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Features and other story forms


Going beyond the news summary lead

Features and other story forms1

  • The Inverted Pyramid is just one tool in your writing tool bag. It’s like those old, comfortable shoes you love. The IP is a wonderful approach for saving space and time, but it’s not always the best way to tell stories.

  • In IP, we give away the climax right off the bat. There’s little or no suspense. Sometimes it’s better to go a different direction – especially on those profiles that are due in a few weeks.

Features and other story forms2

One key characteristic of the inverted pyramid structure is

the placement of events in a chronological sequence; note

that in the tear gas story and the wife abuse story that the

“what happened” portions of the story were delivered in a

chronological fashion.

Now, the story forms we are going to talk about today are not

necessarily devoid of chronological structure, but they often

dress it up in fancier clothes. They often make use of

foreshadowingand flashback, devices that are not found in the

inverted pyramid style.

When we step away from our chronological sequencing, we

have to be careful with transition between paragraphs. Give the

reader an easy road map.

The blind lede rules of the news summary style soften.

Transition tools

Since most news story paragraphs are only a sentence or two, a

story will often contain a series, or even multiple series, of related


News writers need to develop a good use of transition so that the

text flows smoothly from one idea to the next. When using direct

and indirect quotes, for instance, make sure it’s clear who is


There are a number of words and phrases that can be used as

transitional tools. We talked about these words earlier this

semester, but here’s a quick refresher:

Transition tools1

Some hints:

  • Transitions that link: also, in addition, additionally, moreover, furthermore

  • Transitions that compare: in the same way, likewise, similarly, as well as

  • Transitions that contrast: although, but, however, nevertheless, on the other hand, on the contrary

  • Transitions that create emphasis: clearly, indeed, surely, truly, certainly

  • Transitions that show cause and effect: as a result, consequently, therefore

  • Transitions that show a relationship in time: afterward, later, then, while, next, previously, during, since, before

  • Transitions that sum up: finally, in conclusion, in short, thus, to sum up

Exposition vs narration1

  • You can divide news writing into two primary styles: exposition and narration. Exposition is what we have been working with so far; it is the ordering of facts and information in some logical form.

  • But when we use devices like scenepainting, mini-stories called anecdotes, dialogue or add a dash of foreshadowing, that structure is called narration. Many stories are a blend of those two styles; they move from exposition to narration several times.

    The Associated Press now offers many stories with optional leads to the original inverted pyramid story first put on the wires. These optional, delayed lead approaches make those stories more compelling. However, for clients with tight news holes, the IP version that is often easier to trim may be the better alternative.

Exposition vs narration2


A man sits at a weathered table with only his friend Jack Daniels to fight away the loneliness. One last cigarette withers away in an ashtray. He picks up the .38 and puts a fat round in every chamber of the cylinder. His fingers caress the cold steel. After one final swallow of Jack, he puts the barrel in his mouth. (Scene painting and foreshadowing)

Then the writer might go into a chronological tale of how the man got to this point in his life (flashback). At the end of the story, the writer reveals what happened next (flash forward or tieback).

Exposition vs narration3

  • In exposition, the writer is standing between the reader and the information; the writer acts as a conduit and filter.

  • In narration, the storyteller moves aside a bit and allows the reader to watch the action unfold.

Narrative devices1

These can be in the lede or sprinkled about the story. You don’t have to use just one. You can move your story along by these devices:

  • Re-creating vivid scenes

  • Letting the characters speak to each other through dialogue

  • Foreshadowing important events

  • Relating memorable anecdotes

    Let’s look a little closer at these narrative devices:

Vivid scenes

  • Try to make the reader see, feel, taste, or hear the subject you are writing about.

  • One of the best ways to do that is to select an important scene -- a moment of conflict, a moment of decision, a climactic turning point -- and then re-create it.

