Novelist John Irving once said, "Know the story—the whole story, if possible—before you fall in love with your first sentence, not to mention your first chapter. If you don't know the story before you begin the story, what kind of storyteller are you? Just an ordinary kind—making it up as you go along, like a common liar."
What's your story about? Sounds simple enough. But this question is more like a Zen koan than a mere query. The search for its answer challenges writers in all communication disciplines: journalism, creative writing, screenwriting, speechwriting, as well as advertising, marketing and public relations. Whether you're using terms like nut graf, dramatic premise or unique selling proposition (USP), the goals are the same: to understand and synthesize material in order to convey a message, promote a concept or tell a story.
In her text The Editorial Eye, Jane Harrigan states: "For writers, determining focus is the first prewriting step. Next they have to find a structure." Harrigan says writers need to first ask: "What am I trying to say?" The question of organization comes next: "How do I want to say it?"
Answer those questions correctly and consistently, and you'll find satori (enlightenment) as a stronger, more confident writer.
Step 1: Find your focus
Many writers can't see the story through the trees of their material. They mistakenly may believe that their focus is the same as their topic. They also may not realize how important it is to "sum up" their story in a simple conversational sentence early in the process.
Differentiating between topic and focus is critical to clearer writing. Topic refers to the subject matter. Focus goes much deeper. It is what the story is about, its theme or dramatic premise.
For example: A feature on campus crime, such as a tale of a student who survived an assault, isn't merely about the facts of the case. That's the topic. The focus goes to the heart of the story, such as how the crime changed this student's life and those of his/her family, friends and associates.
Jack Hart, managing editor of the Oregonian newspaper, wrote about the importance of story focus using the nut graf in an article in the June 12, 1999, issue of Editor & Publisher. Hart said that a "carefully crafted nut helps focus the writing, draws the reader into the content, and makes reading more meaningful."
Two examples reveal the subtle power of a clear nut graf. The Feb. 21, 2000, national weekly edition of The Washington Post contained a feature on the late cartoonist Charles Schulz. Henry Allen's touching 1200-word story contained this "focus" after about the first 200 words: "... Charles Schulz redeemed the ordinary, lonely, forgettable, hopeful person at the core of all of us by invoking the kind of laughter that comes when you realize you're caught between the rock and the hard place of fame, existence, whatever."
USA Today sportswriter Tom Pedulla wrote a compelling piece on June 18, 1999, about former NFL star Darryl Stingley, who had been paralyzed in a game 20 years ago, and his son Derek, now an Arena Football League player.
So what's this story about? Football? Think again. Writes Pedulla: "But this story is not so much about loss. It is about how a courageous father and son have grown through tragedy." The nut graf sums up this chronicle of human transcendence and the timeless love of a father and son.
Focus-finding techniques like nut grafs are valuable to other modes of writing. In The Screenwriter's Workbook, Syd Field tells how he asks his students to sum up the dramatic premise of their screenplays in a short, simple sentence. To illustrate, consider the premise of the movie Rocky: An underdog boxer fights to win his self-respect. In screenwriting as in feature writing, finding one's focus is more about discovering theme than describing plot.
What are some techniques to help you find your story focus?
Start by interviewing yourself. Is there a single image, detail or quote that conveys your central message? Why would someone want to read what you've written? Will they be informed, enlightened or emotionally affected by your words? What's your story's conflict or complication? (Remember English 101: person versus person, person against nature, person versus him or herself?)
A logical way to begin is to list the important actions that are taking place in the story. Who is doing what to whom with what result? You can answer that by listing the information under three headings: subject (noun), action (verb), impact (object). To construct such an action or scene list you also might use the headings: problem/solution or goal/result. What you list depends on your material and your intended story format.
For a more creative story genesis, writing coaches, like Donald Murray (Writing for Your Readers), recommend stress-free brainstorming or mapping exercises. On a blank sheet of paper write a single word in the center. Circle it. Now draw branches from this circle as more thoughts occur. Don't stop to edit yourself. Start new branches when a new idea appears. Write steadily for five minutes, and you'll end up with several potential focus statements.
