A complex story should not be challenge to the reader or viewer, however challenging it is for the writer. Careful work in organization of your reporting, digital production and writing will help readers make sense of stories that deal with cumbersome economic or technical issues, or with soap-opera tales that present multiple characters and confusing turns. These techniques will help keep the complex story clear.
Use digital storytelling tools
Reporters with long print experience tend to think they need to squeeze everything into the text story that they love to write. Digital First journalists need to think about the best tools for telling each part of the story.
The bigger the story, the more different digital storytelling tools you should consider. But an important part of organizing the story is to avoid overwhelming the reader or viewer with every fact and every tool you might use. Choose the most important information and then decide which tools share that information the best. Much of the success in a complex story is in those difficult decisions of what to leave out.
Videos and photos
For the strongly visual aspects of the story, use the best visual storytelling tools. Instead of writing a sidebar on a topic with visual appeal, or squeezing it into your text story, make it a Tout video or a longer video and give it prominent play in the package.
Or tell a story in a photo gallery. If a picture is worth a thousand words, an effective photo gallery saves you a lot of writing and lets the writer concentrate on the points that are best conveyed in words.
If your story involves data analysis, the best way to convey the findings might be in a data visualization and/or an interactive database that lets readers find the answers to their specific questions.
If you aren’t yet skilled in data analysis or visualization, it’s time to get started. Data is too important to storytelling to leave to the specialists. Collaborate with a specialist in this story and get rolling.
If you haven’t used one of these tools before, it’s time to start playing with them and see how easy they are to use.
If a story takes place in multiple locations, the explanations may become confusing in a text story. But a Google Map, Crowdmap (or another mapping tool) can quickly make distances, directions and where things happened easy to see.
You may have read that the New York Times Dialect Quiz was the Times’ most-popular story of 2013 (it missed badly on placing me, but I lived in five states and two foreign countries growing up and five more states as an adult).
Would your story work well as a quiz or game? You might lack the skills to develop the quiz, but keep in mind that an intern developed the dialect quiz. Might a student at a local university be able to help you work some magic with your story?
Prezi might help you explain a process that’s key to your story. Or ThingLink could turn a key image into an interactive element: In a photo of the key characters in your story, you could embed links about their backgrounds or their roles in the story.
Organizing your writing
Write as you report
Many writers see their work as a linear task: First you gather the facts, then you write. It’s always a good idea to start writing as you gather information, but it’s essential when you’re writing a complex story that may take weeks or months. Sure, you may not get your lead until late in the process. But you can write passages, telling important parts of the story while they are fresh and clear in your mind.
As you gather information on a complex story, you can get confused yourself, and writing as you go improves your clarity and focus. At some point, the final story will start taking shape in your mind. Make sure it takes shape on the screen, or you will forget some of the ideas that will give it clarity and perspective.
As you go along, the writing will help focus your reporting work by showing you what you still need and where you have enough.
As you write, you might identify stories that are newsy now and stand on their own. Writing and publishing those stories will simplify the bigger story and give you some momentum and crowdsourcing opportunities.
As you report, use spreadsheets on Excel or Google Drive to keep track of sources, chronologies, etc. With your information scattered in different notebooks and piles of documents on your desk, a spreadsheet gives you one place to organize all the facts as you go along. The spreadsheet might help you spot connections, contradictions and trends that otherwise might escape your notice.
“Outline” your notes
Some writers use outlines religiously; others can’t be bothered with them. Whether you write a formal outline or not, it’s helpful in a complex story to organize your notes in a loose outline. Go through your notes, documents and other materials and highlight information and quotes and facts that are important, labeling them by source or topic.
Let’s say you are writing a story about the difficulty of prosecuting rape. You might label information from police with a “C” for cops, from prosecutors with a “P,” from defense attorneys with a “D,” victims with a “V” and so on. Or you might label by topic: material relating to evidence gets an “E,” juries get a “J” and so on. Some material may relate to a couple topics, so you would note the relationship with “E-J.” If your notes are mostly digital, color-coding topics might help the outline.