Scene painting

Here’s a basic scene. (One setting, no characters, a single elemental change)

In the heart of the command center, a single wire, stiff and brittle from ten thousand cycles of heating and cooling, snapped away from its circuit board. The break set off an alarm -- a tiny pulse of electricity that raced through the wires to a monitored board at a control panel half a mile away. The pulse reached its destination, a tiny light that should have come to brilliant red life. But the light -- never used, infrequently tested -- failed to switch on. Those two tiny failures -- broken circuit; burned-out bulb -- would have unimaginable consequences.

From “Scene-Creation Workshop -- Writing Scenes that Move Your Story Forward” by Holly Lisle, available at www.hollylisle.com/fm/Workshops/scene-workshop.html

Scene painting1

  • The most important facet of scene-painting is that you have to be there, or get enough information to make it seem you were there.

  • This establishes accuracy and credibility.



Narrative Devices


  • Dialogue can be a key element in re-creating a scene.

  • This device allows the writer to recede into the background and let the characters take center stage.

  • When you just use quotations, you -- the writer -- are telling the reader what the source said.

  • When you use dialogue, the writer disappears and the reader listens directly to what the characters are saying.

Dialogue example

Remember the police union strike threat from the Alvin story? Maybe it went down like this. Note how the quotes and scene-painting work together to capture the tension:

John Smith, head of the Alvin Police Patrolmen’s Union, stood to confront the council, his fingers turning white as he gripped the lectern and unsheathed his anger over the rejection of the pay raise. “You are turning your backs on a lot of folks that have families to support. If you do this,” he said, taking aim with his finger at each member of the council, “If you do this, I will urge our membership to strike. And I think the other city workers will come with us.”

Mayor J.D. “Squatty” Billingham lifted his eyeglasses to rest upon his thinning hair and met the challenge with a measured tone. “Mr. Smith. You are free to do as you wish. As for us, we will vote in the best interests of the city.”


  • When you do not witness the conversation, you have to ask enough questions to capture the dialogue:

    • What did you say to him?

    • What was his response?

    • Then what did you say?

    • What was his expression when you told him that?

    • Did he do anything?

    • Where did the conversation take place?”

  • Note that dialogue can be a great device for capturing conflict.



Narrative Devices


  • Facts inform; anecdotes inform and entertain.

  • Anecdotes are stories within stories. They can be happy, sad, funny or serious.

  • Whatever their tone, they should illustrate a point.

  • It’s the specific case study that represents the general situation.

  • A good anecdotal lede takes a specific example of the issue at hand and makes you care about, or feel familiar with, that person or subject.  Then you find out what the larger issue is.

  • Beware of the anecdote that falls short of capturing the issue (the Zapruder film lede – “Oh, I don’t know” -- example from earlier in the semester.


  • You have to dig for anecdotes. It’s not like you can ask your source, “You got any good anecdotes?” You can ask “Did anything out of the ordinary happen during your trip to India?”

  • Or asking friends and relatives of the subject. “Do you have any good stories about Joe when he was growing up? What was he like in college? Can you give me an example of what you’re talking about? What‘s the weirdest or funniest thing that happened to you while you were on tour? Who was the best pitcher you ever hit against?” (Notice the open-endedquestions).

Anecdotal lede example
Anecdotal lede: example

John Herrndobbler began his patrol of West Beach as he

always did, checking his equipment and putting on his steel

pot. He cleaned the lenses on his binoculars and stared out

into the moonlit waves of the Gulf of Mexico. Occasionally,

fish fleeing the chase broke the water and went briefly

airborne. But Herrndobbler’s focus was on a different sort

of predator – German submarines. And, this night, Aug. 5,

1943, Herrndobbler – the lone guardian of Galveston

Beach – spotted a periscope.

Anecdote scene paint combo surprise
Anecdote / scene-paint combo + surprise

MINARI VILLAGE, IRAQ — Staff Sgt. Iron quakes with fear at the sound of

explosions. He brawls with other soldiers. He whines when he doesn't get his

way and slows others down when he stops to relieve himself during patrols

through hostile territory.

