A gazillion ways to tell a story (and some use hardly any words)

Let’s talk Tuesday about writing. And about not writing.

You’ve been reporting long enough now to know when the story is just a notice of something happening, or something that has happened, and when it’s not a narrative rich in detail with a compelling cast of characters, and an obvious beginning, middle and end.

Or when it’s just a report on something, like a City Council meeting, and all the reader really wants is to be able to scan it quickly to find out what decisions were taken up and what the outcomes were. Maybe there’s more to say about a lively meeting where people disagreed and the mayor got shouted down — then you have the makings of an actual story, with characters, action and dialogue.

But too often, we write to spin traditional stories out of facts that need an entirely different presentation. We talked about this very briefly when we discussed focus and organization, but here it is again: A very early focusing activity in the reporting process is deciding the best way to convey the information. Is it a notice? A report? An actual story with a strong narrative?

Is it maybe just a set of fascinating facts, like the information in this graphic?  This is a visual representation of ocean depth as it relates to the search for the missing Malaysian flight. Scroll slowly down to the bottom, and read the descriptions alongside this “depth line.”

Now try to imagine telling this story with a bunch of sentences. Then try to imagine anyone reading it and getting the same dramatic sense of the challenge. (HT to Joe Guszkowski for sending this to me.)

Here’s a story that is told through images and the words of the actual participants: a Boston Marathon bombing anniversary story (that doesn’t dwell too much on the event and, instead, delivers portraits of recovery and resilience). Is there much more to say than what’s here? Do we need the voice of the writer?

Have you seen a non-narrative story recently that you thought was pretty effective? Send me the link before 8:30 AM on Tuesday and we’ll talk about it in class.

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