How the Effective Elements of Memorable Stories Never Change

By Wayne Freedman, KGO-TV
Wayne.Freedman@abc.com

You might wonder if a segment about a woman with an obsession about flies could be worthy of a daily news story. It was in 1982. It would be today. 
 
It began late on a Thursday afternoon at KRON in San Francisco. Photographer Todd Hanks picked up a ringing desk phone and liked what he heard. “Freedman, line 26,” he barked into the newsroom intercom. 
 
Another call was the last thing I wanted at the end of a day, but I picked it up.  On the other end of the phone, a raspy-voiced woman named Peggy Hawkins sounded half-deranged. “There is a fly epidemic in the Western Edition!” she insisted. “An epidemic! Flies everywhere! You hear me?”
 
I was 27-years-old, working in a major market, and thought myself a sage, experienced man of the world. “Ma’am, an epidemic happens when many people become ill. Are you sure this isn’t an infestation?”
 
“I don’t care what you call it,” she lectured. “Just get here.”
 
We spoke for a few more minutes. I assured Peggy that it wasn’t the end of the world and wrote down her number.  
 
Glad I did. The next morning, our assignments manager asked me to cover a school board hearing. I groaned. The desk guy smirked. “If you’re so smart, Freedman, what else you got?”
 
“Well,” I said knowingly,  “there happens to be a fly epidemic in San Francisco’s Western Addition.”
 
It worked. It never hurts to keep an idea in your hip pocket. My mantra has always been to find a person, tell a story. I could certainly fill 1:40 with a woman who hated flies. 
 
Thirty years later, people still ask to see ‘Fly Swatter’. It demonstrates how, while technology and delivery methods continue to change, the elements of effective narrative storytelling remain the same. ‘Fly Swatter’ is hyper-local, but viewers around the world have related to its unusual main character and her problem.  The story has villains, a victim, witnesses, and an expert. Structurally, it weaves action, tension and resolution through a suspended linear timeline. 
 
Perhaps most significant,  ‘Fly Swatter’ has spontaneity. Todd Hanks and I shot this story in less than half an hour. He began rolling as soon as Peggy Hawkins opened the apartment door while waving that fly swatter in her hand.  We never set lights. We did not use a tripod.  They would have ruined the moment. Consequently, the pictures aren’t beautiful. But, they are authentic. And, authentic trumps beautiful pictures almost every time. 

(Click here to view the "Fly Swatter" piece)

Again, when telling stories with universal appeal, the tried and tested traditional elements work just as well as ever. Find them. Use them. 
 
Wayne Freedman is a 51 time Emmy Award winning reporter/MMJ at KGO-TV in San Francisco. The second edition of his book, IT TAKES MORE THAN GOOD LOOKS TO SUCCEED AT TELEVISION NEWS REPORTING,  is available at www.awealthofwisdom.com