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1. Orientation 
2. Complication         

3. Resolution



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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:p

É Development of the elements or ingredients of a story.p

É Development of the narrative structure.p
É Knowing what to use in the story itself and how to use supplementary ³layers´ to enhance
the story presentation and to tell the story using multi-media.p


•ournalists 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.p

The story elements shape not only your writing but your reporting. For instance, you can answer
³who´ with a name and some basic details, perhaps age, hometown, occupation: Steve Buttry, 51, a
writing coach. However, if you¶re developing a character, you seek and find considerably more: Air
Force brat, preacher¶s kid, Yankee fan, cancer survivor, novelist wannabe, father, husband, former
editor, lousy athlete, Eagle Scout, writing coach, itinerant journalist, game creator, wise guy. ³When´
may be a place on the map, ³where´ 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.p

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.p

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.p


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.p


In shorter narratives, you won¶t 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.p

    p

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
you¶re not sure.p

Especially if you¶re considering a structure you haven¶t 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?p

None of these structures is inherently good or bad. Each of them has strengths and can be effective.
Any of them can become a cliché if overused or used ineffectively. The structure doesn¶t ensure a
good story. Your creativity and high standards make the structure work for your story.p

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.p


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.p

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 ³olive´ 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 ³hourglass,´ structure, which turns from inverted pyramid to
narrative with some sort of transition like ³It 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.p

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

•ack 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.p


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 you¶re 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.p


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 you¶re writing a
narrative about a major news story, the reader will already know the —  of the ending, but may not
know the —  or — 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 what¶s to come early in the story. Fuson (who credits editor •an 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 ³internal cliffhangers´ to build suspense, move the reader along and give
a promise of an ending worth the journey. Use what Fry calls ³gold 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.p


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 day¶s
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. You¶re 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 won¶t
come back. Most newspaper narratives start on Sunday, when many readers have extra time to
spend with the newspaper. Your reader¶s patience threshold might be lower on weekdays, because
she¶s 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.p


Narrative is not an all-or-nothing proposition. Some stories about issues or news events will use
narrative techniques, even though they aren¶t 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.p

   O  p

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 large cast, consider a
³cast 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 doesn¶t flow in chronological order or doesn¶t 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.p


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 aren¶t essential to the

É Omit process explanation. It¶s not important to some stories.p

É Minimize process explanation. Process detail is not important to some stories.p
É Handle the process in a sidebar, providing explanation to readers who want it but not
burdening your main story.p
É Handle the process in a graphic that will explain it better.p
•ournalists 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 doesn¶t work for most narratives, but an artful promise of what¶s to come can help
orient the reader effectively. p

÷    p

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

Telling a narrative story in ³layers´ 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 won¶t draw the reader into the story. But a pull-quote or graphic
makes the reader stop and read. If a reporter¶s interest in the tasks of presentation won¶t motivate
involvement, perhaps vanity will:           

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:p

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 reader¶s introduction to the
story in most cases. The best narrative packages are a result of close collaboration between writer
and photographer. Don¶t be bashful about making suggestions, but respect the professional skill of
the photographer to come up with better ideas than you might suggest.p

Check your files, paper and electronic, for historical photographs that may tell part of the story.p


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 don¶t use may help you describe people, places or events
in the story.p

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.p

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.p

If the reader might wonder ³how did that happen?´ or ³how 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.p


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.p

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 don¶t have a map or diagram, photos of key people or events
might enhance the chronology.p

A glossary explains terminology relating to a particular issue. This doesn¶t absolve the writer from
explaining some terms in context in the story, but gives an opportunity for more detailed definitions.p

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-it¶s, 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 non-narrative 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 that¶s easy to find.p

A serial narrative needs a box telling readers where this installment fits and what to expect next. p

˜ !    

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.p

Does your story include statistical information that can be presented in an understandable
typographical table as a separate element, such as a box score?p

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
don¶t really fit into the narrative but add to the character development of the total package.p

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 reader¶s 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 ³boxes´ 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.)p
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 don¶t fit in the narrative. p

You can bring several disparate facts about a story together in an easy and eye-catching way in a ³by
the numbers´ box that features the numbers in large type and explains them in smaller type.p

Lists almost always work better as a separate element, even if it¶s just text, than in the prose of a
narrative story. p

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.p

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.p

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.p


The main headline will be one of the first layers to catch the reader¶s 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 unnecessarily or doesn¶t reflect the
story¶s tone, you want to make that complaint in time to help change it.p

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
two-word 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.p


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.p


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

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 don¶t want a lame or misleading title for the series, just because you left the ³packaging´ of
the story to someone else.p

   p

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 ³maestro´ 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.p

However well you plan early, stories will change as you learn more about them. You will come across
information you didn¶t 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

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.p


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 don¶t
have to cover in the narrative.p