What Makes a Story

In “Writing For Story,” Jon Franklin wrote: “A story consists of a sequence of actions that occur when a sympathetic character encounters a complicating situation that he confronts and solves.” (emphasis added)
Simpler yet: A good story consists of characters, conflict and resolution.

That’s every good novel, every good short story, every good TV drama, every good movie.
And if the story ends in redemption, even better.

Once you develop an eye for this pattern, you’ll spot these stories everywhere.

In the words of writer Walt Harrington, “They make readers leave themselves momentarily and feel what it’s like to be another person.”
Harrington’s book, “Intimate Journalism,” offers a few basic techniques:

  • Thinking, reporting and writing in scenes.Stories aren’t just stacks of set-up grafs and quotes. They’re stories with a beginning, middle and end. Tell them that way.
  • Gathering telling details — not just a laundry list of details, but details that reveal something about the person.
  • Gathering real-life dialogue. Let the reader be a fly on the wall as a scene plays out. Minimize the quotes spoken to the reporter, in favor of quotes spoken between characters.
  • Look for basic human themes that are common to everyone. “The eternal verities of love, hate, fear, ambition, dedication, compassion are still our bread and butter,” Harrington wrote. “Always remember: Scene, detail and narrative bring a story to life, while theme and meaning imbue it with a soul.”

Writer Tom Hallman has put that even more succinctly: “Find the parable.” If you can find confirmation of a basic human truth behind an already compelling story, that’s gold.


Other practical tips in reporting good stories:

  • Use a voice recorder. You will always discover new details upon hearing something for the second time.
  • But also take great notes. Sometimes, a voice recorder is intrusive or disruptive. Especially when writing scenes, good note-taking is a must. Write not only quotes, but details using your five senses.
  • Take photos. This helps you remember details from a scene.
  • Never fabricate or embellish. Everything you tell must be absolutely true. That’s the power of it.
  • Make every quote and every detail serve the story’s main theme, guiding the reader from Point A to B to Z. No tangents. It’s like giving readers smooth rails to ride on — when they reach the end, they barely know they’ve traveled.

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