The thing that happens

Thursday, March 23, 2017
I've written about beginnings before, but this semester I had a realization. While teaching my journalism class, I was discussing the proper way to begin an article, which for hard news (not feature stories), is usually the inverted pyramid style.

The idea of the inverted pyramid to is get all the information up front, so that if a reader stops reading after the first paragraph or two, or if a story gets cut in a print publication due to space (also known as: an ad comes in and needs that space) he or she will have enough information about the story to understand it.

To do this, reporters use the 5 Ws: who, what, when, where, and why. You can also throw in an H for how if necessary. Using this style gives all the facts up front, and then explains them in the paragraphs that follow. For example:

Arson is suspected in an early morning fire that destroyed the Smokey Hills Restaurant in Springfield today. Fire fighters from three districts were able to exterminate the blaze within four hours. No one was injured. Damage to the 8,000 square-foot facility is estimated at $6 million. Owners say they will rebuild.

By using inverted pyramid, the basic facts are covered in a short space. If the article were to continue, the reporter could add more details and background information including quotes and stories about the events planned there that will need to be relocated, or how it affects those in the community. An interview with the owner and a firefighter on the scene could give the article some interesting insight.

When writing hard news, the ending comes first. It's the answer to the question what happened? As I was talking about this in class, I had a sudden realization that fictional works are created in the opposite manner.

Fiction usually starts before the climax and works toward it, slowly building tension and conflict as characters and a ticking clock move toward the main event of the story. As we read through the chapters, we learn about motivation and watch characters develop along the way, perhaps giving us insight into the psyche of an arsonist. At the end we experience the thing that happens.

Lately I've been thinking about structure, and the way stories unfold. Are they teased out by the writer as he or she drop hints here and there along the path that is the plot? Or, do they start with the thing that happens, and work backward?

Writers can use either technique to uncover a story. I am always looking for ways to improve writing, regardless of genre, and because I write fiction and nonfiction, I'm going to experiment with both strategies to strengthen my own writing. How about you, what techniques have you used to tell the story?


Mary Horner is the author of Strengthen Your Nonfiction Writing, and teaches communications at St. Louis and St. Charles Community Colleges. She also works as a freelance writer, editor and speech coach.


Sioux Roslawski said...

Mary--My students are a bit younger, so they're less exposed to different options. Usually, they think narratives MUST be chronological when we begin our work together. Showing them they can begin with the end, and then flash back, is fun.

As always, your post shows your wealth of experience. Thanks, Mary.

Margo Dill said...

I think it depends on the story--is the story the thing that happens or is it really more interesting how we got there? :)

Pat Wahler said...

Terrific observation, Mary! I tend to agree with your pyramid theory for fiction. It's a perfect analogy.


Angela Mackintosh said...

Great post, Mary! I've been thinking about structure a lot lately in deciding how I should write my memoir. Memoirs used to be chronological--point A to point B--but now current memoirs are using all types of structures. Framed (start at the end and then either tell it linear from the present or tell it chronological with backstory woven in), Braided (switches chapters past and present), Circular (start in the middle of the action and then keep coming back to a particular episode in the story), and more. I think there are so many ways to tell the same story and figuring out which way to tell it makes a huge difference.

Donna Volkenannt said...

Another great post, Mary. Informative with concrete examples. For nonfiction I like to answer the 5Ws as well as the How when possible.
When writing fiction, I generally use chronological order with flashbacks as needed. I also like to use the onion method by peeling back the story one layer at a time to appeal (no pun) to the senses to engage the reader by evoking their emotions, maybe to bring on a tear for sad scenes or a feeling of comfort (like the feeling after a hearty meal).
I always reading your posts, Mary!

Mary Horner said...

Thank you all for your comments, sorry for the delayed response, my daughter got married today and I've been distracted for the past few days! Margo, I think stories unfold the way they are supposed to, which is why it's sometimes a challenge for a writer because it may take a while to figure out which works best for him or her and the story that needs to be told. But to be honest, Angela, I haven't heard of the braided structure, but I like it and may have to try it! Sioux, I love blowing the minds of students by introducing them to something completely different from something they've always heard, and Pat, I appreciate your observation, and to be honest, I wasn't sure it was an observation that had any merit, but it did strike me when I was talking about it. And Donna, I'm dealing with the onion issue in a novel I've written and trying to figure out when to peel, and when to flash back. Thank you all for taking the time to respond to my post.

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