Story structure is one of the most difficult aspects of journalistic writing. It’s also the most important. After all, structure is what makes a story, a story. Sometimes when a story’s hard to edit and I can’t figure out why, it eventually dawns on me that it has a bad structure, or no structure at all. The writer may have good information, great sources, proper spelling and grammar, and solid writing, but without a good structure the reader (and the editor) finds the story unsatisfying. It’s like the writer is handing you a box full of puzzle pieces, rather than fitting them together to show you the picture.
I’ve found that the most time-consuming and painful way to write a story is to dive in without a structure in mind. I may ultimately decide it’s not the right structure, but I have to start with some kind of structure. If I just start lifting from my notes, trying to string facts and quotes together in a serial process, there is no engine to drive the story and no digestion of the material to deliver analysis or fresh insight to the reader. As James W. Michaels, former editor of Forbes magazine, once said in critiquing a writer’s story: “This is not reporting, it’s stenography!”
Sometimes the structure is obvious. A story that documents someone’s life or a particular incident, for example, usually uses time as its structure. It starts at the beginning and ends at the end. Even then, however, it can be more interesting to tell the story out of sequence. Maybe starting at the end and interspersing flashbacks would be more compelling, for instance.
But many stories don’t have a beginning or end. I may write about a federal policy or regulatory issue and its impact on the technology industry. Or perhaps I’m covering a hot technology and trying to assess how it will develop, what products are likely and what companies might dominate the emerging market. In a policy story, I can present the arguments for and against. But that’s predictable, boring and delivers little value to the reader. For a technology or market, I can explain the factors behind it, say where it is now and report predictions from various industry luminaries. Ditto.
What helps me find a structure – especially with particularly complex stories with lots of sources – is deciding which story I want to tell. After all, from any given set of facts and interviews, many different stories could be told. So after I’ve finished all my reporting, I let it percolate in the back of my mind while I go do something else. When I’m ready to write, but before I review my notes, I start playing with a story map. I randomly jot down the ideas and facts that I remember most clearly from my research and reporting. Sometimes certain quotes still ring in my ears. Then I try to group the facts and quotes that relate to particular ideas. These are my main building blocks. But they still aren’t connected. However, after distilling the information a picture often starts to emerge. I reach a conclusion – based on who my reader is, the type of publication I’m writing for and my own judgment – about what is the most valuable story to tell.
Once I know what I’m trying to give to the reader, I can figure out the best way to do it. Hopefully the result is a puzzle solved – a deeper understanding of an issue or event – rather than just a jumble of facts and commentary.