Three Steps to Story Structure
By Simon Perez, Associate Professor of Broadcast and Digital Journalism, Syracuse University
It’s a common sight in my classroom in the hours leading up to deadline: a student has spent all day gathering elements for a television story but is sitting in front of the computer motionless, searching for the answer to the most important question: “Where do I begin?” The end of the day is not the time to be struggling to find that answer. The most efficient television reporters are the ones who know where they’re going at the beginning of the day and then only gather the elements necessary to get to that destination. Here’s a simple way of organizing your thoughts so you can be sure of the beginning, middle and end of your story and avoid the stress of trying to devise a plan at the last minute:
Real people → Today and how we got here → Expert
This is a classic story structure that applies to a multitude of topics and will help you figure out what video, interviews and information you need before you head out of the newsroom to start the day.
Real people: These are the people living the story. When the superintendent decides to change the school lunch menu, the real people are the students who have to eat what’s on the new menu. You want real people because they’re the most likely to give you the best sound bites (“Yuck, broccoli makes me want to vomit.”) and because they’re the people with whom the viewers will best identify (we’ve all eaten school lunches).
Today and how we got here: This is the middle of the story where you explain why you’re telling this story now, show what’s changed and introduce any potential controversy. In the school lunch example, you might report on why the lunch menu was changed, what was on it before and what’s on it now. This gives context and helps the viewers understand where this story fits in the grand scheme of things.
Expert: This is your second interview and one that provides the authoritative information and background. Continuing with our lunch story, you’d want to get the superintendent to explain or justify the decision or perhaps a nutritionist to evaluate the effects of the changes on student health.
This structure works on all kinds of stories:
Earthquake preparedness (or the lack of it):
- Real people: San Francisco Bay Area people who will experience the next earthquake
- Today and how we got here: The Southern California earthquake is a reminder of what can happen and the years of exhortations of government folks to get prepared
- Expert: Someone who sells earthquake kits and his experience with preparedness
A car wreck that killed the high school valedictorian:
- Real people: Friends who knew the student
- Today and how we got here: Video of the crash site and details of the student’s life
- Expert: Police officer who can update the investigation
A new plan to battle homelessness:
- Real people: Neighbors who are fed up with people sleeping in front of their houses
- Today and how we got here: Previous plans that haven’t worked and led to the new plan
- Expert: Politician who’s proposing the new plan
- Real people: Fans at the stadium
- Today and how we got here: How the team did last year and whatever’s new this year
- Expert: Manager or player on what’s expected this season
To be sure, not all stories fit neatly into this format, but many do. Having a plan gets your thoughts organized and saves time.
Simon Perez is an associate professor of broadcast and digital journalism at Syracuse University's S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications. In the summers of 2012, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018 and 2019 he returned to his former job as reporter for KPIX TV in San Francisco. He has chronicled his newsroom experiences and the lessons he hopes to bring back to the classroom at http://www.simonperez.com/blog.