But nobody complains, because when it's time to enter a building that might be

rigged to explode, or cross a pasture that could conceal a minefield, Iron is at

the front of the line, making sure it's safe for those who follow.

If it's not, Iron will bear the brunt of the blast, along with his best friend, Sgt.

Joshua T. Rose, who ranks one level below him. It's an honor Iron enjoys for

the dangerous job he does. It also ensures that charges could be filed against

Rose in the unlikely event he ever mistreated Iron — an 80-pound German


(nut graf; note how story goes from specific example to the general “theme”)

Rose and Iron are one of about 200 canine teams deployed in Iraq, where the

bond between soldiers and their dogs is so deep that some handlers have

asked to be buried with their canine partners if they are killed together.



Narrative Devices


  • Foreshadowing is a billboard; it’s the technique of advertising what’s up ahead.

  • In a sense, every lede you write foreshadows the story. But the ledes that not only tell but give promise of more good stuff to come are among the most successful.

  • Foreshadowing can be a key part of scene-painting, dialogue or anecdotes -- note that the scene-painting example about the loose wire and faulty bulb strongly hints that something bad is about to happen.

Foreshadowing example

It began as a lark, a dare actually. It was a friendly challenge, fueled by perhaps by one too many strawberry margaritas. Julie Jones had just gotten a camera phone that morning and was showing it off to her friends. Then the gauntlet was dropped. “Hey Julie, I dare you to take off your clothes,” said a leering friend, pointing the phone toward her. Jones laughed, but the dare didn’t go away that easily. Soon, her modesty and her clothes were on the floor.

It was supposed to have been a joke between friends. But what happened next left no one smiling.

Beyond the inverted pyramid1

  • Journalists shouldn’t be afraid to experiment with different story forms.

  • Remember the story about the California highway flasher? (He flashed. She snapped. Police developed the case from there.) The writer used some language with double meaning to create some wordplay to act as bait before venturing forth into the news and giving the chronology of events, etc. It’s pure IP after the first sentence.

    Let’s leave the inverted pyramid for a moment and look at some other story form geometry to see how narratives can be combined with the inverted pyramid style.

The hourglass


(Often more like a bowling pin)

The hourglass1

  • Essentially, the hourglass consists of two larger sections of information connected by a small paragraph that acts as the turn.

    • The top sectiondelivers a summarized version of the news, perhaps in anecdotal form. This section ends as the actual nut graph begins, or is set up.

    • The turn -- perhaps something like “This was not first time he’d had troubles with the law” -- that acts as a transition tool.

    • The bottom sectiontells the rest of the story, elaborating on the material in the top section. It will contain the bulk of the story and is likely to be primarily chronological, but could contain some elements of the narrative style.

The hourglass2

  • The hourglass can be used in all kinds of stories: crime, business, government, even to report meetings.

  • It's best suited, however, for offbeat or dramatic stories where the bulk of the story can be told in chronological fashion.

    For more on this style, read THE HOURGLASS: Serving the News, Serving the Reader by Chip Scanlan of the Poynter Institute

The nut graph



The nut graph story
The nut graph story

The Wall Street Journal gave birth to as story form best known as the

"nut graph" story, although it is also identified as the "news feature" and

the "analytical feature." Supposedly it was the brainchild of a Journal

editor who had grown tired of time elements in ledes.

Some call it a “focus story.” By whatever name, this story form

generally includes anecdotal leads to snare the reader. The lede is

followed by alternating sections that amplify the story's nut graph

(thesis) and provide balance with any evidence that presents a counter-

thesis. But its chief hallmark is the use of a context section that

highlights a specific case with the general problem.

Newspapers and magazines often used this form to help emphasize

explanation over information and understanding over knowledge.

Online news sites also rely on this form.

The nut graph1

  • The nut graph story concentrates on going from the specific -- one individual person or victim -- to the general -- how many more are affected by the same circumstances. Perhaps an anecdote and/or scene-painting is used to relate what the individual is confronted by or going through.

