This year I’ve been working with my MA Data Journalism and MA Multiplatform and Mobile Journalism students on techniques for telling longer form stories. In this post I explain how a consideration of story structure can help you clarify the sources that you will need to talk to in order to gather the elements needed for an effective longform story.
In a previous post I discussed how different plot frameworks identified by Christopher Booker in his book ‘The Seven Basic Plots‘ – such as the ‘quest’ or ‘tragedy’ – can help a journalist think about longer investigations. In addition to those types of story, however, Booker also identifies 5 stages of a story. These are:
- Anticipation: setting, character and – crucially – ‘problem’ are introduced.
- Dream: we begin exploring/solving the problem.
- Frustration: we hit more problems.
- Nightmare: this is the ‘final battle’ of fiction narratives.
- Miraculous Escape/Redemption/Achievement of the Prize or (in the case of Tragedy) the Hero’s Destruction.
How the 5 stages work in journalism
I would argue that you can see these stages at work in most longform journalism, too. Here’s how:
- Anticipation: a case study is presented which embodies the problem, or in some cases we might raise a question (“How did this happen?”) or highlight a conundrum. In journalistic narratives the ‘problem’ is often twofold: investigations often involve a problem with society, but to drive the narrative they might also have a protagonist who tries to solve that problem.
- Dream: background and context to the problem is presented. This part is a ‘dream’ because it tends to be relatively smooth and satisfying (we are getting answers to the problems set out at the start)
- Frustration: this is the “but” that follows the background. It is the difference between what ought to be, and what is. It may well be bigger and more complex than we thought, or initial solutions are leading to new problems, or it may be that certain things are supposed to happen, but they are not.
- Nightmare: in journalism ‘final battles’ are relatively rare unless the story has already reached its end (for example, a court case). ‘After the event’ stories such as those exploring the fall of Carillion would, however, have a ‘nightmare’ stage when the company collapses. A better term for journalistic writing, then, is climax, when the story is brought to a head.
- Miraculous Escape/Redemption/Achievement of the Prize. Again, in journalism we are unlikely to have this unless it is ‘after the event’, e.g. a story of a campaign which is already successful. A better term for reporting, then, is resolution/coda. Typically this is an ending which looks ahead to what happens next, either for the issue as a whole (there is an inquest due to take place, or police have provided a quote in response to the investigation), or for one of the people involved (end on a quote about their feelings now, or what they plan to do next).
A note about solutions journalism: when applying this approach to solutions journalism, you can simply introduction the ‘solution’ in the dream stage: outlining the background, how they’re trying to solve the problem. The ‘nightmare’ then becomes obstacles to that solution, which might include problems with it that need to be addressed first. The climax may involve an interview with those responsible for tackling those problems as well as those presenting obstacles.
5 stages: an example
Let’s look at these in relation to 8,000 Holes: How the 2012 Olympic Torch Relay Lost its Way, probably the longest story I have written (before I was explicitly thinking of these stages):
- Anticipation: in 8,000 Holes I begin with Jack Binstead and his nurse’s question (‘problem’) about nominating him for the Olympic torch relay.
- Dream: we go on to explain how the torch relay worked, the promises made, etc.
- Frustration: but there’s a problem – we keep finding evidence of torch relay places being given to executives, failing to keep the promises made
- Nightmare: you could argue that this is when the sponsors involved respond to the accusations given – but that comes around halfway through the story – or perhaps it is instead the reactions of politicians calling for action. But perhaps the climactic paragraph returns us to Jack, and a description that might indeed be classified as his family’s nightmare, listing all the executives carrying the torch on just the one day he would have carried it.
- Resolution/coda: here we end with a summary that contrasts the promises against the reality – a factual and unsatisfactory resolution – before a more personal coda: a torchbearer who “thinks that the handling of torchbearer places by sponsors and LOCOG has damaged the experience of carrying the torch.” It is not a happy ending, but we have reached our destination.
