Going the distance

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Author: Jon Franklin
Date: January-February 1993
From: Washington Journalism Review(Vol. 15, Issue 1)
Publisher: University of Maryland
Document Type: Article
Length: 1,991 words

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Abstract: 

Writing longer newspaper stories requires a different stylistic approach than the standard inverted pyramid format. The longer piece requires stylistic elements similar to narrative writing. These can be described as the nut, or intent of the piece, and the bolt, or conclusion. In between these should occur the prose that indicates the inevitability of the conclusion, or point of insight. The most important point about long-story writing is recognizing stories that require a greater degree of contextual development than the standard format can provide.

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To journalists accustomed to dealing with inverted pyramid and delayed-lead stories, the long piece can be daunting. The biggest hurdle is the idea that there is something unnatural about the long story. There isn't. In fact, the current fashion in soundbite journalism notwithstanding, the natural length for stories is long.

A presidential election goes on forever, an endless tangle of convolutions and permutations. Trials are often an interminable interplay of legal technicality and human emotion that leaves all participants drained and changed.

Even the continuing saga of Madonna is by its nature a long and rather enigmatic tale - or it would be, at least, if you attempted to explain it to a visitor from Mars.

The reason that most stories can be written short is that they aren't stories at all. They're installments. The reader, not being a Martian, has been following the soap opera we call the daily news and already knows what happened in the last episode. That's why the reader doesn't need an explanation of who Madonna is, or why she would wear a corset as an outer garment; it's enough to just describe her latest antics.

This is why, despite the epic nature of life, most news stories can be short bursts of information encapsulating what happened yesterday, with perhaps a bit of background to jog the memory. The ongoing story already exists in the reader's mind. The news story simply moves it forward a notch or two.

The key idea here is that the long piece is justified only when the reader either does not have the context for the story or when that context is wrong or superficial. When that's the case, nothing but a long story will do. And when it's done correctly and for the right reasons, almost nothing else in journalism packs quite the same wallop.

From a strictly practical perspective, the reporter confronts a long piece in one of two general circumstances.

The first is when the reporter has uncovered some truth or insight that the reader can't fully comprehend without the perspective context brings. If scientists have discovered a new family of side receptors on human brain cells, the fact itself can't stand alone; the reader has to be taught enough about biology to understand what the discovery means and why it's important to the human condition.

The long story is also called for when the reporter has found a good yarn to tell - a story that will take the reader somewhere he or she would normally not be able to go and, in the process, provide some human insight germane to the news.

The story of a welfare mother's fight to protect her daughter from pimps and see that she gets a good education is one example. The story of a judge's dogged struggle to help the teenagers who come into his court might be another.

The initial judgment as to whether or not a given story meets one of those criteria is the single most important decision the long-haul journalist ever makes. Unfortunately, too many journalists delude themselves into thinking their stories meet the criteria for long-piece treatment when they clearly do not. Often reporters and editors make the mistake of letting a piece grow because "it's worth it."

But length lends gravity only if there is a strong narrative line. Otherwise, it anesthetizes. Many profoundly important stories can be told briefly and, if they can be, they should be.

Another reason stories sometimes get played out when they should be folded into an inverted pyramid has to do with egos and city room politics. Many organizations equate the long piece with stardom, and permission to write long is a reward for hard work and unpaid overtime.

The sad reality is that not everyone - not even every hardworking star - can write the long piece. Narrative copy takes a particular set of skills not only to compose but to edit, and the successful journalist is usually the one with significant experience.

In the current climate of no-jump edicts, this is a real problem. Excellent writers and editors who finally get to do a long piece may fail simply because they haven't trained for the marathon. Journalism is a performing art, and practice is paramount. News organizations that don't print many long pieces may find that, when they do, the result will be amateurish.

If a long piece is merited, success usually boils down to the mastery of a series of simple but coldly unforgiving rules of structure.

Given the performance anxiety that comes with long-piece journalism, for instance, the instinct is often to reach for the tried, true and trustworthy. This often means that when in doubt the reporter will respond by moving most or all of the good stuff up to the top of the story.

Front-end loading works quite well when the reader has the context for the information - if the stuff moved up makes some intrinsic sense to the reader. This is the case in the hard news lead. But if the reader has the context to understand the main points of the story, the reporter shouldn't be doing a long piece in the first place.

