Finding any story’s heart with 5 questions and 70 seconds

Craft Lessons

Journalists, like all writers, draw connections between disparate events and developments. They fashion mosaics from an overwhelming number of bits of information, details and facts. And, often, the journalist must do it in a matter of hours, if not minutes.

Think fast. Think on your feet. React to events as they unfold. 

To do it well demands quick intelligence and a talent for critical thinking. If you can’t think, smart and fast, you can’t report well, and you certainly won’t write well. 

Trying to write a story, without figuring out what you’re trying to say, whether it’s a news piece, a novel or screenplay, is like hacking your way through a jungle with a butter knife: frustrating and fruitless.

Trying to write a story, without figuring out what you’re trying to say, whether it’s a news piece, a novel or screenplay, is like hacking your way through a jungle with a butter knife: frustrating and fruitless.

That’s where questions come in. They are the machete that hacks through a landscape tangled with the quotes, statistics, details and other facts that sprout up as you report or draft.

 One question looms above all: what is my story about?

Finding The Central Idea

“The most important thing in the story is finding the central idea,” Washington Post sports columnist Thomas Boswell says. 

“It’s one thing to be given a topic, but you have to find the idea or the concept within that topic.  Once you find that idea or thread, all the other anecdotes, illustrations and quotes are pearls that you hang on this thread.  The thread may seem very humble, the pearls may seem very flashy, but it’s still the thread that makes the necklace.”

To unravel the thread requires the writer to focus, a vital component of the writing process, sandwiched between developing ideas and reporting the story, drafting and revising the text. 

You should begin that quest for meaning even before you start interviewing or researching. While that sounds counterintuitive—how can I know what my story is about before I report?—writers are most successful when they first draw on one of their most crucial sources: themselves.

That way, they tap into their own humanity and can search for the universal messages that will connect their stories to everyone. 

An example

Say, for instance, there’s a controversy in your community because the school board is considering cutting funds for after-school arts programs. Tonight, you’re assigned to cover the meeting when it will come to a vote.

Obviously, you can’t predict the future, but you are already an expert about some things. 

You’ve gone to high school, for starters. You probably took an arts class. Maybe you played in the steel drum band, built sets for a play or sang in the glee club.

You already possess some knowledge about your subject, enough to launch a quest for the focus of your story, or theme, as your literature teachers called it. 

It’s the spine without which your story is just a blob of unformed information of little interest and use to your audience. 

It’s the heart that makes your story beat with power. 

It would be nice to be able to just ask yourself, “What’s the theme of my story?” and come up with a ready response.

But if you’ve ever had an editor ask you that question and found yourself stumbling over your words, you know how difficult it can be to answer.

Four Questions…And One More

“Newspaper writing, especially on deadline, is so hectic and complicated—the fact-gathering, the phrase-finding, the inconvenience, the pressure—that it’s easy to forget the basics of storytelling,” says David Von Drehle, who writes a national political column for The Washington Post, “Namely, what happened, and why does it matter?”

Regardless of medium or genre, these are the challenges all storytellers face.

Von Drehle posed four additional questions that will enable you to begin the quest for focus even before the meeting starts.

1. Why does it matter?
2. What’s the point?
3. Why is this story being told?
4. What does it say about life, about the world, about the times we live in?

You could easily start muttering the answers to yourself or tell a colleague or editor what you think.

My advice is for you to freewrite the answers. 

Open a file or flip to a fresh page in your notebook and start writing as fast as you can. Don’t stop if you misspell a word, or get punctuation wrong. There will be time to fix that. Spend your time recording your thoughts as they fly off your fingers. 

I’ll show you what I mean. Warning: It’s messy, but I’m just trying to get my thoughts down as quickly as possible. If I used any of this in the story, I can quickly fix the mistakes.

For the first three focusing questions, write for 15 seconds.