Actually, the story uses those stages more than once, and you can see narrative arcs within each subplot. For example, a section on the sponsors has its own nightmare climax and resolution before moving on to the next section. Likewise the initial problem of ‘becoming a torchbearer’ reaches a resolution early on (he doesn’t), but that leads to the next problem (what happened to his place and those of 7,999 others), and so on.
Now let’s apply those stages to some story ideas. These are some that my students came up with:
- Cuts to mental health support in the police
- Nurses migrating from other countries to work in the NHS
- Head injuries in sport
- Libraries and cuts
- The use of unpaid shifts in the service sector
The anticipation phase in practice
First, who is likely to be affected by the issue and might form an opening case study? It’s worth writing down a few options before choosing one (with the others as back-ups).
- Cuts to mental health support in the police: a police officer who needed mental health support
- Nurses migrating from other countries to work in the NHS: a patient who relies on one of those nurses
- Head injuries in sport: a sportsperson who suffered a head injury
- Libraries and cuts: a librarian (if your focus is on job losses), or a parent who uses the library (if your focus is on the loss of a service that the community needs)
- The use of unpaid shifts in the service sector: a waiter or waitress seeking work
Opening with one of those human stories creates anticipation, the reader is expecting to find out why this case study matters.
Here’s an example from the story on the exploitation of young aspiring footballers that I wrote with Yemisi Akinbobola and Ogechi Ekeanyawu:
It is January 2014.
Among a group of about 30 young boys, some as young as 12, are Ebuka Ogbuehi and Joel Izeh from Lagos. They are about to board a boat at Calabar seaport in southeast Nigeria, going to neighbouring Cameroon. With them are two football coaches — one known to the boys as their coach, Emma (pronounced Ima) — along with a nurse, a dry cleaner and Mr Eric Fred Toumi: a football agent.
The dream phase in practice
Next comes the ‘dream’ phase, where we lay out the background – the ‘bigger picture’ to this issue. Often this requires gathering and analysing data, researching documents such as official reports, and reading previous interviews (for quotes) and stories in the field.
In a TV investigation it might involve going undercover, or using reconstructions, to paint the picture of ‘how things are’.
Here are some typical questions we might need to answer in this phase:
- Cuts to mental health support in the police: how much is spent on mental health support? Is that going up or down? How much demand is there, and how has that changed? What about in other similar public services? Other countries? Why is this support needed? What are the impacts of a lack of support?
- Nurses migrating from other countries to work in the NHS: How many nurses come from other countries? Which ones? Why do they come? How has that changed over time?
- Head injuries in sport: how many injuries, what types, in which sports? What research has been done and how have things changed in different sports?
- Libraries and cuts: how has funding changed and what has the effect of that been? What are libraries for?
- The use of unpaid shifts in the service sector: what are those shifts called, and how widely are they used? Why are they used and what are the concerns over them?
You can see that the dream phase is likely to be longer than other sections, involve more secondary research, and also quotes from experts.
Here’s an example again from Follow the Money:
According to a 2013 study conducted by Paris-based charity Foot Solidaire, about 15,000 young boys travel to Europe and other countries from West Africa each year.
The frustration phase in practice
Now we come to the obstacles in our story – the ‘but’.
- Cuts to mental health support in the police: ‘but’ funding is static, or being cut
- Nurses migrating from other countries to work in the NHS: ‘but’ nurses are now leaving the UK
- Head injuries in sport: ‘but’ the authorities aren’t taking concerns seriously
- Libraries and cuts: ‘but’ community-run libraries are struggling
- The use of unpaid shifts in the service sector: ‘but’ there’s a loophole in the law
This phase tends to focus on particular themes:
- Laws that aren’t working, aren’t being enforced, or have loopholes
- Concerns or accusations or evidence that is being ignored or dismissed
- Money or support is being reduced or withdrawn
- Problems that are preventing things working (quite likely involving the above)
This phase might see more quotes from campaigners, charities, politicians, insiders and people who are trying to initiate change but are hitting obstacles.
