Features and soft news often begin with several paragraphs of copy that engage the reader before getting on with the main elements of the story.
After the opening grabs a reader, narrative “hooks” are used to persuade the reader to continue reading. Hooks can use action, mystery, drama or characters.
Focus is on narratives that come to life through colorful description, anecdotes and quotes. Features can be told out of order or even as a story-within-a-story.
Hard news stories: you, the writer, make the point, set the tone and frame the issue in the first paragraph or two. Features: the writer can develop the storyline in a variety of ways and choose to postpone the main point until later in the copy or even at the end.
Every story should have a clear organizing principle that pulls the reader through the story – a narrative thread: Chronological order Logical progression The “little e” theory of narrative: start BIG and work around that issue in a circular way.
Inverted pyramid: works best for hard news stories. Martini Glass: Start big, end big. Could be in chronological order. Good for crime stories. The Kabob: Also known as “The Circle” or “The Diamond.” Good for stories on how people are affected by a topic. Popular for writing features.
Begin with quote or anecdote about a specific person or topic. Broaden into a general discussion of the topic. It ends by returning to the person or topic at the beginning.
An opening anecdote Then follow with the “nut” paragraph or paragraphs: similar to a lead in the inverted pyramid. Details: this includes background. Close with anecdote: if you begin with a character, you may want to end with the same character. This person is a “case study.”
Remember, your audience can sense a disorganized story. So one way to organize your ideas into a story could be like this: The issue or problem How it got that way Where we go from here OR, more specifically …
Look: this person has a problem. (case study!) Uh-oh: the problem is everywhere. (broaden!) What the experts say. (interviews!) What the future holds. (analysis!) What it all means for that person we met at the end of the story. (back to the case study!) This approach is popular.
So how do you begin a feature story? Remember: Style and substance of the writing features and soft news differs from hard news. Direct lead (hard news) v. Delayed lead (features and soft news).
Here is an example of the delayed lead: “Jack Loizeaux is a dentist of urban decay, a Mozart of dynamite, a guru of gravity. Like Joshua, he blows and the walls come tumbling down.”
Scene-setting lead: painting a picture with words of a place or person. “With his suitcase and checkbook in hand, Ted Teng ventured off to the far corners of Asia to do some serious shopping.”
Anecdotal lead: a specific incident or example that illustrates a larger situation. From Dan Ralescu’s sun-warmed beach chair in Thailand, the Indian Ocean began to look, oddly, not so much like waves but bread dough.
If you try an anecdotal lead: Make sure your lead is accurate and fits with the story’s theme; Be sure to segue into the story quickly; DON’T use the ever-popular ”John Doe is typical of ….” Also AVOID “John Doe never expected….”
Narrative lead: describes a sequence of events, somewhat like an anecdote, but in this case the story is not an example of a larger situation.
To find a lead for features, think about the elements of the story first. Which are the strongest elements? Description – describing a person, a group or a scene. Think about color and details. Anecdotes – stories that can be “entry points” for a larger narrative.
Action – describing people doing things Quotes The “angle” or theme: what the story is about and whether you have a novel way of approaching it. (a story about fishing… from the point of view of the fish!) Background information
Your reporting and observations. “Good” quotes: colorful, descriptive, showing emotion – help fuel a good feature story. The “angle” Background information: how much, how important and what is the context?
John McPhee’s approach: Identify all themes. Summarize in a sentence or two. Place each summarized theme on separate index cards. Put cards in order that they will follow in the story. Place your notes by theme. Look through cards for a major theme.
Another rule of thumb: If someone asked you to write a headline for this story—precisely explaining it in just a few words—could you do it? If the answer is yes, take those key ideas from the headline and build the rest of your story around it. If the answer is no… do more reporting!
Savor the atmosphere Infusing stories with a sense of people and place is important. Be creative about settings for interviews. Ask to shadow your source for an afternoon. Interview everybody, not just the “smart” people.
The writing style should be informal, but not casual. Use your voice. Make sure your lead fits with the overall theme of the story. If you decide to find a person to place in the lead, she needs to be directly involved in the topic you are writing about.
Remember: readers respond to people in stories, whether they appear as words in a print or Web story, or video for television. Speaking of people, show them doing things and talking in your stories. Dynamic is interesting. Good quotes keep your story moving.
Show, don’t tell: use strong verbs that convey action, and fewer adjectives. “He walked slowly” is both boring and uninformative! The end has to be strong – it is called the “kicker.” Leave the reader thinking. Vary the length of sentences and paragraphs.
Shorter paragraphs are better. Write one idea per paragraph. Remove trite, trendy phrases for a simple word. Read what you write. Then rewrite it.
Don’t hype – understate. Let the readers paint their own mental picture based on your words. Don’t give away everything at once. Rewrite, refine and shorten constantly: omit needless words.
“Good” stories come from good material. Good material comes from good reporting. Paraphrase routine quotes. Don’t use quotes in chronological order. Know your story and the tone you will use. Like a great book, you will need a good plot. Show, don’t tell.
Success breeds success: If you write good, hard-hitting stories on your beat, the people who hate—or love!—the people you write about will contact you. Indirect sourcing can pay off: If you can’t get directly to the people with the info you need, find out who might know them. Never be afraid to say, “Do you know someone who might have this information?”
Writers are people on whom nothing is lost. ▪ Keep your “string.” Read everything: history books, guide books, blogs, local websites: ▪ You never know where your next story idea will come from. Always practice your interviewing skills. Be curious!
Newspapers, magazines, TVs, radio, websites News releases (university e-mails) Friends, classmates, teachers, janitors – all of these and more may provide great ideas. Plain old brainstorming – look around!
And as with any story, ask yourself: Is it timely? Is it relevant? Will it stand the test of time? Will it make a difference? Does it serve multiple purposes?