June 7, 2012

Go back to the beginning halfway through the feature

I was disappointed to see a religious magazine a few months ago publish a poorly written feature. Once I slogged through the story I could tell the writer had stumbled on something special, but it was written so poorly that I doubt many readers made it to the end.

The main problem is that it was written chronically. It started with the main character’s childhood, and only at the end does the reader discover the great outcome.

A feature doesn’t necessarily need to follow the traditional inverted pyramid style of writing, but it does need to early on reveal some of what’s to come.

Do this by writing most of the story up front and then, halfway through, going back to the beginning of the person’s life or the trend.

A great way to see this is in The Wall Street Journal’s Weekend Interview stories. These are longer features based on an interview with a prominent figure. Read several of them. Nearly all of them go back to the person’s origins halfway through the interview – sometimes one-third or two-thirds the way through. This is very similar to an obit formula. Sometimes the Weekend Interview features go back to where the person was born, while other times the writer only goes back to when they started becoming successful.

The Washington Post Magazine had a great feature on broadcasters for the Washington Nationals baseball team. Sure enough, about one-third of the way through, the reporter went back to a broadcaster’s humble beginnings as a kid and how he got involved in the business. Then, near the end of the story – probably about two-thirds of the way through the entire piece – the writer went all the way back to the start of baseball broadcast history. Later, the reporter told the exciting part – the broadcaster's colorful rise through minor-league broadcasting.

This is similar to the classic Reader’s Digest formula of short tales. A family doesn’t start by sitting at home and then the house catches fire and they all escape safely. Nor do they start with the family having gotten out of the house safe and then reminiscing about how they did it. The formula usually started with the house on fire...then the writer goes back to the beginning, and later the narrative ends the with the family's successful escape.

This is also well articulated in the excellent book “Pitch Anything” by Oren Klaff. The formula goes like this: 1. Put man in jungle 2. Have beasts attack him 3. He gets out of jungle safely. But as Klaff notes, keep the reader in a bit of suspense by keeping the man on the edge of the jungle for a while.

Now you can re-read good feature stories and watch for some of these patterns. You can learn to use similar foreshadowing and pacing.

Please don’t misunderstand me, I’m not advocating formula writing. But there is a case to be made for formula structure. That case is seen in the numerous patterns routinely found throughout journalism. This blog wouldn’t exist without them.

Hopefully that religious magazine – which reviews a particular denomination – will see the need for writers who know these methods of better keeping the attention of readers. Doing so would not only make their own publication better, it would also honor the people they write about.

1 comment:

  1. Writing is such exhausting work, but you make me want to do it!