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ASNE Online Ethics Tool

Posted, Aug. 24, 2004
Updated, Apr. 19, 2005

QuickLink: A70403

Writing Tool #20: Narrative Opportunities

By Roy Peter Clark (more by author)
Senior Scholar, Poynter Institute

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Take advantage of narrative opportunities.

Journalists use the word 'story' with romantic promiscuity. They think of themselves as the wandering minstrels of the modern world, the tellers of tales, the spinners of yarns. And then, too often, they write dull reports.

Reports need not be dull, of course, nor stories interesting. But the difference between story and report is crucial to the reader's expectation and the writer's execution. Story elements, call them anecdotes, appear in many news reports. But few pieces in a newspaper earn the title of 'Story.' Most items we call stories are actually reports.

So what are the differences between report and story, and how can the writer use them to strategic advantage?

A wonderful scholar named Louise Rosenblatt argued that readers read for two main reasons: information and experience. Reports convey information. Stories create experience. Reports transfer knowledge. Stories transport the reader, crossing the boundaries of time, space, and imagination. The report points us there. The story puts us there.

A report sounds like this: "The school board will meet Thursday to discuss the new desegregation plan."

A story sounds like this: "Wanda Mitchell shook her fist at the school board chairman, tears streaming down her face."

The toolsets for reports and stories also differ. For example, while both quotes and dialogue are encased in quotations marks, the explanatory quote enlivens the report, while dialogue reveals character and moves the plot of a story.

The famous Five W's and H, expressed in a form called the Inverted Pyramid, have helped journalists organize the news from most important down to least important. Who, What, Where, and When appear as the most common elements of information. The Why and the How are harder to achieve. When used in reports, these pieces of information are frozen in time, fixed so readers can scan and understand.

A great Seattle journalist, Richard Zahler, showed me how to thaw out those Five W's, converting a report into a story, allowing time to flow and characters to grow. In this process of conversion:

  • Who becomes Character.
  • What becomes Action. (What happened.)
  • Where becomes Setting.
  • When becomes Chronology.
  • Why becomes Motivation or Causality.
  • How becomes Process (How it happened.)

One of your most important jobs as a writer is to figure out when you're writing a story as opposed to a report. Stories, argues Jon Franklin, require rising and falling action, complication, points of insight, and resolution. Tom Wolfe demonstrated how to match truthful reporting with fictional techniques, such as setting scenes, finding details of character, capturing dialogue, and altering points of view.


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Narrative, scholars Robert Scholes and Robert Kellogg tell us, requires a story and a storyteller. Consider this opening to a series in The Star-Ledger of Newark, about a troubled school nicknamed "Last Chance High":

Ron Orr slumped in his chair, let out a long, deliberate sigh and again wondered what he was doing here.

He could have had a cushy job in the suburbs, he said, holding his head in his hands.

Instead he chose to be the principal of the Valley School, a claustrophobic madhouse full of renegade teenagers, some of them violent, all of them troubled.

At the moment, one of them was outside his door, cursing him out. Another was threatening to smoke marijuana right there in the hallway.Someone yelled to look outside – one of the students was planning to race by in a stolen car.

"Of all days," Orr said, rubbing his temples.

Orr liked to remind himself that he prayed for this job. On this day –- Graduation Day 2003 -– he added, "The Lord giveth, and now I wish he would taketh it back."

It is the beginning to quite a story, and the storyteller, Robin Fisher, helps readers answer this question: What was it like to be in that school with that principal and those students on that particular day, Graduation Day? Fisher becomes our eyes and ears. The virtual reality she creates moves the reader toward empathy, concern for a good man struggling to help young people under difficult circumstances.

Let's break it down. In this passage:

  • The 'Who' is the Job-revising character of Principal Orr.
  • The 'What' is what will happen on Graduation Day. Will principal and students make it through against the odds?
  • The 'Where' is the campus of the alternative high school, "the claustrophobic madhouse."
  • The 'When' is the beginning of a special day-in-the-life, Graduation Day.
  • The 'Why' and the 'How' are explored in the fuller narrative. Why does this principal persist?How does the place work? How does it survive?

To convert a report into a story, the reporter must become a storyteller.

Bug - Writer's Toolbox

  1. Look at the news with the distinction between reports and stories in mind. Look for narrative opportunities missed. Look for bits of stories wherever you may find them.

  1. Take the same approach to your own work. Look for stories, or at least passages in stories, where you transport the reader directly to the scene. Search for places in your reports where you might have included story elements.

  1. Narrative depends upon the strategic use of time in a story. Rick Zahler uses the example of an old hotel destroyed in a fire. Describe the ways a writer could take advantage of time elements, such as the history of the hotel, the time when the fire was discovered and reported, the time it took for firefighters to arrive and control the blaze. For your next story, use time as a reporting and writing tool.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this article mistook the book of Job for the book of Psalms.

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