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The Elements and Structure of Narrative

Narrative writing is not just a writing style. As much as narrative demands creativity, it also demands discipline. Much of that discipline falls into the three categories examined here: Development of the elements or ingredients of a story. Development of the narrative structure. Knowing what not to use in the story itself and how to use supplementary layers to enhance the story presentation and to tell the story using multi-media.

The elements of narrative


Journalists tend to think in terms of the basics of journalism: Who, what, when, where, why, how. Narrative journalists must think in terms of story elements: setting, character, plot, conflict, climax, resolution, dialogue, theme, action, scenes. 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, 51, a writing coach. However, if youre developing a character, you seek and find considerably more: Air Force brat, preachers kid, Yankee fan, cancer survivor, novelist wannabe, father, husband, former editor, lousy athlete, Eagle Scout, writing coach, itinerant journalist, game creator, wise gu y. When may be a place on the map, where a point on the calendar or clock. Setting demands description. It demands relationship in time and place to other events and places. Setting is a time and place where you transport the reader to watch the action unfold. 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 inability to resolve. Think of these elements as you report, so you have the material you need when you write. 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 thats 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 dont shift or confuse the focus. Treat quotes as dialogue. If a quote just gives the reader information, perhaps you should do that in your own words. In a narrative, you use quotes primarily for characters speaking in scenes. Use sensory detail. Help the reader picture the characters, setting and action of your story, even if photos or online videos will accompany your story. You want your words to complement the visual elements, enhancing the picture without describing what the reader can see for herself. Use your other senses to complete the experience for the reader. Help her hear and feel, perhaps even smell and taste. Senses are an important tool in transporting the reader to the time and place of the story. Identify critical elements. In shorter narratives, you wont have much space for character development or setting description. You may not have space to develop all the elements. 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.

Planning your structure


Think about structure early and often as you work on a story. As soon as you get the idea or assignment, start considering the best way to tell the story. You have lots of choices and no structure is right or wrong for every situation. The right structure depends on you and the story. As you report and discover the story, seek the best way to tell it. Consider alternatives. Try a couple approaches if youre not sure. Consult with your editor. Dont hold your cards too close to your vest. Your editor can provide valuable direction on story structure. Even if you arent on the same wave length as your editor, consultations help prepare the editor for something different. Or the consultation may identify standards that you have to meet when trying something different. If your editor likes the approach youre planning, you get an ally in winning over other editors who might be skeptical. If youre trying a structure you havent tried before, the editor might have experience with that structure. If youre lacking confidence in your new structure, the editor can provide advice and encouragement. Plan your structure. Especially if youre considering a structure you havent used before, write a plan or outline of your story. What will be the central conflict? How will you resolve it? Who are the characters? What is the plot? What is the setting? Where will you start? Where will you end? Will you write a single story or a series? Or a package with a main story and sidebars? Discuss the plan with your editors. Take inventory as you re writing the plan. What do you already have that this plan requires? What do you need to learn to carry out this plan? Where can you learn that information? Avoid formulaic writing. None of these structures is inherently good or bad. Each of them has strengths and can be effective. Any of them can become a clich if overused or used ineffectively. The structure doesnt ensure a good story. Your creativity and high standards make the structure work for your story. Find the right structure. The structures presented below are only some examples of ways you can structure a narrative. Some of them overlap, so your story probably will fall in more than one of the categories below. Or you might be creative enough to craft a perfect structure for your story that defies any of these labels.

Types of narrative structure


Basic structure. Writing coach Dick Weiss summarizes the essential structure of narrative: a story with a beginning, a middle and an end, where action moves through time. Each of these descriptions that follows is a variation of this basic structure. Martini glass. This story form, named by writing coach Don Fry, starts out as a traditional inverted pyramid, giving the reader the most important news first in a straight lead, following with other news in decreasing importance, just like the inverted pyramid, which becomes the top of the glass. At the bottom of this triangle is an olive, the nut graf or set-up for a narrative. The narrative follows in a straight path, the stem of the martini glass. The story ends with a conclusion that wraps up the story, perhaps fulfilling a promise you made up in the olive paragraph or resolving the conflict laid out there. While an inverted -pyramid story can cut from the end, the martini-glass story needs this ending, the base of the glass. If you must cut, you probably will need to shorten the stem. This is a different description of what Roy Peter Clark of Poynter calls the hourglass, structure, which turns from inverted pyramid to narrative with some sort of transition like It started with This approach can be effective in using a narrative approach for a daily news story. You need to cover the news up high and give a few important facts, then you launch into the

