Although news stories are sometimes demeaned as being formulaic, that doesn’t have to be the case. Journalists are sometimes allowed to exercise a considerable amount of creativity in their writing. In fact, this is increasingly becoming the case as journalistic outlets find themselves in an ever more competitive information environment and fighting for audiences’ attention. Put another way, strict, traditional forms of journalistic writing are becoming more flexible, and in some instances have given way to more inventive and engaging forms.
One way in which journalists can express that creative license is in developing a story structure, or the structural framework that underlies the order and manner in which information and/or a narrative is presented to audiences. Before doing so, however, it is helpful for the journalist to first take stock of the pieces (i.e., information and anecdotes) they have. Then, they can proceed to seeing how those pieces fit together best.
Below is some advice for how you can organize your pieces and select an appropriate story structure for them.
Before you start writing a news story, take some time to revisit all of your interview notes in order to refresh your memory. If you notice any gaps in your notes, fill them in as best you can. If those gaps are especially important, conduct supplemental interviews with individuals who can address the gaps.
Second, try to categorize the information in your notes. Start by filling in the 5 W’s (Who, What, When, Where, and Why) and H (How) of the story. However, you can also start to categorize the information into themes that could potentially stand as distinct subsections of a story. For example, in the case of a story about police shootings, the themes might include: “Police Training”, “Community Anger,” “Police Feeling Unsupported,” and “Legislative Responses Being Considered.”
Third, start to match your quotes with your factual information. In an ideal scenario, every major fact in the story should have a corroborating or exemplifying quote — though this is seldom the case in practice. Quotes are sometimes the most powerful parts of a story, and most news stories include a quote after every few grafs (paragraphs).
Fourth, prioritize the information. Which facts are most newsworthy? Which quotes are most interesting? Use a system to denote which categories of information, and what information within each category, are most important. It can be helpful to color-code the information in order to make it easier to drop information into a story and to have a better sense of what can be cut later on.
Finally, write a quick statement that you feel best encapsulates the story. You can imagine this exercise as how you would tell the story to a friend during a short elevator ride. This can serve as the basis for either your lead or nut graf.
Once you are ready to start writing, you’ll want to select a story structure that helps you tell your story in a compelling and informative way. This will make the actual writing process much easier and help you produce a story that flows well (and is thus more enjoyable to consume).
The most common story structure in U.S. journalism is the “inverted pyramid.” However, it is not always the best choice, and it is generally best reserved for breaking news stories and short- to regular-length “straight news” stories. Feature stories, investigative stories, and most long-form pieces of journalism are more likely to use alternative structures that allow the journalist to intersperse anecdotes, facts, and quantitative information in more interesting ways.
Common journalistic story structures include the inverted pyramid, the martini glass, the kebab, the accordion, and the pyramid.
The inverted pyramid is characterized by having the most important, substantial, and interesting information at the beginning of the story. Then, with each successive paragraph, the information becomes less important or relevant. The final few paragraphs of the story will typically include background information or other general context.
For example, an inverted pyramid story might begin with the following lead: Members of an Amherst church (who) wrote a letter to the Select Board Monday (when) arguing that a marijuana dispensary (what) under construction on Belchertown Road (where) will compromise safety in the neighborhood and represents an attack on their religious values (why). The next couple of paragraphs might detail the objection, and the paragraphs after that might describe the dispensary’s position and perhaps any crime mitigation efforts they plan to support. Then, the tail end of the story might cover when the business license was issued and provide some context about the number of dispensaries in the region.
The key advantage of this structure is that it condenses information efficiently and allows the audience to get the key points of a story even if they stop reading after the first few paragraphs. However, this structure can get rather repetitive and dull, and that may result in the story failing to stand out among its competitors.
A related structure is the “martini glass.” Like the inverted pyramid, the martini glass will begin with the most important, substantial, and interesting information at the top — often through the use of a summary lead.
However, once the lead and nut graf have been presented, the story will transition to a chronological format, with the most recent information being followed by continually less recent information. As with the inverted pyramid, the story would then end with some general or contextual information, or a good “kicker” (a quote or anecdote that effectively encapsulates the story or wraps it up in an aesthetically or emotionally pleasing way).
This structure works best for a sequential news event, such as a crime or disaster story where the journalist needs to explain what happened from beginning to end. However, the temporal approach can be limiting, especially if the issue is multifaceted.
Feature stories will often use a more creative structure like the “kebab” (or the “circle”). This structure typically begins with an anecdote about someone who is affected by a trend, issue, or event. Then, it quickly transitions to the nut graf, which describes either the five W’s and H or summarizes the broader phenomenon.
Following the nut graf, the structure continues by adding detailed analyses of different aspects of the trend, issue, or event. These are the ‘meat’ parts of the kebab, with each aspect representing a different piece of meat, and the journalist moving quickly from one piece to the next. The kebab ends with a closing anecdote, often about the same person featured in the lead, effectively bringing the story “full circle.”
This structure works best when the journalist has access to an illustrative anecdote that aptly encapsulates the big takeaway from a story.
A remix of the kebab is the “accordion” structure. Like the kebab, the structure begins with a strong anecdote or quote that represents the main topic of a story and quickly transitions to a nut graf.
However, unlike the kebab, this structure follows a ‘zooming in’ and ‘zooming out’ pattern that uses a compelling central figure (or small cast) to illustrate multiple aspects of a story throughout the story. In the ‘zooming in’ phases, the journalist uses different anecdotes from the central figure (e.g., aspects of their experience with the issue) to illustrate and personalize an aspect of the story. In the ‘zooming out’ phases, the journalist contextualizes the experience by focusing on the ‘big picture,’ or how representative the anecdote is, often by incorporating side characters (e.g., subject experts). This structure will typically end in similar fashion to the kebab, with a closing anecdote from the central character.
This structure is especially useful when the journalist has a compelling central character that can effectively encapsulate the issue through their lived experience. It can also work when the journalist has a cadre of characters who collectively encapsulate the issue through their lived experiences, as the journalist can insert a different character during each ‘zooming in’ phase.
The accordion structure is also particularly useful for data-driven stories, as it makes it easy for the journalist to oscillate between data analysis and anecdote, thereby keeping the reader well-informed and engaged.
A less common storytelling structure in journalism is the “pyramid.” It is, as you may have guessed, roughly the opposite of the inverted pyramid structure.
This structure, which is more often used in long-form feature writing or journalistic non-fiction books, builds up to the most interesting information. It is more akin to storytelling in a novel, where information of increasing importance is revealed as the narrative develops in order to build up tension and conflict. It is only near the end that the reader is exposed to the full depth and breadth of the story, which serves as a form of (or immediate antecedent to) resolution.
No one story structure is inherently better than another. However, structures like the inverted pyramid are better suited for shorter or breaking news stories. By contrast, structures like the accordion are better suited to longer stories with compelling characters.
When selecting your story structure, try to be mindful of the purpose of your story (e.g., to quickly inform or to entertain), the amount of space you have to work with (e.g., a shorter story is usually better suited to a simple structure), the range of themes you have (e.g., a story with many themes may require a kebab-like structure), and the quality and appeal of the evidence and experiences you have uncovered through your reporting (e.g., several captivating anecdotes may benefit from a more creative structure). Moreover, you’ll generally want to be aware of your target outlet’s writing style in order to produce content that is aligned with those audiences’ expectations.