Grope drafts (writing without looking at notes) help writers discover their focus during the "prewriting" stages. It may take you several drafts before your main theme or dramatic premise presents itself, but this drafting stage is key not only to finding your focus, but to structuring your story as well.
Step 2: Organize your story
Writers need to patiently sift through their drafts if they hope to find narrative gold. What points are you trying to make? What messages keep recurring in your copy? What themes exist? Use your rough draft to craft a jot outline—a preliminary listing of statements that are central to your story. Order and reorder these statements until a fluid structure appears. Fluid is a key word because your story organization likely will shift as you continue to draft.
Once you have the jot outline, review your notes and draft again. Whether you're producing a work of fiction or nonfiction, you need to analyze your sentences and paragraphs. Each sentence and paragraph should serve a single purpose. Remember: If you can't sum up or label a paragraph in less than six words, you're likely trying to cover too much territory. Labeling paragraphs will help you organize your story by linking similar blocks of text.
Models enable authors to craft stories in the same way machinists make parts using product molds or dies. In hard-news writing, reporters still rely on the inverted pyramid model to organize a story from most important to least important information. A classic feature story model is the three-part diamond structure: lead, nut graf and story. Scene-by-scene construction is the appropriate model for a screenplay or a dramatic narrative. Profiles rely on the proper ordering of anecdotes and quotes. Other story models include the conventional or modified (e.g., use of flashbacks) chronology, cause and effect, pro and con, and comparison and contrast.
Writers who are comparing/contrasting two individuals, organizations or issues may opt for a 1) point-by-point, or 2) block-by-block approach to story structure: 1) Once the criteria are selected, the material proceeds with the comparison or contrast of each "side" on a particular point, or 2) the story is structured with the complete criteria presented separately and thoroughly for each "side." This point-by-point or block-by-block model is ideal, for example, when examining two candidates' platforms.
Once the major building blocks of your story are in place, other organizational devices should be implemented. Transition words such as "in addition," "besides," "however," "despite," "though," "regardless" and "consequently," are necessary to clearly and coherently join sentences, paragraphs and entire sections of a story.
On the subject of transitions, the phrase "finish strong" is appropriate. End your sentences with words that emphasize. This will hold reader interest and promote smoother segues as you begin new sentences. A final suggestion: Whenever possible close your story with a quote from—or some reference to—the person, place or subject that first appeared in your lead.
So what's your story about? The answer to this simple question is part of a challenging journey to successful writing that begins with two steps: finding your focus and organizing your story. Good luck as you set out on your path to writing enlightenment.
Find Your Focus
To help sharpen your focus-finding skills, take the following quiz to answer the question: What's the story about? Instructions: Select the answers (A-J) to match these 10 questions.
1. The dramatic premise of the film Hoosiers. _____
2. A central theme of Woodward and Bernstein's book All the President's Men. ____
3. The advertising USP of Avis (#2) Rental Car. _____
4. Memorable message of the film It's a Wonderful Life. _____
5. CNN's focus on the dawn of the millennium worldwide. _____
6. Theme of Homer's epic poem, The Odyssey. _____
7. JFK's inauguration speech had this central focus. _____
8. Effective crisis communications campaigns typically follow this concept. _____
9. Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I have a dream" speech emphasized this theme. _____
10. The nut graf for the "Y2K" story after Jan. 1, 2000. _____
A. We try harder.
B. No person is a failure who has friends.
C. Judge people by the content of their character, not the color of their skin.
D. We had nothing to fear but fear itself.
E. Absolute power corrupts absolutely.
F. True love triumphs over time and adversity.
G. In America's New Frontier, all citizens must contribute.
H. David slays Goliath on the basketball court.
I. A proactive relationship with the press works.
J. It's a small world after all.
Mark H. Massé is an associate professor of literary journalism and a writing coach at Ball State University, Muncie, Ind. A widely published freelance author since 1978, Massé has written for The New York Times, Ladies' Home Journal, Hemispheres, Men's Health, Golf Journal, Catholic Digest and Modern Short Stories.