  • This story structure gives the writer a tool to reduce institutions, statistics and cosmic issues down to a level that readers can relate to and understand.

    For more, read the THE NUT GRAPH OR FOCUS STORY by Chip Scanlan

The four boxes story


A specific type of “nut graph / focus” story

The four boxes story1

  • The nut graph / focus story is often executed according to the four boxes method, while some prefer to give it five boxes depending upon the length and complexity of the story.

  • The writer simply decides to place information in certain cubbyholes or boxes. These boxes may be multiple paragraphs in length, but the content is all related.

  • Some boxes will be bigger than the others; or the box may have “sub-boxes,” such as the pros and cons (or for and against) on the same issue.

The four box approach




(This may be split into

two separate boxes In

the “five box” approach)


The four box approach1

  • The first box focuses on one individual, one example of the overall subject you will be addressing. Perhaps you begin with an anecdote or by setting a scene, some device that let’s the reader know that you have an interesting story to tell.

    2. The next box, also a small one, contains your transition to the larger issue. This box begins with a sentence that acts as the turn, just as with the hourglass story. The turn -- something like “Smith is only one of thousands of Americans facing the same problem.” -- takes the reader to the theme sentence or nut graph. The nut graph defines what the rest of the story will be about.

The four box approach2

3. The third box elaborates on the larger issues, giving its scope, the conflicts involved, the cast of characters, background etc. It will likely be the biggest of the boxes. Because of it’s size -- especially if there are lengthy sub-topics or two strong sides to an issue -- this box could be divided into two (hence the five-box name) for development. Whereas box No. 1 puts your creativity on display, box No. 3 lets your reporting take center stage. It is not necessarily chronological in form; in fact, using flashbacks or other references to the individual in box No. 1 can be a good technique.

The four box approach3

4. This box is for the ending. Good stories should end, not just stop. Maybe you’ve saved a good quote, a bit of dialogue or another anecdote. One excellent device is the tieback, where you bring the character introduced in box No. 1 back for the closing curtain. The material in this box is one of the significant differences between focus structure and inverted pyramid -- you can’t just lop off from the end.

Too Young to Diet example


Or the five box approach

From Rick Bragg, Pulitzer winner with the New York Times:

1. The first box, the lead, contains the image or detail that draws people in the story. (“Call of Duty” gamer example)2. The second box is a "nut graph" that sums up the story. (hate speech)3. The third box begins with a new image or detail that resembles a lead and precedes the bulk of the narrative. (background set-up on “Call of Duty”)4. The fourth box contains material that is less compelling but rounds out the story. (how online played evolved, emergence of hate speech)5. The fifth, and last, box is the "kicker," an ending featuring a strong quote or image that leaves the reader with a strong emotion. (tieback to lead?)Fill the boxes with bulleted lists of information, quotes, statistics and you have an instant outline.

Five boxes approach
Five Boxes Approach

For more on this style, read THE FIVE BOXES APPROACH TO STORY WRITING by Chip Scanlan

The set up



The set up1

  • If you don’t like the boxes terminology, some writers define the focus story as having a creative introduction/lede and then moving to the set-up.

  • The set-up generally uses suspense in some form.

The set up2

The set-up has five elements:

  • A transition (lede device and the turn) to the theme paragraph (nut graph)

  • The theme paragraph -- placed not too far past the turn

  • Foreshadowing -- could be the turn or in several places in the story

  • The “so what” -- tells the reader why they should care. It localizes the issue and brings the issue home. The “so what” explains the impact and relevance.

  • The “to be sure” or “Yes, but …” -- gives the other side (or sides) of the story. You want to be evenhanded.

Handouts the abduction story

HANDOUTS: The abduction story


Abduction story/ Chronicle version

Abduction story/ alternate version.

Writing tips

Good writing

1. Gather information with all of your senses -- smells, sounds, sights. Touch and taste.

2. Don’t tell the readers that someone is funny; give an example of a prank or a humorous story. Don’t say someone was angry; show it by describing their expression or actions. Telling is story in outline; showing fills in the spaces between the lines.