narrative of what happened. Another variation on this is called the champagne glass the top before the narrative begins is a summary, but not necessarily in inverted-pyramid structure. Conflict/resolution. Ken Fuson of the Des Moines Register says every story at its heart is a story of conflict and resolution. Establish your conflict early and clearly. Unfold the plot as your characters pursue the resolution. Ideally the resolution will provide a powerful and fitting end. Because we write many news stories before the conflict is resolved, you sometimes need to alter this approach. Instead of resolving the conflict, your story becomes about the quest for resolution or the frustration of waiting for resolution. Story arc. Jack Hart of The Oregonian coaches writers to plan their narrative stories along the story arc exposition, rising action, climax, denouement. The exposition sets the scene and introduces the characters, or at least the protagonist. The plot begins to unfold with the rising action, when the protagonist engages the complication of the story. (This is the conflict Fuson says is essential to a story). The rising action will be the body of the story, the unfolding plot. It must build tension, or at least pique curiosity. The rising action leads to a climax, the resolution of the conflict. The writer ties up the story and any loose ends in the denouement. Brief narrative. The brief narrative is effective for simple stories about a single incident. A routine police story or light feature may be a brief narrative. A government meeting might provide a brief narrative. You can unfold the brief narrative in a variety of ways. If youre writing a news story, you may need to give the reader the news first before you begin the narrative. Start with a summary lead, telling the basic news. You might follow with a paragraph or two of context and/or explaining why the story is important. Then you start at the beginning and tell what happened. You might open with the who, what, when and where, then use the narrative to tell how and why. With a feature story, the brief narrative can start at a key moment, then jump back in time and unfold chronologically. Or you can start at the beginning and let the story flow chronologically. In a feature, you might want to use suspense and tension to keep the reader moving, rather than giving away the end at the top, as you may have to do with a news story. A brief narrative may develop just a few story elements. Long narrative. A long narrative is an especially effective approach for a weekend story or for second or third-day coverage of a big news story. It also works in feature stories. In the long narrative, you don t want to give away the whole conclusion, or perhaps any of it, at the top of the story. If youre writing a narrative about a major news story, the reader will already know the what of the ending, but may not know the why or how or the background or all the details. A long narrative needs to hook the reader quickly and give the reader a reason to stick with you. Tension and suspense, even mystery, are important elements of the long narrative, but confusion is not. Give the reader an early hint, or promise, of whats to come early in the story. Fuson (who credits editor Jan Winburn of the Baltimor Sun with teaching him this) says the promise sometimes plays the role of nut graph in the long narrative. The promise may raise a question that the reader can expect you to answer by the end of the story. It may lay out the mystery that you will solve or establish the conflict you will resolve. Story elements are crucial to the long narrative. Develop the characters carefully so the reader cares about them and wants to know what happens to them. Place the characters in a setting and use sensory detail to transport the reader there. Use dialogue to help the reader hear the characters. Capture the key moments in memorable scenes where your narrative slows (or accelerates) to highlight the drama. Use what Clark calls internal cliffhangers to build suspense, move the reader along and give a promise of an ending worth the journey. Use what Fry calls gold coins to keep the reader following your path. These are the compelling, intriguing, amusing or enchanting details or anecdotes that you would shove to the top of an inverted-pyramid story. You need to string them throughout the long narrative to reward the reader for continuing the journey. Serial narrative. A serial narrative follows many of the same techniques as a long narrative. Each piece needs to stand on

its own as well as link to the others. You need an overriding theme and/or conflict holding the serial together. Each installment needs a sub-theme or conflict. While the ending must wrap up that days story, it also should have some element of promise or mystery, maybe even a cliffhanger, to invite the reader back for the next installment. Be especially demanding of the serial narrative and each of its parts. Youre better off cutting the story short by a day or two than risking a story or two that drag or wander from the central conflict. If you lose readers during a narrative with a weak link, they wont come back. Most newspaper narratives start on Sunday, when many readers have extra time to spend with the newspaper. Your readers patience threshold might be lower on weekdays, because shes reading your paper quickly before she goes to work, or on a coffee break at work. Installments that day must be shorter and/or more compelling to continue holding reader interest. Partial narrative. Narrative is not an all-or-nothing proposition. Some stories about issues or news events will use narrative techniques, even though they arent pure narrative stories. An anecdotal lead may be the best way to open a story that shifts to an examination of the issue that the lead illustrates or introduces. A story that requires mostly straight-news techniques with officials talking to the reporter might need a narrative passage to highlight a key moment.

