‘It’s all storytelling, you know. That’s what journalism is all about,’Tom Brokaw, the legendary NBC anchorman once observed. Great journalists are gifted storytellers, part of a tradition that goes back through the millenniato the telling of tales around the fire at night of great events, danger, love, sadness and the human condition.
But instilling this basic philosophy into trainee journalists can be difficult. And it’s not surprising. Opining to someone who is trying to learn to write fast, tight news copy that they are in the business of storytelling must look like pie in the sky romanticism, especially in the age of ‘churnalism”. Reporting must seem as much a part of the craft of storytelling as putting furniture together from an IKEA flat pack does a part of master carpentry.
But it is vital that journalists do get it into their head at an early stage that good journalism is really all about storytelling and not just compiling facts and quotes in an orderly fashion. And that it is possible to tell a story in less than 500 words or a 90-second broadcast.
When it comes to explaining brevity in storytelling there is no better example than the famous Ernest Hemingway bet. In the Twenties, Hemingway wagered $10 that he could write a complete story in just six words. He came up with: ‘For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” He won the bet. Inspired by Hemingway, a US magazine last year challenged its listeners to compose a six-word memoir. The response was fantastic, with thousands of entries, and ultimately a book. One of the most compelling was ‘After Harvard had baby with crackhead”. Other great six-worders include: ‘Found true love, married someone else.”Wasn’t born a redhead, fixed that.’The best for a journalist was: ‘Me see world, me write stories.”
I have used this as an exercise with students and the response is usually great. My heart did sink a bit recently when one student wrote: ‘Should never have taken this degree.”
Another method to demonstrate the art of succinct storytelling is through song lyrics. My own current favourite is Fortune Teller. written by Allen Toussaint in 1962 and recently reworked by Robert Plant and Alison Krauss. In six verses, the song manages to convey a story of longing, anger, forgiveness, love, humour and throw in a twist for good measure, all accompanied by a great tune.
In general terms, the more dramatic the event, the easier it will be to tell the story, because dramatic stories tell themselves. If you are a TV reporter in the middle of a firefight in Helmand the story is immediately engaging. But if there is not a firefight, how do you tell what is going on in a war zone? That is the real test of the journalist as storyteller.
When looking to give a news report a narrative, usually the best place to start is with people. As journalist EB White said: ‘Don’t write about man, write about a man.’Ask yourself: Is there someone whose eyes and experience you can tell the story through?
BBC reporter Alan Johnston suggests an example from Grozny, where during the battle for the city he found himself in an abandoned block of flats.
‘We went into an apartment where a shell had come through the living-room wall. If you looked around the room for a minute, you could see the life that used to go on in it,’he says. ‘You could see the books that the family used to read, and the sort of pictures that they liked to hang on the walls, and, from photographs, you could see that they had three kids and that the oldest girl had graduated from university.’He turned this into a report.
‘Of course, their story, what had happened to them – what they were, and what they had lost – was what the war was all about.”
News writing does present some problems for narrative structure. The most obvious way to tell a story is chronological. As the Red Queen advises Alice in Alice in Wonderland: ‘Start at the beginning, go through to the end and then stop.’But in journalism, you must grab the attention at the top of the story, not the end. Journalists have to find other structures to tell a story.
When writing any piece of journalism a little voice in the head should ask: ‘Am I writing this as a story. Is this interesting for the audience?’
A good piece of news storytelling starts with a bang, and the story arcs through the piece, concluding before the end. The US journalist James Lileks says the ideal ending leaves an impression: ‘If the opening line is your little trick to get readers in, an ending should be a payoff in a way that lets them take something away that’s greater than the sum of any words you have written. Try to make the last line more evocative, so you hear overtones of the rest of the story, so it has more resonance.”