If the inverted pyramid as a writing form is tied to the printed page, what writing form does the web suggest?
That was the question asked by João Canavilhas of Portugal when he proposed the “tumbled pyramid,” a more open story architecture designed to encourage online navigation and personal reading paths. Canavilhas describes a new structure with four levels: base, explanation, and two levels of exploration.
I’ve wrestled with the same question. My solution: the “mapped” writing model (interesting how we reach out to new metaphors to replace old ones). Where my approach differs is its simplicity. The mapped model is really just a specific way to organize information. It assumes little change in how you, as the practitioner, define a story or function as a journalist. I’d like to explain the concept and how it rethinks the inverted pyramid.
HOW IT WORKS:
The mapped model views the news story as a whole and parts. First comes a summary of the main elements. Then the story breaks into an orderly conversation of one element or thread at a time. It’s up to the writer to define the content threads. Each thread starts with a subhead that clearly conveys what comes next, for example: “what happened,” “what witnesses saw,” or “next steps in the process.” The subheads function as a map, telling readers ahead of time where the story will lead, what turns in the road they can expect, and reminding them where they are. This form seems to work best on longer news and feature stories.
Below is a simple example of a mapped story I wrote recently for our community newspaper. I presented the story experimentally in a simple Flash file, to see how it might look on the web. You won’t be wowed by zippy graphics. It’s meant to show how the subheads can become the means of navigation, literally. On the web you could also present this story as a continuous text, with subheads set into the story, acting as signposts.
ORIGIN OF THE CONCEPT:
I developed this model as a news designer a few years ago as I tried to imagine ways to make stories easier to read.
I was troubled by what seemed like information chaos in many news stories dealing with complex topics. With a background in writing, I began to analyze how stories were built. I used color markers to highlight the various categories or threads present in a story, wherever they showed up in the text (I choose the colors at random). For example, “background” might turn up as a block of yellow in the second paragraph, then again in the sixth paragraph, then as a chunk toward the end of the story. Fully deconstructed, the story might contain six or eight threads, showing up as a patchwork of colors. Continue reading