At a journalism conference for journalism nerds, talking about the craft’s ethereal aspects is what’s en vogue. “Understanding Voice” or “Why the write-around is actually a good thing” land a speaker in the auditorium. Focusing on a nuts-and-bolts topic like “structure” prompts a spot in some second floor space.
Joshua Wolf Shenk (author, cover story supplier for places like Harper’s and The Atlantic) still took the assignment at Boston University’s recent Power of Narrative conference. A living recommendation for mastering this aspect of the basics, Shenk convinced a tightly packed classroom they had made the right choice. The journalist broke down structure in a somewhat elementary way, but in doing so he reminded those attendance—spanning “aspiring” journalists doubling as students to Nieman fellows—that being explicit about how you organize a story can and most often is as important as the story itself.
Shenk’s “Plotting the Course: Narrative strategies for longform non-fiction” grouped structure into three distinct strategies (because, of course, a talk about structure must itself have structure). “Structure lets us organize material and wrap our minds around [a story], it should do the same for readers,” he began. The most basic structure according to Shenk is chronology, but often people mistake chronology for a story itself. Here, he presented Andy Christie’s tale of skydiving from The Moth.
Rather than starting at the beginning with the “news” or the background and going straight through ’til the end, Christie offers the stakes right up front. Shenk defines stakes essentially as what could be “gained or lost.” Sharing that with a reader immediately helps establish emotion (OMG, WHAT IS HAPPENING?!) and brings everyone to a time and place.
From here, Christie then jumps back, details how he started on this path and proceeds to operate chronologically (the bit about him wanting to avoid cliches for turning 50… so of course he went skydiving). Shenk calls this “orienting” the reader and it’s what various journalists will refer to as background, explanatory graphs or providing the macro perspective. This 1-2 intro strategy is essentially why the opening of American Beauty is so effective. Spacey’s voiceover draws you in with extreme stakes (“This is the last day of my life…”) and then the film crawls back to show you how he began the descent to death (his mundane jerking off in the shower, office life, relationship, etc.).
In good stories, this orientation hints at something larger. With Christie, the details of his path to skydiving are a meditation on aging and generation gaps. With American Beauty, Spacey’s daily routine reflects the possible lack of meaning in extreme instances of life. The best journalism features share this characteristic, like the tale of one tweet ruining Justine Sacco’s life ruminating on an instant reaction, mob liberalism online culture.
Merely going forward through time most likely won’t be engaging, however. Shenk adds one final element to traditional structure: it’s now stakes + orientation + arc.
In this video, Kurt Vonnegut plots a story as time across the X-axis (moving linearly) versus Good and Bad along the Y-axis. Arc, as Shenk sees it, is this continuous shifting between good and bad over time. Good stories in this mathematical methodology are sine or cosine functions, not straight lines.
The easiest reference point is television. Even the bleakest of series—The Walking Dead, Breaking Bad—are not straightforward spirals towards unhappy endings. Week-to-week main characters experience triumphs and setbacks that propel them forward, and often episodes end with an extreme of either. Translate that to an individual story, and subsections (or chapters for even longer-form) become those single scenes or perhaps even single episodes—they shift in tone from the prior section, allowing some action to propel everything into readers salivating over what’s next. In Shenk’s version of a properly structured story, both the good and the bad are given room to breath.
The journalist went on to talk about alternatives to this. Maybe the material itself lends itself to a structure you should make explicit for readers (see Janet Malcolm’s “41 False Starts,” which is literally 41 different ways of beginning to frame a review of an artist). Or maybe avoiding any structural at all is the way to go, a sort of stream of consciousness without an reveals or real conclusions (see David Foster Wallace’s “A supposedly fun thing I’ll never do again“). “If trying anything unusual, go extreme, skip tepid,” Shenk warned.
The session ended, various journalists ran off to their next destinations after an hour of note-taking, tweet-making and wondering about how it all relates to their work. Shenk included, as he later asked questions in another session: “Revisions: precepts for making change.” If paying attention, attendees could clearly see where to focus.