If a long story is called for, it's because the context isn't already in the public consciousness. In that case, shoving the stuff in the reader's face is not enlightening, it's assaultive. It's too much too fast. The result is information overload, confusion and the loss of the reader.

On the printed page, the clearest symptom of this problem is bullets. A bunch of bullets in the first column almost invariably means that the writer and editor were unable to digest the point and express it in narrative; they have therefore elected to let the reader do it for them.

This was driven home to me several years ago when I helped judge the explanatory category for the Pulitzers. I was struck by the way the entries with the most bullets on the opening page were.the first to be disqualified; by the third round of elimination, there were no bullets left on the table.

The result was the formulation of "Franklin's Law." To wit: The number of bullets is inversely proportional to the readability of the copy.

The three pieces that stayed on the table were about different subjects and were written by people with distinctly different styles. But they had some things in common. All of them had clear, decisive messages. They didn't waffle. The writers knew exactly what they had to say, and while the reader might not fully understand for 1,500 words or so, the direction and intent of the narrative was clear a half-dozen lines down from the top.

That is the most fundamental organizational principle of any long piece: It has to have something to say, and the writer has to know what it is and be prepared to march straight to it. Usually the point is already settled, in story memo form, before the project even gets its initial go-ahead.

This point, or message, serves to "crystallize" the story the same way the lead crystallizes a hard news story. Once you've got it, everything else can coalesce around it. The difference is that, in the case of the long piece, the main point gets made not at the beginning of the story but at the end.

This seems counter-intuitive to the journalist accustomed to doing nothing but inverted pyramid stories. But if you think about it, it makes sense. If you could make your point at the beginning ... you'd do it. The reason you don't is because the reader has to be prepared for it. Some circumstances have to be laid out, some things developed, some people characterized. That's why you're doing a long piece.

So by the time you've reached the end and made your point, you don't have anything left to say.

If this still doesn't seem logical, I should admit that it isn't. Not, at least, in the intellectual sense. Story organization is psychological. It follows formulas that psychologists have called "story grammar."

Story grammar is to a story what ordinary grammar is to a sentence. It describes anatomy, and specifies what has to go before what else.

Story grammar calls for the tale to begin with an orienting narrative (a ("hook") that is often (but by no means always) anecdotal. This leads to what is in effect a long-delayed lead that provokes instead of summarizes. This "nut graf," as it is often called, traditionally appears by the tenth paragraph or so.

Unless ifs already obvious, the nut graf reveals the dynamic of the story. Presumably it can't tell the whole story, of course; if it could, the story would work with a delayed lead and the long-piece treatment would be overkill.

But the nut has to at least tell the reader that the story is going to be about the search for a serial murderer, or an exposition on what future may await Christians in Lebanon. In broader terms, the nut graf typically poses a hypothesis, expresses a contention, asks a question, or presents a fact or situation so dramatic or puzzling as to require the reader to read on. In the dramatic story, the nut graf presents the character with a "complication" - he learns he has cancer, or gets a letter from the IRS, or decides to run for Congress.

The nut graf serves to create tension in the story and make the reader want to find out what happened, and while the nature of the tension is often very straightforward, it doesn't have to be. Subtle nut grafs, in the hands of a pro, can be very compelling.

One rule of the game that allows for no exceptions is that the nut graf has to set up, foreshadow, or in some other fashion match the ending, which I usually call a "bolt" graf, to emphasize this relationship.

If the nut asks a question, the bolt contains the answer. If the nut poses an argument, the bolt concludes it. If the hook introduces a kindly, settled woman who clips coupons and plays bingo, and the nut presents her with a few million dollars after winning the lottery, then the bolt must show her successfully making the transition to her new life.

There is one other piece of story anatomy that merits mention, and that is the point of insight. The point of insight, which develops rather naturally in any story with a clear nut and bolt, can usually be found about 10 percent of the way up from the bottom of a story. It is the point at which the end becomes inevitable.

For people who think of story as psychological mechanism, there's a lot more to it than nut, point of insight and bolt. Stories can have an astonishing degree of internal complexity; books have been written about it and writers spend their lives exploring it.

But in the same way a good lead organizes an inverted pyramid story, a good nut, bolt and point of insight, taken together, serve to organize a long piece into something the reader can follow and enjoy. A long piece with a clear structure that says something worth saying is almost always a credit to a writer and editor.

Jon Franklin, who won two Pulitzer Prizes for what he says were interminably long pieces, teaches journalism at the University of Oregon.

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A13445222