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How to Write a Hard News Story in 5 Sentences

This is the way you we're taught to tell stories in elementary school. Why? Because it makes for a good read from start to finish. It entices a person to keep reading at first to follow the rising action and to get to the climax, and then to see things through to resolution in the denouement.

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The problem with using dramatic structure in news writing, is that when reading news, people aren't willing to wait for the climax. I worked for a fairly large newspaper that had a general policy of limiting word counts to under 400 words. Anything bigger would be questioned by the editor. Contrast that with a couple of decades ago when a newspaper story was typically twice that length.

Why the short word count now? Our attention spans are getting shorter due to the massive amount of information available to us. Rather than reading a lot about a few things, we want to know a little about everything.

The internet has led the way in the trend of short word counts.

To confirm this point, I pulled up the most recent 5 stories on the CBC News website for my region. Just one story exceeded 400 words, at 791. The remaining lengths we're 388, 224, 302 and 187, for an average of 460.

Getting people to read your story isn't just about keeping it short. Far more important is capturing a persons attention quickly. In fact, you can probably get away with a longer story, if you follow the right story structure. Apologies to Gustav Freytag, but his namesake story structure just won't work here.

What follows is a set of steps for writing a hard news story in five sentences. This method (something I gleaned from journalism school) is a fail-safe way to write a news story in a hurry.

Sentence 1:

The Lead Sentence

The first sentence of your story is absolutely the most important if you want people to keep reading. The only thing that will have greater influence on whether a person will give your story a try is the headline.

The lead sentence makes a statement. Its a statement that begs the reader to learn more.

If the story is about a village council meeting at which the mayor proposed a militant takeover of a neighbouring town, don't start your store with:

The Dangerville village council held it's weekly meeting at the city hall on Tuesday evening.

Ive been to more than a few village council meetings in my day, and rarely has it been a riveting experience. Motions about bylaw amendments, discussions about bridge repairs and arguments over who's responsible for unruly dogs and impassable sidewalks.

The real story isn't about the meeting. Its about what happened at the meeting. Actually, scrap that. Its about how what happened at the meeting will affect people in Dangerville and nearby Placidtown.

Get the readers attention by telling them the most important piece of information in the entire story. Doing so will entice them to keep reading, to find out how the situation got to that point. Start instead with:

The Mayor of Dangerville has proposed the use of military action to take control of Placidtown.

Bam! There it is. Youve put it all out on the table now.

Once the reader has read that, they'll absolutely want to know what prompted the proposal, when the takeover will happen, what Placidtownians are saying about it, and so on and so on.

Sentence 2:

The Support Sentence

The second sentence serves to support the lead. It backs it up, confirming it, and giving it just a little bit of context. Heres a support sentence that might work for the Dangerville story:

Mayor Bruce Steamroller made the statement at last weeks village council meeting.

Its that simple. Another option to give the story a little more punch might be:

Mayor Bruce Steamroller is responding to the neighbouring communitys refusal to cooperate with plans to build a new playground.

Sentences 3 & 4:

Setup & Quote

These sentences go hand in hand. You can't really have one without the other.

The quote takes the story one step further by providing an outside voice. In news writing, the writers voice is unimportant. Its the sources that matter. But before you can insert a quote, you need to prepare the reader for it.

The setup introduces the speaker of the quote, and gives the quote some context.

Heres an example of setup and quote sentences working together. This is a quote from the mayor, who we're already talking about, so rather than repeat his name, his worship is just referred to at this point with the pronoun He.

He argued at last weeks village council meeting that the only way for Dangerville residents to get justice would be to force Placidtown to become one with Dangerville.

Its sad that we've come to this, but our children have a right to swing sets. If Placidtown thinks we're going to waste our time constructing dangerous teeter-totters, they're sorely mistaken.

Sentence 5:

Background

At this point, the reader should be wondering about the history behind the conflict. After all, what does Placidtown have to do with Dangervilles playground?

For this reasons, the next sentence provide a bit of background to the story. Perhaps something like this:

Residents of both communities spent three years fundraising to build a playground on the border of the two municipalities.

Youve got a complete story there. We know the very basics of who, what, when, where and why. Although a story can be written using this format in just five sentences, this particular story is probably too complex to just leave it at that.

Since the story has been written following a compelling structure, readers will likely want to keep reading to know more.

Rather than just tell the story yourself, it's always better to let others tell the story. (Remember, your voice isn't what matters. Refer back to your sources.) This is done through a series of setup and quote sentences.

Here are a few that might work:

Placidtown Mayor Jane Pushover agrees that the situation is unfortunate, but doesn't think military action is necessary.

Surely this joint playground project can be accomplished without the use of automatic weapons, she said.

Members of the playground committee from Placidtown have argued that teeter totters are more fun than swings, and Pushover agrees.

Sure, they may be unsafe, but if the children won't use the swing sets because they're not as fun, what's the point of building them?

Phillip Logicson, a member of the committee from Dangerville, is concerned about the cost implications of a militant takeover.

We spent a long time fundraising for this project but by bringing in the army, air force and navy, the costs are likely to increase, he said.

Using setup and quote sentences, you can incorporate as many or as few voices as required. And you can repeat until your hearts content.

As you do so though, remember that attention spans are short. Dont string people along. Give them the most important information toward the beginning of the story.

You can finish off the story by throwing in any additional background information. This should be the least important information in the story.

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Contributing Sources

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Posted in Health and Medical Post Date 12/11/2016


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