  1. because arts enrich kids’ lives. helps them experience the world beyond their own lives become full richer human beings
  2. point is that arts matters in education. It matters as much as math and science and sports and PE
  3. Told because parents and students need to be alerted that these critical programs may be cut depriving

For the fourth question, write for 20 seconds. I’m giving you more time because I think it’s such a brilliant question. 

4. At a time when school are so much about sports, arts take a back seat and students are cheated of the chance to act, paint, etc. Sports get the money. Unfair, Wrongheaded.

Just think. What if every story you write or read answered—or addressed—that question? 

What if readers, viewers and listeners knew they would be on the receiving end of such knowledge?

Perhaps the news industry wouldn’t be in as much trouble as it is. 

Too often,  news writing is poorly focused, if focused at all, badly organized, shoddily written and barely edited.

But offer high-quality information produced by a thoughtful writer and it will be greeted by an eager, built-in audience.

“People come to a newspaper craving a unifying human presence—the narrator in a piece of fiction, the guide who knows the way, or the colleague whose view one values,” Jack Fuller writes in his book “News Values: Ideas for an Information Age.”

The same holds true for news sites, magazines, podcasts and the myriad ways news and information is delivered. 

People crave meaning in the short stories, nonfiction books and novels they read and the dramas they watch as well. 

Von Drehle’s questions provide the opportunity to furnish these valuable commodities of knowledge and wisdom. They also enable you to answer the most important question, the one your audience (and your editor) will ask.

What’s my story really about?

That’s why I added a fifth question to Von Drehle’s excellent list. 

What’s my story really about—in one word?

This time you only get five seconds to answer it. Don’t worry. I just want a one-word answer. 

5. Deprivation (Notice how it was embedded in one of the earlier answers. And that’s my answer. Yours may be different.)

Why one word?

Of all the definitions of theme, my favorite is “meaning in a word.” The strongest themes are emotional, resonant, universal. 

Betrayal.

Redemption.

Corruption.

Hope.

“Money,” “cuts” and “funding” are topics, not themes. You have to dig deep for this answer, (hence really) not settle for the facile label that may tell you what the story is about on the surface, but doesn’t reveal all its complexities.

“It’s one thing to be given a topic, but you have to find the idea or the concept within that topic.  Once you find that idea or thread, all the other anecdotes, illustrations and quotes are pearls that you hang on this thread.  The thread may seem very humble, the pearls may seem very flashy, but it’s still the thread that makes the necklace.”

Thomas Boswell

With your focus in mind, you can now go outside yourself for specifics. 

Don’t just talk to school officials; ask students and their parents how they would be deprived or what would be lost if the funding for the arts was cut. Chances are you’ll head into the meeting with lively anecdotes, examples and quotes.

Someone who might not want to read a story about a school board meeting might be interested in how public officials are planning to deprive students of subjects that enrich their lives.

Never stop searching

Of course, the search for focus doesn’t end when you answer those questions before you head out on an assignment or start a new writing project.

Events can change. The protest your editor said he witnessed on the way to work could be a new farmer’s market.

The school board, pressured by protests by students and their families, could in fact vote to increase arts funding.

Be mindful that the focus might change and hope you have enough integrity to say, “It’s not the same.”

That’s why you should freewrite answers to the five questions at every step of the process:

  • Before the reporting
  • During the reporting
  • After the reporting
  • Before the writing
  • Before the revision

Before you scream “Impossible!,” remember I only asked you to freewrite for a total of 70 seconds.

One minute and 10 seconds. 

Heck, most reporters waste way more time than that trying to craft the “perfect lead” only to make a mess of the rest of the story because they ran out of time.

And don’t dismiss freewriting simply because it’s easy. Bear in mind that you’re drafting words that may make it into your finished story. 

Finding your theme will drive your reporting, your writing and revising. 

Most important, these five questions will enable you to find the heart of every story you write. 

Every story has a heart. Your job as a writer is to find it.

May the writing go well.

Photo of heart symbol/Chang Duong on Unsplash

Adapted from “News Reporting and Writing: The Complete Guide for Today’s Journalist,” by Chip Scanlan and Richard Craig

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