Structural Issues
Avoid confusion. In a long or serial narrative, multiple characters can confuse the reader. Consider the importance of each character and decide whether you can omit some. If your story still has a lar ge cast, consider a cast of characters box with mug shots and thumbnail identification. This will help the reader keep characters straight, particularly when a minor character resurfaces quite a while after you first introduced him. Where possible, avoid reusing minor characters. Geography and chronology also can be confusing, especially if the story doesnt flow in chronological order or doesnt occur all in one place. Consider a map or timeline, or a map with numbers and text blocks that show how the action flowed through time and space. Process bogs down narrative. Reporters need to know much more about process than readers want to know. Consider one of these approaches to explaining legal, bureaucratic or technical processes that arent essential to the narrative: Omit process explanation. Its not important to some stories. Minimize process explanation. Process detail is not important to some stories. Handle the process in a sidebar, providing explanation to readers who want it but not burdening your main story. Handle the process in a graphic that will explain it better.

Nut graphs. Journalists disagree about the necessity (and sometimes the definition) of nut graphs. But this much is difficult to dispute: High in every story, even a narrative, you need to tell the reader why she should read this story today. A good nut graph often is the best way to achieve that. But a clumsy nut graph can disrupt the flow of a narrative. For an issue story, the nut graph sometimes is a simplification of the issue. That doesnt work for most narratives, but an artful promise of whats to come can help orient the reader effectively.

Layering your story


Your narrative is more than the prose that you write. Your story is the full package of information and images that your newspaper presents to the reader. As the journalist whose name will appear most prominently and as the journalist usually with the largest investment of time and pride in the story, the

reporter has to assume responsibility for the full package and take an active role in its planning and production. Telling a narrative story in layers allows a writer to use other forms to present supporting information that would slow down the story. It also gives you multiple chances to lure the scanning reader into your story. Maybe the headline alone wont draw the reader into the story. But a pull -quote or graphic makes the reader stop and read. If a reporters interest in the tasks of presentation wont motivate involvement, perhaps vanity will: More people will read and remember your story if your newspaper presents it in an eye-catching package. Consider all the ways you can present information, in addition to your story. Your newspaper might have different terminology for some of the elements described here. Your newspaper might use some layers not explained here. Make sure you learn the terminology used in your newsroom and learn which elements your design favors most. These are not all the layers that you might use with any kind of story, just the ones most likely to complement a narrative story: Staff photographs. Work closely with the photojournalist who is helping you tell this story. Photos are an important storytelling tool. Make sure the photographer knows how you are planning to tell the story, who the main characters are and how important the setting is. Photos will be the readers introduction to the story in most cases. The best narrative packages are a result of close collaboration between writer and photographer. Dont be bashful about making suggestions, but respect the professional skill of the photographer to come up with better ideas than you might suggest. Archival photographs. Check your files, paper and electronic, for historical photographs that may tell part of the story. Donated photographs. Ask the characters you interview for photographs they have taken that might show events or places where you were not present. Seek candid photographs and mug shots of dead or missing people you write about. Seek youthful photographs of people you write about, if your story will deal with that period in their lives. Some photos that you dont use may help you describe people, places or events in the story. Illustrations. A staff photographer or artist might be able to create an effective illustration to help tell the story and attract the reader's eye. Or a character might be able to provide illustrations done by others. Maps. A simple locator map might help the reader understand where an event took place. Or a complex map might show how and where events unfolded. Diagrams. If the reader might wonder how did that happen? or how does that work? consider a diagram to provide a clearer answer than you can in prose. Again, you can produce a staff-generated diagram or you might come across a diagram in your reporting that you can use with permission and credit. Timelines. A timeline places a specific event or series of events in context with other events. This can be simple text or you can turn it into a graphic or perhaps illustrate with photos of some of the events. You can combine a timeline with a map, showing how an event unfolded through space and time. Chronologies. A chronology details how an event unfolded. A chronology can be all text or can tie into a map or diagram