By outlining your notes, you might spot previously unnoticed connections between facts collected in interviews that were weeks apart. Whether or not you follow the outline closely in your story, the mental exercise of evaluating your notes will help organize the story.
Write without your notes
Now that you’ve organized your notes, set them aside.
If you’ve done your research well, and if you’ve been thinking about the story, you have most of the story in your head. You know what the most important points are. You remember the embarrassing contradictions, the clever quotes, the damning evidence. So tell the story, without the distractions of that mess of notebooks, photocopies databases and pdfs.
You won’t remember a quote exactly, but quote it as you remember (with a note to get the exact quote later from your notebook). You may not remember the precise number, so put in $XXX,XXX, and fill it in later.
Especially if you’ve outlined your notes effectively, you will remember what’s most important and most interesting. And you’ll write better without the interruptions and detours of flipping through notebooks and digging through documents and trying to remember which file had that quote you’re looking for.
Of course, when you’re done, you need to return to your notebooks and other resources. You may have left out something important. But if you forgot about it, ask yourself whether it really is important. You will want to check and double check every fact and quote and name you wrote from memory. This technique improves the quality and organization of your writing. But if you sacrifice accuracy, you haven’t made an acceptable trade.
Consider a narrative
A complicated story might be easier to follow as a narrative. Even something you regard as an issue story might work as a narrative. You can tell how we got into this mess as a narrative, complete with setting, characters, plot and conflict.
I discuss narrative writing in the homecoming and twins posts linked above as well as a post about writing short narrative.
Sharpen your focus
After your initial reporting stages, you may become snow-blind with all the information you’ve gathered. It’s time to step back and break your work into manageable pieces.
In a multi-story project, decide what your stories will be and focus on completing one story at a time. Of course, as you do that, you will gather more information for other stories from the same sources. Put those notes or documents in files for those stories and return your attention to the story at hand. Each story and the project as a whole will be stronger if each story receives your full attention for a period.
When you’re finished with the stories, it’s important to step back again and evaluate the big picture: Have you omitted some important facts that might belong in one of the stories you’ve finished or their own sidebar? Do some stories overlap too much? Do the themes complement each other well? Have you varied the voice enough that the series doesn’t become monotonous? This same technique works on a smaller scale if you’re writing a single story with several sections.
Don’t forget the basics
Organizing a story can send you back to the very basics of journalism. Ask yourself which of the 5 W’s and How is most important or most interesting in this story. That probably should be the lead. In fact, the first few words of your lead should probably point the reader toward the answer to that question.
Complex stories often revolve around other important questions beyond the basics, such as how much? so what? and who’s profiting from this?
It’s also helpful to think in terms of story elements (setting, plot, character, conflict). Which of these is the most important or most interesting? You might organize your notes or your outline along the lines of these questions or story elements.
With each quote or fact, ask if it’s unique. Ask if it advances the story. Ask if it repeats something you’ve already said. Can it be said better in a paraphrase? Be demanding of your quotes. Use them as dialogue or to convey powerful images, opinions or emotions. If they don’t, see if you can give the same information more directly in your own words.
Attribution is necessary, but it complicates. If the story itself is complex, consider ways to reduce or consolidate attribution. If you’re telling a narrative that’s based on several sources, with general agreement, consider writing in an authoritative voice with little or no attribution in the text.
You might want to use an accompanying box that cites all the sources interviewed, but you don’t bog the narrative down with lots of she-saids. That won’t work in some stories, particularly if sources disagree. Consider blanket attribution for each side, such as “Doctors say federal rules tie their hands several ways:” followed by a listing of the points, with no further attribution. Then you give the federal officials their say with similar blanket attribution.
Think of the reader
When you write and rewrite, ask yourself “reader” questions. Why should I care about this? How is this going to affect me? Make sure you’re answering the reader’s questions. If not, you need to answer them, or consider removing the sections that raise the questions, or explaining why they can’t be answered.
