This is an updated writing workshop handout from one of the workshops I first presented in the 1990s, about using story elements. An earlier version of this handout was posted on the No Train, No Gain website. I didn’t add a lot of digital tips to this one, but I updated the reference to my age by more than a decade. The International Center for Journalists has translated this post into Spanish.
I used to like teaching this workshop in combination with Writing as You Report. The combination of my storytelling process and using story elements drove much of whatever success I enjoyed as a reporter.
Think beyond the 5 W’s
Don’t limit your inquiry, or your thinking, to the basic questions of journalism: Who, what, when, where, why, how. Think in terms of story elements: setting, character, plot, conflict, climax, resolution, action, dialogue, theme.
Elements shape reporting
The story elements shape not only your writing but your reporting. For instance, you can answer “who” with a name and some basic details, perhaps age, hometown, occupation: Steve Buttry, 60, an LSU journalism professor. However, if you’re developing a character, you seek and find considerably more: Air Force brat, preacher’s kid, Yankee fan, cancer patient (and survivor), unpublished novelist, father, grandfather, husband, former editor, former reporter, lousy athlete, Eagle Scout, writing coach, itinerant journalist, game creator, wise guy.
“When” may be a place on the map, “where” a point on the calendar or clock. Setting is a place and time where the writer transports the reader. Setting demands description. It evokes the senses. It demands relationship in time and place to surrounding places and to the events that came before and/or after.
Plot is not a set of events, but a series of events, each flowing from the one before and leading to the next.
Conflict demands resolution, or explanation of the pursuit of resolution or the inability to resolve.
Elements shape lead
Story elements may help you write your lead. Which is the most important element for this story? Perhaps that should be the focus of your lead. What is the climax? Perhaps that’s where you should open the story.
Does the intersection of two elements (a character in a setting, the setting of a climax) bring the reader immediately to the point of a story? Then establish both immediately, link them clearly and develop them simultaneously. Is one element secondary to another but still essential? Then introduce the secondary element but keep its development clearly secondary, so you don’t shift or confuse the focus.
Use dialogue, not just quotes
If a quote just gives the reader information, perhaps you should do that in your own words. Use quotes if a character is speaking as a character, telling her own story, giving his opinion, showing emotion, using colorful or distinct language.
Too many journalists confuse quotes with color. Colorful quotes provide color, but quotation marks don’t make information more colorful and don’t turn a dull sentence bright. Paraphrase when you’re giving information or when you can say something better than the person you’re quoting.
Use dialogue, though, to give voice to your characters, to bring a scene alive to your reader.
Video, audio and official transcripts can be effective tools for capturing dialogue and bringing the characters’ actual voices to your stories.
Where recordings or transcripts aren’t available, ask people to reconstruct dialogue for you. “What did you say then? How did she respond?”
Consider non-human characters
Sometimes in a news, feature or issue story, you can make a character of something other than a person. In a medical story, a disease might be the primary character. In a religion story, a church might be a character. When you treat an institution or something intangible or inanimate as a character, you develop it more fully. You are more conscious of the actions of the character, of conflicts with actual people or other institutions or objects.
Consider mythical characters
You can create a mythical “average” character to bring statistics to life. A mythical average person of a certain demographic can allow you to discuss statistics in terms of what is likely to happen, or not happen, in the person’s life.
If you can find someone who is almost or exactly average, you can use the real character to bring life to demographics and statistics.
Gather detail on setting
As you are reporting, you do not know whether setting will be the key element or an important secondary element. So gather information as though it will be. Go to the crime scene or the disaster scene. Interview the character in her environment: home, workplace, school, church, place of leisure or recreation (hopefully more than one).
When you can, a moving interview is effective: start out in the workplace, go out to eat, ride home in the character’s vehicle, ask him to show you the house and the yard.
Video and photos can be important tools for helping place the reader/viewer in the setting.
Learn plot details
If plot may be important, make sure you know the sequence of events. Ask characters to show you who was where when critical events happened. Have them walk you through the events if possible. Seek documentation that may clarify or verify what happened and when and who was present. Watch any videos that may be available.
Look for contradictions and inconsistencies in people’s accounts and see if you can resolve them. They may not mean anyone is lying, but may indicate the different ways people perceived an event, or they may show how confusing it was.
Decide how long your story should be
The success of some news sites specializing in long reads and the phenomenon of binge-video-watching demonstrate that people will stay with a story that’s well told. Decide whether your story justifies binge-watching or reading, and use story elements to hold your readers/viewers’ attention.
But many times, either the nature of the story or your editors’ expectations or limits of print space or broadcast time will require you to work quickly in establishing story elements. You may not have time or space to develop all the elements. After you’ve gathered all this information, identify the most important elements, the most compelling characters, the key moments, the most telling details. You may develop one character fully but have only a few words to establish minor characters.
Watch how quickly a good television commercial establishes a character or setting, or how quickly it resolves a conflict. Read my post on learning narrative techniques from songwriters.