that explains key steps. If you dont have a map or diagram, photos of key people or events might enhance the chronology. Glossaries. A glossary explains terminology relating to a particular issue. This doesnt absolve the writer from explaining some terms in context in the story, but gives an opportunity for more detailed definitions. Use-It Boxes. Pull out useful information for the reader into a box that attracts the eye quickly. This may be something the reader will be looking for later when she returns to the story. Use-its, also called go-and-do boxes, might have date and time of an event, ticket price, location, a phone number for more information, how to make donations, how to volunteer, who can participate, web sites, etc. Use-its run more often with nonnarrative stories, but be sure you consider the possibility. A narrative about someone with a disease or about a victim of abuse might provide information about organizations that provide assistance for people in those circumstances. A narrative in relation to an anniversary might include a use-it with information about activities to observe the anniversary. Consider how the reader might act in response to your story. If you write a story that moves the reader to act, put the information that tells the reader how to act in one place thats easy to find. Whats-next box. A serial narrative needs a box telling readers where this installment fits and what to expect next. Tables, charts and graphs. Numbers can bog down any story, but especially a narrative. If you have more than two related numbers, consider presenting them in a table, chart or graph. Numbers almost always work better in one of these formats than in prose. The more numbers you use, the more important that you simplify them for the reader in one of these forms. Statistics. Does your story include statistical information that can be presented in an understandable typographical table as a separate element, such as a box score? Cast of characters. If the story involves several people, consider a separate element with mug shots of the characters and thumbnail sketches. This can be simple biographical information or it can include fun facts that dont really fit into the narrative but add to the character development of the total package. Bio box. If your story focuses on a particular character, especially a newsmaker, consider a box with some basic information age, education, occupation, family and perhaps a fun fact or two. With both the bio box and the cast of characters, some overlap with the story is inevitable and desirable. But exact duplication is a waste of your space and the readers time. Make the bio box or cast of characters mostly new information. Mug shots or even a wide candid shot add to a cast of characters or a bio box. (A note about the boxes referred to here: Whether you actually box them with a border is a matter of design style for your paper. If the borders of your box are white space, call them windows or breakouts if you prefer. Or make up your own terminology that works for your staff.) Fact boxes. Sometimes, especially with a complicated story, a fact box summarizing key points is helpful to the reader. This is especially important if you are using the narrative approach to tell a story related to an important public issue. Fact boxes and some of these other layering devices help you address points that dont fit in the narrative.

By the numbers. You can bring several disparate facts about a story together in an easy and eye-catching way in a by the numbers box that features the numbers in large type and explains them in smaller type. Lists. Lists almost always work better as a separate element, even if its just text, than in the prose of a narrative story. Pull quotes. Does a particular quote seem to sum up the story or a point? Consider highlighting it in a box, perhaps with a photo of the speaker. Rails and strips. You can pull a mix of these different elements together in a vertical rail or a horizontal strip that will help frame your package and give the browsing reader several layers to draw him into the story. Sidebars. Remember the old standby of sidebars. You can use a sidebar for any of a variety of reasons. Perhaps your narrative addresses a public issue and you need a sidebar to cover some important information or debate that would disrupt the narrative flow. Maybe you come up with an interesting related narrative that would become a detour in the main story but stands well on its own. Maybe the information in the sidebar would get lost in the main story and really deserves its own headline. Main headlines. The main headline will be one of the first layers to catch the readers attention, many times the very first. It needs to convey the essence of the story in tone and information. If you have a good idea for the headline, be sure you share it with your editors. At least make a point of seeing the main headline before publication. If it misses the point, gives away the ending unnecessa rily or doesnt reflect the storys tone, you want to make that complaint in time to help change it. Deck headlines. Secondary headlines known as decks help give the reader more information, another chance to draw the reader into the story. While the main headline is written in clipped style or perhaps even a one- or twoword label, decks are increasingly written in full, conversational sentences. The deck should provide additional information. If the main head raised a question or omitted an important point, the deck should address it. Again, you should not be bashful about suggesting secondary heads or about reading the headlines written by copy editors before the story is published. Captions and cutlines. Writing the captions and cutlines that go with photographs may not be your job, but you should read them and consider how they will complement your story and watch for conflicts with the story or for giving away information that destroys the tension or mystery of the story. Online layers. Your web site gives more opportunities for storytelling layers, such as slide shows, audio, video, interactive elements, links to related sites, database searches that allow the reader to find his own personal information. Learn how to use the tools of interactive storytelling so you can give your story appeal on multiple platforms. When you have extra layers online, be sure to plug them in the print version. Logos. If you are writing a serial narrative, it will become known by the title and logo that you and your colleagues develop. Give this plenty of thought and work with the editors and artists who carry out the idea. You dont

