News story structure: full overview
News stories basically are made up of what people say and write (as quotations and indirect speech and paraphrasing), reporter’s observations and recordings, and some interpretation to pull the story together.
And they are put together as far as possible with simple, direct language, short sentences and paragraphs and the use of active rather than passive voice.
The traditional basic structure formula for a news story is the inverted pyramid. First there is the intro which can be a summary, or an angle, in the first par which captures the most interesting, unusual or important point.
Then come matters of less importance in a descending order ( Diagrams 1 & 2). There are however variations possible, like the teaser (3).
(1) (2) (3)
That is fairly straightforward. But how can this be done with so much material often available for stories and with various requirements such as ensuring accuracysubstantiating the introduction, maintaining balance, taking care over attribution of statements, and providing background and context, etc?
Part 2: Inverted Pyramid
The first diagram shows a classic inverted pyramid type story with the intro first containing the most important point or angle, then the rest of the material coming in descending order of importance. Those blocks may be sentences or paragraphs. Nicely proportioned. But few news stories are like that.
Usually there is a first par intro and then points made in blocks of sentences or paragraphs – or chunks - dealing with points of descending importance. There may be points of equal importance for each side of an issue to be canvassed in order. This is portrayed in the second diagram.
Often the first par might be followed by one to more paragraphs, which substantiate the intro and /or provide background, context or set the scene. They are still very important and part of what some of us refer to the lead.
Ideally the introduction and/or the lead should answer the basic questions in journalism such as who, what, when, where, how and why. The key ones for any story should be answered in the first par but some may have to be spread through the lead section and some even come later in the story.
That lead section or the paragraphs immediately following the intro will often include contexting or background material. This is to place the story in its current context to show how it fits in to the scheme of things or why it is so important. Or it may be necessary to remind the reader who has been casually following a running story of what has gone before or give the first time reader the background to the story.
An important point here is that there should be clear attribution at the earliest possible stage of statements made by people being quoted in news stories. Attribution should be maintained throughout. Where allegations, claims or whatever are made by people, they should be attributed to those people. The reporter is not making them. Unless it is a column, comment or editorial article he or she is reporting them.
In the case of an issue or conflict story the lead summary or paragraphs immediately following the intro should also include both sides of the argument to ensure that fairness and balance is maintained. That fairness and balance should also be maintained throughout.
There should be flow to the story both in the order with which material is included and in the way that paragraphs are linked. And there should be variety with a mix of quotes and indirect speech and narrative where possible.
This general structure will vary somewhat according to the type of story being written. There is also much variety in the intros. Those will be dealt with later. But in the meantime look at the variety in general structure of some types of stories which use the inverted pyramid structures (1) or (2).
General news story – The inverted pyramid with the top usually containing a summary or balanced intro and lead in the case of issue stories; the most important, interesting or unusual matter or human or personality aspect; followed by any substantiating, backgrounding, contexting or balancing material; and then balanced sections tackling points in descending order of importance. However other structures are frequently used depending on the nature of the story.
Crime/Accident news – Generally beginning with the most dramatic aspect of the incident described, any background or contexting needed and then narrative and quotes substantiating the intro. Expansion of the story can then continue through quotes and narrative in chronological order.
Court reporting – Usually beginning with a central news point or most dramatic evidence but with quick contexting, attribution and balance, which is maintained throughout the story. Here it may be necessary to use blocks or chunks of paragraphs dealing with various points of evidence being canvassed by the parties and which need to be kept in sequence. These are the most structured of stories and accuracy, balance and attribution are absolutely vital, but there is no reason why they should not be made easy to read and interesting.
Sport – Stories describing the run of play following a result type introduction were once common and could only loosely be described as pyramidal. They are still used but today there is much more variety and flexibility in the structure of sports story. They are more analytical and interpretative stories and often include considerable amounts of comment by sports journalists. Personality pieces also dominate the sport reporting scene which call for a variety of structures.
Council, public and other meetings - Again the most important, dramatic or summary point usually comes first, followed by some context, background, substantiation and then various points are dealt with in a balanced way in descending order of importance. Here again it may be necessary to use blocks of paragraphs to cover extended but significant aspects of debates and statements. Try to avoid officialise and, again, rules about accuracy, balance and attribution should be followed.
It is clear that not all stories are suitable for the inverted pyramid approach. There are alternative approaches which can raise a story far above what it appears on the surface.
One is the straight pyramid approach. Here there is a soft, suspenseful or teasing start which catches the readers attention and then draws them along building up tension, humour or suspense to the climactic point of the story.
Feature stories are often longer than news stories and require a modified approach. to cover the ground and to maintain the interest of the reader. To do this requires the Extruded Pyramid which may be either Inverted or Straight.
Features stories may start off with soft or hard intros and observe all the general rules above. However as the story progresses there will be larger sections or chunks as themes are developed or various issues are dealt with in an orderly way. Periodically you will find interest-maintaining pars or sub-intros and conclusions designed to keep the reader with you and on track.
For a substantial feature the structure might appear as a series of linked inverted pyramid or otherwise structured stories piled on one another.
Diagrammatic structuring of stories
One way to handle story structure is to draw a pyramidal diagram and put in the panels words or phrases from the your notes to guide you as you write. There are various ways this might be done and it can be a very personal thing. You might number in your notes the sentences or paragraphs or sections you think you might use and then assign them to places in a pyramid diagram.
Finally, in spite of all this talk about structure and the mechanics of writing stories remember who you are writing for – the reader or viewer. Whatever the structure used the aim is to capture and maintain the interest of the reader in the story.
Some key points to remember:
- Stories should normally begin with the most interesting unusual or important aspect, be written in the active not passive way, and have a sense of structure that will carry the reader or viewer with it.
- Not sure what the most important aspect of the story is? Remember to think about what your readers, you grandmother, friends, relatives would find most interesting about that meeting, incident or interview? Chances are that is what the story should be about.
- If you have trouble structuring the story, try the rough diagram method. After setting up the diagram relate your material to it, mentally if you are that good, by key words or numbers if you want to make you life easier.
Accuracy is essential and make sure you have substantiated the intro, briefly backgrounded or contexted the story early, balanced the account, and attributed the comments of people in your story.