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The Anatomy of a Story

16 November 2010 No Comment

By Helen Kaiao Chang

See original story on AboutFreelanceWriting.com

What’s the structure of a story? When I was starting out as a journalist, I wondered about this a lot. I’d do a bunch of research, interviewing and reporting, but then I didn’t know how to put it all together.

Eventually, I learned a formula that has helped in all my writing – from newspapers to magazines to online stories to books. This is what I call “The anatomy of a story.”

If you wonder about how to tell your story, this is a great way to organize information, so you can save time and effort.

Every journalistic story has these seven components:

1. Introduction
2. News
3. Nut graf
4. Summary
5. Context/background
6. Body
7. End

Introduction

The introduction is the “lead.” This is the part that hooks readers into the story. I have about 11 types of leads, including suspense, time, scene, question, quote, and amazing facts. The key is find the most interesting aspect of a story and start with that.

News

News is the “what’s so” about a story. This often gives the five W’s: who, what, where, when, why and how. In a hard news or breaking story – for example, a bridge collapsing – this paragraph is the introduction. But for most feature or magazine stories, this is the second section.

Nut graf

The “nut graf” tells why a story is important — why it matters and why a reader should care. To me, this is the most important paragraph in the story. If a reader doesn’t see how something is relevant to his or her life, he or she will stop reading. This paragraph or “graf” is the heart or “nut” of the story, but many beginning writers fail to include it.

In this particular blog, the nut graf is the third sentence: “If you wonder about how to tell your story, this is a great way to organize information, so you can save time and effort.”

Summary

The summary expresses the emotions of a story, usually conveyed in a quote. “Gosh, when I figured out the story’s structure, I finally could relax!” she said.

Context/background

Context and background give the larger picture of a story. Typically it expresses the historical or societal backdrop, creating more depth and breadth in the piece. For example, “My quest for story structure began when I was young journalism student.” Or “Story structure is something that writers of all genres think about.”

Body

The body is the bulk of the story itself. These series of paragraphs usually begin with a topic sentence, followed by supporting sentences. This makes up about 75 percent of the story text.

End

The end ties everything up. It can circle back to the beginning or serve as a kicker to new ideas.

Variations

For journalistic stories, the sequence of these components is pretty standard. But it can vary, depending on the piece. For example, in a personal essay, the nut graf or life insight comes near the end.

The length of each section will also change, depending on the story. In a news story, each component might be just one sentence. But in a magazine article, each might be several paragraphs.

Once you know these components, you can check your stories to see if you have them – especially the nut graf. You can also start seeing them in the stories you read. Every story has its own anatomy.

Follow Helen on Twitter @HelenChang.

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