First the string, then the pearls

Too often, stories fail because they never advanced beyond the “topic” stage. That is, the reporter wanted to write about something — homelessness, maybe — but didn’t work hard enough to find the most compelling idea about that topic. The result is an unfocused story.

Or we end up with text when what we really needed was an infographic. Or an audio slideshow. Or whatever. Thinking hard about the idea ought to prompt a realization about what form the story (or J-unit) should take.

Thomas Boswell of the Washington Post talks about the importance of finding a central idea in a topic. Once we find that idea, all the anecdotes, facts and quotes hang on that that thread (the idea) “like pearls on a necklace.” They hold the story together. And that’s way important.

And this applies not just to text stories but other forms. An audio slideshow or video that isn’t sharply focused on an idea that guides the narrative will contain extraneous interviews, photographs that seem random, and often will just be too long.

Finding a device that fits the idea is crucial, whether it’s a character who guides us through the story (or two, with different perspectives) or a first-person narrator.

In this story about the Society for Creative Anachronism, Seth Putnam takes a particular point of view to develop a fresh idea about those folks dressed as knights and jousting in Peace Park. Please read every bit of it for class tomorrow.

In this piece from GQ, Chris Heath offers a different perspective on Gary Faulkner, the guy who went to Pakistan to catch Osama Bin Laden and deliver him to the police. It is a delightful read.

We’ll discuss these in detail tomorrow. Think about the pearls. But especially think about the string.

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6 Responses to First the string, then the pearls

  1. I love Seth’s article about medieval times. There was a lot of thought put into it and you could really hear his voice throughout the article.

    The background to the organization was surprisingly interesting and his discussions of the different parties and events made me feel like I was there. I was impressed that he took the time to join, coming up with a name and participating– an embedded journalist!

    This story could have easily became corny, but I think Seth did a great job. Awesome article!

  2. Love the story on Faulkner–it is a unique string. A human string. A real string. A blunt string. And the pearls are brilliant. A long story, but I wanted to discover each pearl.

    To continue the string of pearls analogy, Seth’s story was neatly clasped necklace. There was so much information, but he managed to stay on track–er, on string. He covered so much, yet managed to fasten it all together. I’m also impressed with the dedication he clearly put into his story–it made me want to do a story like that.

  3. rosiedowney says:

    Seth’s article really put the motives and passions of these people into perspective. His willingness to become a part of their tribe and experience their rituals as a journalist, is inspiring. I used to kind of chuckle at these groups and how they practice the lifestyles of people who have been dead for hundreds and thousands of years. Now, thanks to this article, I actually think it is pretty cool.

  4. danramey says:

    I really liked the story on Gary Faulkner a lot. I thought it was very interesting how the author captured the overall craziness of the man yet was able to show some reason in it as well.

    I thought the author did a good job of stringing a central idea of how no matter what everyone else thought Faulkner’s faith kept him going and then lining that string with beautiful pearls (the anecdotes and stories) to keep it going. In the end, the author was able to make one of the craziest men I’ve ever heard seem quite credible and even in a sense normal

  5. Johanna Somers says:

    Now I am confused, referring to the discussion of Seth Putnam’s article. I thought it was not appropriate for journalists to join or be affiliated with organizations they were reporting on. But in this case it was ok. When is it ok and when it is not ok to join the organization you are writing about?

    Personally I like the idea of assimilating with the people you are reporting on, especially if you don’t know much about the people’s culture, however, will your writing be biased because you assimilated?

    Maybe the answer is, you can join an organization if it is not a highly controversial organization and/or not a political organization. Or maybe its always case by case, depending on how you pitch the idea and how the editors feel.

    • reedkath says:

      Hi, Johanna. Sorry it has taken me so long to reply to this. I think that this kind of call — like many ethical decisions — has to be made on the merits of the story versus the harm that can be done. Seth was totally transparent with the reader and with the sources he interviewed about the fact that he was a journalist and that he joined to do the story. And this is not a political organization; it’s a hobby group, I would say. Journalists can have hobbies and write about them. Right? I think in this case it was not only okay for Seth to join the group, it was a really smart decision for the story.

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