How to write a compelling TV news story

Jason Lamb is a Murrow Award-winning TV news writer from Anchorage, AK. Earlier this week, he shared how meticulous logging of video is one of the building blocks of effective storytelling.

Lamb says another key component is taking time to determine a story’s focus.

“Beyond just the story ‘subject,’ a focus tells you what person, object or theme you’ll be dealing with during your story,” Lamb says.  “You can start thinking about your story focus while you’re still on your shoot, or even before it starts.  When you write your story, if a line of reporter track or a sound bite doesn’t fit your focus, you should probably throw it out.”

While he’s in the field, Lamb tries to “take off his reporter hat” to take in the scene around him for a few moments.

“What would a normal observer – without the wireless mic, tripod and camera – say or think about what they’re seeing or hearing?  Sometimes you can get some great lines for your story, just by taking it all in,” Lamb says.

Armed with his focus, his observations and his video log, Lamb is now ready to write.

“When I write, I try to set up the moments I’ve identified with a line of reporter track, providing some context or an observation about what the viewer is about to see, then I let the moment play out, without talking over it,” says Lamb.

Lamb is making an essential point.

“Good writing is as much about what you choose to write as it is about what you don’t write.  There are no words I could say that would be more powerful then letting viewers experience a mother kissing her dying four-year-old boy.  I think it’s important to not say anything in those cases – and let the natural moment play out for the best impact.”

When he does want his words and video to work together, Lamb says he’s careful to avoid saying exactly what the viewer is seeing in the video.

“For example, I was writing a story about a police officer memorial, and I wanted to write to a shot of a sign on a storefront in the small town that read, ‘CLOSED IN HONOR OF TONY AND MATT.’ Instead of saying in my track, “Several stores closed so they could attend the memorial for the fallen officers,” I wrote, “Honor is something that causes people to put their normal lives on hold for just a moment.”

Lamb says that makes his writing less redundant because the viewer can already see that the store is closed.  Instead it gives the viewer additional insight on the theme of “honor.”

For many writers, crafting a strong ending is a significant challenge.  Too many take the easy way out and end the story on a sound bite.  Lamb says he tries to come up with a powerful closing line that gives people a sense that the story is over.

“Reporter Boyd Huppert has a good trick for coming up with closing lines, and it’s worked well for me:  Your closing line should make people say to themselves, ‘Ain’t that the truth!’”

It sure is. Thanks, Jason.

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