Remembering the drama in storytelling

October 16, 2009

A newsletter editor I work with recently handed back a first draft of a client profile. He felt I’d lost the story’s pull by trying to write about a husband and wife equally. And he was right.

The profile was for a “giving back” feature. Both the husband and wife had dedicated a part of their lives to helping people change perspectives to become less judgmental of others and of themselves.

I had struggled to find a parallel that would work. In reality, the “hook” to the story was the drama of what led the wife to write a very nice photo and essay book about body image.

In trying to give the story balance, I’d lost the emotion and the motivation, or what PBS storyteller Ira Glass calls the two most important ingredients in a story: The “anecdote” and the “moment of reflection.”

Glass says to throw out the old idea of building on a theme and just go with this one-two punch.

The anecdote pulls us in. This happened, then that happened, and that made me think of this, he says. The suspense comes from constantly raising questions to keep people interested. Of course, you have to answer those questions along the way, which is the “moment of reflection,” what he calls the periodic stop to say, “This is why I’m telling you this.”

In newspaper writing, we used to call that the “nut” or “glom” graph: Here is the greater meaning and why it could be important to you.

In my case, I needed to start with the dramatic events that led the wife/photographer to wonder whether she could change how people viewed beauty so they would be more accepting of their bodies.

That gave me the hook. Though it left the poor husband with just a couple of supportive paragraphs, the positive response from readers of the book showed that people are hungry for a less judgmental world and provided credibility for the approach of both husband and wife.

It worked. The more powerful rewrite was a breeze.

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: