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The Middle - the story architect

Copyright © 2005 Dorian Scott Cole
About this series.


Is there indifference about the news? Perhaps it is that no one cares. If no one cares, perhaps it is because they don't know to care. This begs the question, should the reporter/narrator tell the people why they should care? One school might say that this is talking down to the intelligent audience. But can all people understand the implications of all stories if they don't know the implications of every possible happening in the world?

What forms a news story?

Last night in a news conference, three pork-fried fish explained their journey for the first time. The end.

People have an appetite for what's in the middle. They would like to know what was said at the news conference... before the end.

In TV news, the opening line is the tease, and is unfortunately meant to keep people watching an hour-long news cast to the 58th. minute when the story is finally revealed. The tease keeps people around until the meat arrives. The meat is the middle of the story.

"Oh, no! Does this mean that journalists can't just recite the facts - they have to wrestle with stories to wring some juicy morsels out of the dusty bits of chaos of life that never make sense?"

Stories have three important qualities: (skip this boring list if you dare.)

1)They generate interest through:

  • Inquisitiveness: Curiosity - something of interest to people.
  • Significance: has meaning to people - is relevant to them.
  • 2) They have a coherent sequence that strings items together so that they make sense, such as:

  • Events: a happening.
  • Relate: narrate, connect, associate, to put in a coherent string.
  • Narration: to tell the story, giving an account of the events.
  • 3) They tell us something about life, giving us:

  • Explanation: to make it comprehensible, particularly regarding cause and significance.
  • Cause: to tell the "why" behind the story - what made the event happen.
  • Remove any of the above and you seriously impact the ability of the story to communicate. You may be left with a tease or a spectacle instead of a story. Without these, the report moves from the realm of story to the realm of sensationalism.

    The middle : part of the whole, pump it up, string it out
    "A whole is that which has beginning, middle and end."
    - Aristotle, Rhetoric Greek critic, philosopher, physicist, & zoologist (384 BC - 322 BC).

    "That's a hell of an ambition, to be mellow. It's like wanting to be senile."
    - Randy Newman on middle of the road music. (From Rand Lindsly's Quotations.)

    This: "I caused my husband's heart attack... but fortunately the Great Dane could dial."

    Or this: "I caused my husband's heart attack. In the middle of lovemaking I took the paper bag off my head. He dropped the Polaroid and keeled over and so did the hooker. It would have taken me half an hour to untie myself and call the paramedics, but fortunately the Great Dane could dial."
    - Joan Rivers (1935 - ). (From Rand Lindsly's Quotations.)

    Quotes source: The Quotation Page

    What happens in the middle? In a well-told story, all of the above. In a poorly told story, the storyline sags, people lose interest, their eyes glaze over, and they turn the page or the channel.

    How do you tell a story well? A storyteller (reporter) architects a story. He doesn't structure it - structure is boring. He architects it - architecture is interesting. An architect knows what story elements, structure, and devices capture people and hold their interest. He crafts raw material into a story rich with significance.

    Isn't this fake? When a building architect designs a building and people see the final product, do they mutter, "It's just a box. He just disguised it well." No, they admire the facade. They appreciate not just the engineering skill, but the artistic skill. Storytellers do the same thing. They architect a story so that people react to it.

    Little Red Riding Hood was just another wolf in disguise story on the police blotter. And then some storyteller crafted it into a story with compelling characters, suspenseful and mysterious chronology, situated it in an interesting locale, and populated the story with scary events. So then the story came to life and jumped off the page. Even children know the story.

    How then is a story architected? By richly endowing each story element with details that generate interest, using the storyteller's (reporter's) tools: characterization, theme, and plot.

    Characterization: Who is this person? Not all characters are as compelling as Little Red Riding Hood, but it doesn't matter. We care about most people if we can relate to them. All we need is a little background on the person.

    Theme: Why is this happening to these people and creating this event(s)?

    Plot: Tell the events in chronological order. The reporter's tools are narration (their voice or words), images of the dramatic action (descriptions, illustrations, pictures, video), statements (press conferences, personal narration), and interviews. These are woven together in a way that generates interest, sometimes using the elements of mystery and suspense to create interest. Mystery and suspense pull people in, leading them step by step through the chronological sequence.

    But don't people feel manipulated if they feel the reporter purposely withheld information from the start? Sometimes. It's often OK in a news story to tell the ending first. In real life, people know the end and want to know what shaped the story so that it ended the way that it did. They want to know the middle - the why.

    The middle is the meat of the meal. Have you ever heard anyone complain half way through a steak that it is boring? Then architect the middle so it is like eating a steak.

    Next: The end

    - Scott

    Watch for more articles in this series.


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