want a lame or misleading title for the series, just because you left the packaging of the story to someone else.

Plan the layers


Plan layers early. As you discuss a story with your editor at the planning stage, discuss possible layers you might use in the package. On major stories, consider a maestro meeting, where you meet with the editor(s), visual journalists and online editor who will work on the package gather to brainstorm ways to present the package and coordinate their efforts. This makes the presentation integral to the story, rather than an afterthought. In the maestro meeting, everyone can talk about any aspect of the package, regardless of specialty. The maestro meeting replaces the traditional handoff from reporter to editor with a teamwork approach from the beginning. Plan layers as you go. However well you plan early, stories will change as you learn more about them. You will come across information you didnt anticipate in your maestro session. For a major change, you may need to reconvene a maestro session. More often, you can change plans with an individual conversation or two. Plan layers as you write. As you write the story, you may realize that some information will work better in a sidebar or graphic. Discuss these possibilities right away with your editor. Ideally your early planning will avoid last-minute changes in plans. But you should still try last-minute changes if they improve the package for your readers. Put the plan in writing. For a routine story, a simple budget line that details elements of the package may suffice. For bigger stories, you should follow the maestro meeting up with a written plan that details the elements of the package, the roles of the journalists in producing and coordinating the elements and deadlines for providing information and finished elements. Writing this plan may actually help you focus the writing of the main story. It will help you see where the story fits in the package and what points you dont have to cover in the narrative.

Advice for reporters from Earl Swift of the Virginian-Pilot:


Once you have the story finished, youll want to again redefine your job to inc lude editing and design. Volunteer to write the captions. Offer headline suggestions. Proofread all the pages. Sit in on photoediting sessions, so that you have a voice in what images are chosen to accompany your work. Collaborate with the designer assigned your story to ensure that the overall feel of the presentation matches the mood youve established; no matter how carefully you craft a story, your readers will be left emotionally befuddled if the packaging strikes a disharmonious chord. I call this Following the Story, and, on a big series or feature, I will even drive to the plant at midnight to watch the paper come off the press, and hang with the pressmen to ensure the register is perfect on the photos. Take similar pains, and perhaps youll avoid the kind of unpleasant surprise visited on my colleague Fred Kirsch when his very first story was published by a paper in New Jersey. It was about a high school baseball teams deep pitching rotation. Unfortunately, some editor mistyped the headline, and the mistake got by the proofers; the story thus appeared under the announcement Bull penis strong. You can imagine how Fred felt showing that off to his mom.

Narrative Devices:
Definition: This term describes the tools of the story teller (also used in non fiction), such as ordering events so that they build to a climatic moment or withholding information until a crucial or appropriate moment when revealing it creates a desired effect. On the essay exam this term may also apply to biographical and autobiographical writing. Examples: SONS -Foreshadowing, hinting at events to occur later. --In Romeo & Juliet the two main characters both state early on that they would rather die than not be together. -Personification -the use of comparative metaphors and similes to give human-like characteristics to non-human objects. -Plot twist is a change ("twist") in the direction or expected outcome of the plot of a film or novel. -Suspense or tension is the feeling of uncertainty and interest about the outcome of certain actions -- most often referring to an audience's perceptions in a dramatic work. -Dialogue is a reciprocal conversation between two or more persons --"Alex," my mother asked, "what were your activities and pursuits at your middle school today?" --"I had a full day of activities, Mother. My teachers were stimulating, and my English class was especially delightful."