The reporter sits there wringing her hands, then sighs as she throws her printout on the desk. “It’s just a mess,” she says, “I just don’t know where I’m going with this.”
This not-so-imaginary scene in a Craft classroom, the newsroom or the writing coach office brings up the critical subject of structure and a very useful definition for any journalist trying to organize a story from start to finish.
“Writing is organized thinking” writes Jack Hart, the former writing coach and managing editor of the Portland Oregonian. In his book, “A Writer’s Coach,” Hart starts his chapter on structure with this definition.
It’s a good place for any of us to begin to discuss structure, an issue that bedevils many a journalist. From the moment you get an assignment, during the reporting and after you’ve filled your notebook, the critical first step is to think about what the nut of your story is. What is the absolute essential thing you want readers to take away from your story? “So what?” “Why should I care?” Or a personal favorite: “Why have I invited you (the reader) to this party?” Whatever question we use, we must answer it to succeed in creating a structure for our story.
If you don’t, you’re likely to be adrift in a sea of multiple possibilities, and your story will run aground. So, first rule, decide what your story is. That decision will help you build a nut graf, the core of what your story is about, the roadmap that will alert readers to what lies ahead, and an organizing tool for your entire story. It will allow you to use your reporting, quotes, scenes and background in service of the story you’ve decided to tell.
Once you’ve made that critical decision, the elements of structure begin to fall into place:
* Ledes – In the words of the legendary non-fiction writer John McPhee, the lede is “a flashlight shining down into the story.” In a few seconds, it’s your best chance to convince the reader to stay with you. It takes lots of practice to learn which ledes work best for your story, but it’s always easier when you’ve decided where you want your story to go.
* Nut Graf – See above. This graf alerts readers to what your story is about and why they should care. It provides context and importance. It also will be your organizing tool throughout the story. List the main elements of your story. Then mention each one in the nut graf, the sine qua non of structure.
* Global/Barnburner quote – This is your absolute best quote that affirms/supports/crystallizes the premise of the story. It immediately follows the nut graf. Not every story will have it, but more often than not, it’s there, particularly if you’ve decided early on what your story is about. You’ll then ask questions that prompt your sources to speak to your main premise. To keep readers engaged, weave in other storytelling quotes throughout.
Paragraphs/Main Elements/Topic Sentences – If you’ve written a strong nut graf, backed it up with a global quote, then your story uses each paragraph to explain and buttress the main elements of your story. Each paragraph should be a coherent whole, with a beginning, middle and end. Don’t jam a string of unrelated facts into the same paragraph. Start with an assertion, or topic sentence, then add 2-3 sentences to back it up, and one more to wrap it up. Pay attention, too, to your sentences. Mix up the length. A short sentence can stop the reader. A long one will allow you to string together important bits of information. Don’t start sentences with attribution; start with the strongest element. End your paragraphs strongly, too. Make it surprising, punchy or, at least, something that moves the reader onto the next graf.
* Connections/Transitions/Hooks/Threads – Call them whatever you like, but a story’s flow will be immeasurably enhanced if each graf reads out of the preceding graf. Compare it to stitching, how the needle and thread pass from one graf to the next, seamlessly leading the reader to the next thought. Nothing loses a reader faster than unconnected paragraphs that don’t relate to one another. The simplest transition can be the repetition of a key word in the preceding graf or “signal” words such as “meanwhile” or “instead” or “then” (Caution: Don’t let these words become a crutch; often there is a nimbler way to stitch together your grafs).
* Endings - There’s not enough attention paid to endings. Some news stories just stop but most, with planning, don’t need to just die off. My favorite device is to bring the reader back to where you started, the lede. Come full circle, and tie it up in a nice bow for the reader. Sometimes, another quote that looks forward or summarizes your story will work. However you do it, remember that a graceful ending is a sure way to satisfy the reader.
Patrick Clark made structure work for his story for Crain’s New York Business on the racino at Aqueduct Racetrack. He knew right away his story would be a contrast between the downmarket flea market and the big-money vision for the racetrack:
It’s easy to spot the winners in the long-awaited deal to put hundreds of video slot machines in a new racino at Aqueduct Racetrack in Queens. New York state gets a $380 million licensing fee and future tax revenue to bank on, while Malaysian gaming company Genting gets to put 4,500 video slot terminals just three miles from John F. Kennedy International Airport. Meanwhile, the local economy gets a big shot in the arm from a project expected to generate 1,300 construction and 800 permanent jobs.
To find the probable losers, look no further than the South Ozone Park racetrack’s sprawling front parking lot. There, 1,000 vendors stage the city’s largest flea market on Tuesdays and weekends from April through December. For those small business operators, mostly immigrants, the flea market is their first toehold on the path to prosperity. With the flea market facing possible closure, the vendors’ prospects are uncertain, and they may find their lives upended.
“When I first wrote the story for craft class, it was 1,000 words and had a slow lede that was supposed to show you the market through the eyes of a vendor,” Patrick explained. “When I re-wrote the story for Crain’s, I knew I had to get to that contrast more quickly—both to make word count and because the original lede wasn’t working. Since it’s a story about a racetrack, winners and losers was easy. The first revision, I wrote it with the losers first, and (CUNY Prof.) Greg David asked me to re-write it the other way. That made good sense, because it let me stay with the losers after I introduced them, instead of jumping from losers to winners and back.”
The result was an effective lede and nut graf, and a structure that worked throughout the story.