It also helps you identify as a reporter what is the point of your story. Why are you reporting on this? Where is the problem?
Here’s an example from The real estate technique fuelling Vancouver’s housing market:
“It worries me a lot that this could all come crashing down. I worry about it all the time,” said one Re/Max agent, Khalid Hasan, who said he owns or co-owns 15 to 20 properties, all destined for resale.
The nightmare/climax phase in practice
Having mapped the territory (dream phase) and identified the obstacles (frustration phase), we now come to the climax, the ‘nightmare’ phase. Again, this is where those getting the blame for those obstacles, or with the power to do something about them, are confronted.
- Cuts to mental health support in the police: someone from the government department responsible for funding
- Nurses migrating from other countries to work in the NHS: those blamed for causing the problems
- Head injuries in sport: the authorities dismissing the calls for change
- Libraries and cuts: those responsible for cuts
- The use of unpaid shifts in the service sector: law-makers (not just employers)
It is important to point out that there may be more than one confrontation, as your reporting discovers that it’s not quite as simple as only one person or agency being responsible.
The local authority getting the blame for cuts may point out that they are reliant on funding from national government, and the government may argue that the problem is low tax receipts (because of tax avoidance, and/or a belief that voters are unwilling to accept higher rates).
There may be some ‘passing of the buck’ and you may need to go between actors who are blaming each other, while seeking more concrete evidence that backs up, or undermines, their claims, or that allocates responsibility appropriately (ultimately it is may be shared).
There may also be some ‘no comment’ or refusal to engage. This is vital to include.
This nightmare section is, in short, the most important part of your story — without it, you are missing that crucial right of reply.
The resolution/coda phase in practice
With that climactic part over, the story still needs a resolution, however. This is likely to be a short section and often either looks forward (what happens next) or sums up the situation in a scene or a quote. Here are some examples:
- Cuts to mental health support in the police: we may return to the case study from the start, with some quotes about what they will do if the current situation persists
- Nurses migrating from other countries to work in the NHS: we might end on a quote from a nurse who is leaving the country which sums up the situation
- Head injuries in sport: we might end with a scheme which suggests a way forward
- Libraries and cuts: we might end with what cuts are planned for the next year or more
- The use of unpaid shifts in the service sector: we might end with an expert quote saying that nothing will change until X happens
The type of ending is often shaped by the nature of the story. Questions to ask here include:
- Are there legal or political plans already in place (a planned inquiry, proposed legislation, a court case, etc.)?
- Are there budgets/plans already in place?
- Are there initiatives or pilot schemes that suggest a way forward?
- Can you return to someone from the story and update their situation?
- Can you return to a scene, or visit a scene, which represents the current situation? (e.g. people still waiting/queueing, a meeting where the anger is greater, or disillusionment has set in)
- Is an expert in a position to describe what is likely to happen next?
Returning to why this is useful
Aside from helping in structuring a story, these stages also help you identify sources you might not have considered in a story, and to clarify the core of the story for yourself.
The ‘frustration’ stage is particularly useful in focusing your attention on why this is newsworthy at all: it may be rules not being followed, broken systems or promises, expectations betrayed, obstacles to progress, loopholes or unintended consequences.
The ‘climax’ is also worthy of careful consideration. Is this a story about rogue employers, or the system that allows them to behave that way? Who is ultimately responsible — and, crucially, can change things to stop something happening?
The ‘coda’ after that climax is perhaps the trickiest of all. It does not mean looking for a happy ending — and perhaps too many articles fall into that trap. But our natural inclination to look for a resolution deserves careful scrutiny.
Focusing instead on what happens next, or what will happen to our case study, allows us to avoid misrepresenting the situation as being ‘happy ever after’. And this, ultimately, is the key difference between fiction and journalism.