Tom Hallman, Jr. is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who conducts narrative writing seminars for the Society of Professional Journalism and writes a column for SPJ’s Quill magazine. This month he wrote about what separates a great story from a good one, and though they’re geared primarily to print reporters, most of his comments make a lot of sense for those writing online and for TV stories, too.
1. Distance – According to Hallman, stories suffer if your audience is kept at arm’s length by your writing. “If you look at your notebook and have nothing but quotes, then you have a problem,” says Hallman. He believes you need to bring the reader in close with descriptions — of sound, gestures, perhaps the look of a room. By focusing on all the senses “writers give the reader the chance to know the character, and that makes those good quotes even better because they’re placed in context.”
2. Stories about things – Hallman says the best stories are built around people, not a spokesperson.
3. Direction – Hallman says great stories give readers a sense “that the story is headed someplace, that something is about to unfold.” He suggests you should know “what emotion you want your reader to experience.”
4. Pacing – Don’t get locked into the two-sentence paragraph. “Sentence length and paragraph blocking are two important ways we can slow a story, or speed it up. A long paragraph followed by a short one draws attention to the short one.”
5. Theme -” The best stories touch the universal.”
6. Voice – This doesn’t mean first person, rather Hallman says you strive to give your audience “a sense of the narrator behind the story.”
7. Strong middles and powerful endings – Though openings are important, Hallman says, “The body of the story is where we keep the reader interested. The ending is the payoff.”