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Home > Publications > Quill > Building blocks to a good story


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Friday, May 1, 2009
Building blocks to a good story

Tom Hallman, Jr.

The mailman dropped a large box at my home last month, a sign that the journalism contest season was well under way. I ripped off the duct tape and found the box jammed with feature stories from a state across the country.

When asked, I always agree to judge a writing contest. Not only do I get to read some great stories, but it’s a chance for me to get a sense of what’s happening in the industry. What I like about the state journalism contests is that they area unfiltered, open to anyone who pays the entry fee. That means I see work from seasoned pros who have been in the business for 30 years, and from those just a couple of years out of college.

Reading with a purpose — who’s best? — also allows me to see what works and what doesn’t from the perspective of an editor getting a story pitch.

I don’t know the city or part of the state where the paper’s located. I don’t know the writers or their reputations.

I simply pick up a story and start reading.

It’s always good to read other writers with a critical eye. We all have a blind spot when it comes to our own work. By reading to judge, it forces me to look at why a story works or doesn’t.

I often write on instinct, the by-product of 30 years in the business. Slowing down and taking apart a story reminds me that stories are built on craft and technique. And it makes me look at my approach to writing with fresh eyes.

Here are some areas that I found separate a great story from a good one.

1 Distance

Many of the stories kept the reader too far away. These were competent stories, functional in every way. But they could have been better if the writer had brought the reader in close.

It’s one thing to have distance if you have to do a phone interview to get the story, but not if you’ve done real reporting. Let the reader experience that journey with you.

If you look at your notebook and have nothing but quotes, then you have a problem. Quotes are only one part of reporting, and certainly not the most important part of the story. So many reporters come back to the newsroom with the so-called “great quote” and forget about everything else.

Many of the profiles and features, for example, clearly focused on getting a quote, but did nothing for the other senses: sounds, gestures or descriptions of the room. How did the person walk into the room? What’s in their office? What about them is memorable?

By focusing on those other senses, writers give the reader the chance to know the character, and that makes those good quotes even better because they’re placed in context.

2 Stories about things

I’d call this seduced by the concept. The “let’s do something about” kind of stories.

What’s missing in these stories are people; we get authorities. The best stories are always about people. Readers turn to stories for emotion. A story gives a reader the chance to learn from another person’s life. Are your stories built around people, or a spokesman?

3 Direction

What is this story about? I’m not talking about nut graphs here. But a reader wants a sense that the story is headed someplace, that something is about to unfold. Too many stories, while well-written, didn’t signal that they were going to take the reader someplace.

This can be solved by outlining your story. It doesn’t have to be a traditional outline, but you should know why you are writing and what emotion you want your reader to experience.

4 Pacing

Paragraphs can be longer than one or two sentences. Sentence length and the paragraph blocking are two important ways we can slow a story, or speed it up. A long paragraph followed by a short one draws attention to the short one.

5 Theme

The best stories touch the universal. When the theme emerges in a story, it’s possible to write about something so small that it’s not news in any sense of the word. And yet it becomes the most powerful story in that day’s paper.

6 Voice

Not first person, but a sense of a narrator behind the story. There’s nothing like reading a confident writer.

7 Strong middles and powerful endings

We spend so much time working on openings that we neglect the rest of the story. The body of the story is where we keep the reader interested. The ending is the payoff. When you’re writing, make sure you pay attention to the entire story.

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Quill
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