains and Automobiles Five Stages of a Story Michael Roberts, The Arizona Republic
  3. 3. Five Stages of a Story IDEA REPORT ORGANIZE DRAFT REVISE Identify a central Gather enough Determine the point of With plan in Revise for clarity question or information to the story, the central hand, write the and precision, premise. answer the theme, and plan the story. guided by the question or test story around that central focus. the premise. central focus. Notes: Five Stages of a Story Michael Roberts, The Arizona Republic
  4. 4. Developing ideas 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. Organizing stories 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. Five Stages of a Story Michael Roberts, The Arizona Republic
  5. 5. Organizing stories Theme statement I consider the main theme statement the single most important bit of writing I do on any story. It crystallizes for me the main action currents of my piece, at least as I foresee them going in. Later, when the reporting is done, I’ll recast the main theme statement in light of what I’ve actually found, and use it then to guide the writing of the body of the story. Frequently, it’s the basis for my lead. A good main theme statement is brief and contains no details, but boldly and accurately sketches in the main movements occurring in the tale. William Blundell, The Art and Craft of Feature Writing Jot outline A jot outline is a simple list of the main points of story, listed in the order you plan to make them. A jot outline can be used to quickly organize a daily story or begin to develop and plan a longer project. Story Forms Inverted Pyramid: Information in descending order of importance. Advantage: Expected and familiar form; quickly written and easily cut from bottom. Disadvantage: Story becomes less interesting as it goes on; reader stops reading before the end. Block: Overview lead followed by discrete sections devoted to each of the story’s key sub- topics. Advantage: Sections allow information grouping for adequate explanation on each key point. Helps focus readers on key points. Easy to revise by changing order of the blocks. Disadvantage: Reader must read entire story to obtain all the information and fully understand the main point. Wine glass: Top section conveys the entire sweep of the story, often starting at the end. Transition introduces the chronological telling of the story down to a kicker ending. Advantage: Conveys complex and dramatic events by double telling, first with the summary lead and then the chronological replay. Disadvantage: Sometimes longer and harder to cut. Layer Cake: Anecdotal or narrative opening followed by alternating sections of narrative and exposition. Advantage: Narrative provides natural structure and color, and sets up background sections. Disadvantage: Narrative can wear thin. Readers pick up on the alternating rhythm and skip to the sections they prefer. Five Stages of a Story Michael Roberts, The Arizona Republic
  6. 6. Story Forms Four story forms to consider when organizing a story. Story forms can help reporters and editors organize stories by providing a basic outline. Inverted Pyramid Block Overview / Central point Most important information Next most important Sub-point 1 Less important Sub-point 2 Less important Least important Sub-point 3 Summary Layer Cake Wine Glass Opening scene Summary of entire story Background info Begins at the end Segues to start Scene Background info Start Scene Next Next Background info Next Next Scene Next Background info Next Closing scene Ending / Kicker Five Stages of a Story Michael Roberts, The Arizona Republic
  7. 7. Types of stories (Topic) 101: An introduction or primer on presented in short quote form. The quotes a topic, event, activity or person. can be strung along a Q&A-style format, Advice: Expert views on a topic, event, or presented in grids, lists or other easy to activity. Can include how-to formats, Q&A, read formats. simple copy blocks. Pro / Con: Similar to Do’s and Don’ts, Chronology: Information or story information presented with the compare organized by a time sequence. and contrast of the positive versus the negative qualities of a decision, item, Do’s & Don’ts: Information presented in topic, place, activity etc. the contrasting form of opposing lists on what a reader should do and should not Profile: Formatted. Short text. Long text. do regarding a topic, activity or event. The test for each is the focus. Profiles should not be resumes or bios, but Glossary: Lists and definitions of key capture the news or defining terms on a topic, event, activity or person. characteristic(s) of the subject. Grids: Information presented in grid or Q&A: An edited interview presented in table formats, often to compare and question and response format. contrast. Quiz: Information presented in a test or Guides: Information, much like a 101, that quiz format designed to challenge, inform leads a reader through a place, topic, or validate a reader’s understanding of a event or activity. Can include annotated topic, event, activity or person. maps, grids, lists, etc. (Person) On: Short quotes from a person He Said, She Said: A Q&A or other short on a specific topic or series of topics. Like quote format that comprises two or more a Q&A but usually with just a topic instead people talking about the same topic. of a question for each response. How-to: Similar to a 101 and Guide, but Tips: Lists of tips designed to help a with the emphasis on specific directions to reader with an activity, event, task or complete a task or activity. place. Lists: Lists of items arranged or Worksheets: Formatted templates or categorized in meaningful ways. Can forms designed to lead readers through include Out / In, checklists, numerical information, tasks, activities or processes. rankings, best of / worst of, Top 10, significant background facts, and many X Ways, X Things, X Reasons: A more. variation on lists, distinguished by the number of items, a number that can be Panel / Roundtable: Comments or arbitrary or meaningful. discussion from a group of people Five Stages of a Story Michael Roberts, The Arizona Republic
  8. 8. The Story Game You will be given three numbers at random, one for each of the three lists below. Develop a story idea from the combination of type, subject and audience. Types of Articles Story combinations 1. How to ____ ____ ____ 2. Profile 3. How something works / guide / “101” ____ ____ ____ 4. Trend 5. Roundup ____ ____ ____ 6. History / chronology 7. Consumer ____ ____ ____ 8. Q&A 9. Scene / vignettes ____ ____ ____ 10. Investigative / action line ____ ____ ____ Subjects 1. Education 2. Public Safety 3. Health 4. Business 5. Work 6. Community life 7. Money 8. Environment 9. Relationships / families 10. Government Audiences 1. Working mothers 2. Single women 3. Parents 4. Teens 5. Single professionals 6. Senior citizens 7. Newcomers 8. Single men 9. Business owners 10. Homeowners Five Stages of a Story Michael Roberts, The Arizona Republic
  9. 9. Resources Coaching Writers, Roy Peter Clark and Don Fry: A model for how reporters and editors should work together in framing, reporting, writing and revising stories. Excellent points on shaping stories, along with the good advice on coaching writers. Includes exercises. Writing to Deadline: The Journalist at Work, Donald Murray: New edition (published 2000) of Murray’s outstanding book, Writing for Your Readers. Murray was a Pulitzer Prize winning columnist at the Boston Globe, and continues to teach and serve as one of the country’s best newsroom writing coaches. This 218-page book covers all aspects of writing good stories, with many, many great tips and techniques. Magic and Craft of Media Writing, Carl Sessions Stepp: New book by a University of Maryland journalism professor who contributes as editor and writer to American Journalism Review. Practical, concrete advice for writing and editing, including “25 Trade Secrets for Clearer Writing.” The Art and Craft of Feature Writing, William Blundell: Former Wall Street Journal editor and writing coach on the WSJ’s system for developing news features, and many other fine points on the art of developing, writing and editing stories. When Words Collide: A Media Writers Guide to Grammar and Style, Lauren Kessler: Duncan McDonald: Highly readable book on grammar and usage, aimed at journalists. Skills for New Managers, Morey Stettner, part of McGraw-Hill’s “Briefcase Books” business series: A good basic primer for new managers. Fast-paced and practical, but just a starting point, not a replacement for management training. First, Break All The Rules, Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman: Results of a study of years of Gallup research on what excellent managers really do, and how others can find direction in their own work. First Things First, Stephen R. Covey: The Covey book that examines the difference between work activities that are urgent versus important, and lays out a system for managing both. -- Michael Roberts Five Stages of a Story Michael Roberts, The Arizona Republic