3. Avoids cliches like the plague.

Writing tips1

Figures of speech

1. Similes, comparisons using like or as, help explain the unknown by comparing it to the known. “Her rubbery legs wobbled like jelly.”

2. Metaphors, comparisons without like or as, equate one thing with another. “Jordan is a lion but with a gazelle’s legs.”

3. Allusions add value. “Nat King Cole was the Usher of his time.”

4. Personification breathes life into inanimate objects. “The windows of the old house were scornful eyes.”

For a listing of rhetorical devices, go to http://www.virtualsalt.com/rhetoric.htm

Writing tips2

Good writing is coherent

1. Logical thinking produces logical story structures. If you don’t know where you are going, the reader won’t either. Consider constructing an outline before writing longer pieces.

2. Choose the proper sentence structure to show the relationship between among ideas. Compound sentences equate ideas. Complex sentences show cause and effect or sequencing.

3. Carefully construct transitions between paragraphs. Transitions are like road signs; they tell the reader where you are going.

Writing tips3

Good writing is concrete

1. It begins with good reporting. Get those details.

2. Be specific. “Big” or “ugly” or “loud” mean something only in comparison to something else.

3. Avoid euphemisms. “Down-sizing” means people are losing their jobs.

Writing tips4

Good writing is clear

1. Construct more short sentences than long sentences, more simple constructions than complicated constructions and favor strong verbs over forms of “to be.”

2. Know grammar as you would like a mechanic to know the parts of your car. Learn the vocabulary of grammar and how grammatical structures work together.

3. If you respect and follow the rules of punctuation, you will not embarrass yourself.

4. Learn to spell, or at least learn to use a dictionary.

Profile help


Chronicle story on pitcher Roy Oswalt

The Halle Berry profile in Parade

Alternate story form exercise1

  • You’ve broken the Portland school / tear gas for your newspaper Web site and have updated it with new details and quotes throughout the day.

  • Now, it’s time to do the story for tomorrow’s editions of the newspaper.

  • Let's recast the Portland school story, the first inverted pyramid assignment for this class, with this new information.

  • The story should probably be at least five graphs longer than the inverted pyramid version of this story.

  • Use the facts from that story, coupled with this additional information, to "move the story forward" and create a more narrative story (rather than exposition).

Exercise the new information
EXERCISE: The new information

Henry Forrest, algebra teacher, 57, was in his class teaching students how to reduce equations. He immediately recognized the odor as a form of tear gas. It burned his throat and nose, and he had to remove his reading glasses to dab his watering eyes with a handkerchief. He guided his coughing and gagging students out of the classroom and onto the school grounds. Some of his students were among the most seriously affected. He has taught at the school for 15 years and says this is first time something this serious has occurred. But he says this will not deter him from doing what he loves – teaching young people.

When Forrest was in high school, he lived in the Watts area of Los Angeles. He witnessed the infamous Watts riots, where racial unrest resulted in hundreds of people being injured or arrested and scores of buildings being burned. He did not participate in the riots but because he is black, he recalls receiving suspicious stares from L.A. police patrolling the area. During that time, he often smelled tear gas and smoke even while in his home.

Portland Fire Bureau officials will recommend to the mayor that Forrest receive a commendation or other form of recognition for his efforts.

Exercise the new information1
EXERCISE: The new information

Quotes from Forrest

"It gave me a flashback. It brought back a lot of old, bad memories," he said. "I remember the smell of tear gas, day after day. And the screams. Those screams don't go away. I heard those screams again today. It was a time I don't care to remember.“

"Why do kids do things like this? This ain't kid stuff. Don't they know that they are hurting people, people who may be their friends or teachers?" he said. "It's just stupidity. Plain stupidity. And when they get caught, their lives will never be the same.“

Quote from Don Mayer, Portland Fire Bureau

“Thanks to his quick thinking, a lot of kids were spared from being exposed to the brunt of the gas. He’s a hero in my book.”