It might help to give a draft of the story to someone who’s not a journalist, and listen to her questions.
Identify and avoid detours
Invariably, a complex story will involve detours. You will spend an inordinate amount of time checking out a tip or trying to answer a question. As the reporter, you may need to follow these detours. But as the writer, you don’t want to take the reader on any detours. Make your story the straightest, smoothest possible road between the beginning and the end. Don’t include any turns that aren’t part of the route itself.
Don’t just empty your notebook. Just because you collected a fact doesn’t mean you have to share it with your readers. Use the facts that help tell the story, and only those facts. Perhaps you knocked yourself out to find a fact that turned out to be unimportant. Too bad. Leave it out. Maybe the fact is important, but your effort deceived you into thinking the reader needs to know how you found the fact. Probably not. Just the facts, please.
Sometimes you come across a funny or intriguing anecdote that doesn’t really relate to the main story, but you just fall in love with it. Maybe it’s worth a Tout video that will accompany the story. Or maybe you just have to be satisfied with telling it to an editor or colleague. If it’s a detour, keep it out of your story.
Some of the detours need to be banished entirely from your published work. Some just need to be told separately or in a different way. Explaining a complicated process can be an annoying detour in your story and make for a boring string of paragraphs. But if the process is critical to the story, perhaps you should make an excellent interactive graphic to accompany the story.
Read your story aloud
Again, this is a practice that is wise on any story but essential on a complex one. Complicated issues seduce writers into long, cumbersome sentences that you will spot quickly as you read aloud. If you start to feel like you’re droning on, you probably are. Take a hard look at that section and see whether you can tighten it, make it more lively or alter the pace.
You can’t change the fact that your story is complex. Your mission is not to obscure or ignore the economical or technical facts that sometimes can baffle. And if you’re telling a convoluted tale of conflict and intrigue, you can’t leave out twists and turns that are the heart of the story. You need to be sure your writing is clarifying the complex tale rather than further complicating it. Listen to the tone and pace as you read it aloud. If it’s inviting, the reader will follow the tale with interest and relate it later to family and co-workers.
Preview the story with a trusted reader
Once you understand the complex story well enough to tell it, you understand it too well to judge how well you’ve told it. You need help. Take the story to a friend with whom you haven’t discussed it. Try to choose someone who reflects the level of interest of your potential readers. Choose someone who will give you an honest reaction.
Don’t just ask the reader whether she liked it. Ask specific questions that will show how well she understood it. Ask, “How do the farm chemicals reach the ground water?” or “What happens when the hazardous waste is burned along with raw materials to make cement?” If the reader doesn’t understand important points, you need to make them clear.
Take a break
If your deadline allows, set the story aside for a while after you think you’re done. Come back with a fresh view and you may be embarrassed at the cumbersome passages that seemed clear when your mind was cluttered. And you’ll be glad you fixed or eliminated them before your story was published.
Pull it all together
If you’ve got a mix of excellent writing and digital elements to pull together into one story package, consider whether NewHive or Scrollkit might help you weave it all together, not as dazzling as Snow Fall perhaps, but effective, interactive and well-organized.
Save something for the live chat
Your options aren’t necessarily to cram everything into one big package or spread your work out of a multi-day series. Maybe you put together a single well-organized story combining strong interactives and writing on a single day. Then the next day you host a live chat, which will draw the people you really hooked, who are looking for more. That might be the appropriate place to go into greater depth. You produce a story for people with an average interest level in the topic, then dive deeper in a live chat with those who want more.
Before the chat, you write up some of the information or points you didn’t include in the main story and cut and paste them into the chat where appropriate to stimulate or continue the conversation. You might not use them all, depending on the direction the chat takes, but the chat might be the perfect format for some bonus information that would overwhelm in the initial package.
What works for you?
What techniques are helpful for you in organizing your stories?
Part of this is an old workshop handout from my writing-coach days, originally developed more than a decade ago and published on No Train, No Gain. I’ve updated it for a workshop for the Alberta Weekly Newspapers Association.