The Secret to a Good Story

Chris ponders the sunrise on a deserted beach in Western Burma

We took our first real foray into investigative journalism in Romania, where we spent a month writing our first feature story about the education of the gypsies. The piece came out jam packed with information and horribly boring.  It read like an undergraduate thesis. It somehow was missing the punch, the personal angle that can touch a reader and make them share a bit of journalism with their friends.  We knew we had to reevaluate how we wrote and investigated our stories.

So we turned to the pros. What were the writers in the New Yorker or The Atlantic doing that we weren’t? How did they engross people, and make them care about faraway places and unknown people?How did they make big ideas relatable?   We had to make ourselves students of the trade.

In Istanbul, we began a practice that has proven essential in that growth process. Once or twice per week, we sat down over breakfast and analyzed feature stories in major publications. There were classic works by the likes of Norman Mailer, Jon Krakauer, and Malcolm Gladwell, but there were also a host of relatively new or unknown writers. We found the articles through byliner.com. We would browse through the titles, find a topic that looked interesting, and then discuss each story in depth. Why did the story on Mitt Romney’s personality work? How come the story on the $2000 dollar popsicle fell short?

We came up with four elements for a successful feature. News. Emotion. Conflict. Entertainment. Together, they make the NECE analysis, which we liberally pronounce the “neck” analysis.  The NECE analysis has become a pillar of our writing process, and no story we write goes online without its scrutiny.

Here’s the breakdown.

News:  This boils down to two very simple questions.  What is the reader going to learn from this story? Will the reader care that she learned it?  Asking these questions makes sure that the stories we write are presenting new information about something relevant to the reader’s world.  It’s also our time to figure out whether we’re attacking an issue that the reader already knows about, or whether we need to convince the reader to care about a new issue.  The two scenarios produce two totally different styles of pieces.  This question comes first: delivering news of some sort is what makes us journalists.

Emotion: This is the most powerful force in journalism (maybe the world), and we try and evoke it with every story.  A dash of emotion is what makes a dry piece of reporting into a human interest story, and it’s what makesa reader remember a piece.  The best way to drive emotion is to use characters.  While we write our stories, we constantly have to ask ourselves: who are the characters?  What kind of internal battles are they facing? How do we want our readers to feel about them?  How do we want our readers to feel after they finish the piece?

Conflict: Conflict is the driver of every story.  What is the character and or characters fighting for and/or against?  How do we make that mission compelling to our readers?  (the answer to that question is emotion, and news, which is to say the characters mission changes something the reader cares about.)

Good stories have many different kind of conflict interwoven.  They have the larger conflict, which is what you are delivering news about, and then they have personal conflict, which is what brings the emotion to the story.

This is actually the trickiest part of the NECE Analysis, and when we start working on a story, we normally have it wrong.  Conflicts are normally more complex than we assume them to be, and their roots are deeply set.  One of our jobs as journalists is to simplify the conflict, which is to say choose which part of our subject’s story we want to tell.

Entertainment: This is the flourish on the piece, and the last thing to be put into place.  Did the characters say anything funny?  Is there anything outlandish or strange that’s related to the story?  Normally, the entertainment is found in the details that bring the story to life: a mountain climber’s little superstition before he goes up, or a call center trainer that makes hilarious generalizations about western culture.  In our stories, it comes in two basic flavors: humor and action.

We found that this applies not just to journalism, but to any kind of storytelling.  Try a quick NECE analysis on your tale before springing it at a party.  Chris and I have got it down to about thirty seconds, and it has made us better dinner guests just as much as it has made us better journalists.

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3 Responses to The Secret to a Good Story

  1. Love this piece! And, incredible photo!

  2. Leigh Langtree says:

    Very interesting and thought provoking.

  3. Greg says:

    Very helpful framework! Thanks for the inspiration, guys!

    Onward!

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