How Star Wars made me a better journalist

“You must learn the ways of the Force…”

Part of why I love the original Star Wars is the way it took a big story and made it small.

Yes, Darth Vader and the evil Empire were ruthlessly controlling the galaxy and destroying planets, but all of it is told through the eyes of a simple farm boy, Luke Skywalker. At first, he has no interest in going off on adventures and fighting evil. He’s just a boy living on a backwater planet, who wants something more important for himself and his life.

tumblr_lkophoTKoz1qe6uhlo1_r2_500He’s human. He’s relatable. We care about him. Who has never felt like they were destined for something greater?

Eventually, he gets swept up in the action, but he’s still that fully-formed person the viewer emotionally connected with. That’s how you tell a story.

So why should a journalist tell stories any differently?

Never forget that a news story is still a story!

Just like a book, TV show, a fairy tale, an autobiography, or even Star Wars.

And what do all stories have? A beginning, middle and end. Drama and conflict. Characters. Setting. Mood.

As a writer, I wanted my readers to connect to my stories they way I connected to Star Wars. I interviewed interesting, complex people and put their stories ahead of the big picture. I included the everyday conflicts these people had with each other. I took complex subjects and tried to make them easy to understand.

Just because it’s about real life doesn’t mean it has to be boring. Real life is exciting! Make your writing show that!

Young journalists struggle with their writing at first, and part of the reason is that they’re not thinking of themselves as storytellers. As a result, inexperienced writers think they need to present the facts as straightforward – and dryly – as possible. I can’t tell you how many inconceivably boring stories I have read and edited from young writers who haven’t yet grasped the concept of telling instead of typing.

That’s why I ask students to tell me the story of a subject, not just that it happened.

Let’s say you’re a young, hotshot reporter who is covering a city council meeting. Your story should not be about the fact that this meeting took place, it should be what was talked about, what was decided, what action was taken. Find the subject, and dig deep into that.

You wouldn’t write a lead that said:

The city council met on Monday to talk about low income housing.

That tells me nothing! It’s a matter of public record that they met Monday, and the agenda can tell us the discussion topics. What did they say about low income housing? How is it affecting people?

Keep your ears open and listen at the meeting. Were there arguments from council members? Did citizens stand up and complain? What were the reactions of people after the meeting? Again, tell me the story.

Let’s try that lead again:

The city council on Monday voted to build new low-income housing in the downtown area, a decision that drew criticism from many in attendance.

Now we’ve taken a boring subject and made it relevant. The council voted on something. People criticized the decision. Now this subject is more than a boring topic that happened in the past, it’s something affecting people right now.

So that lead was good, but we could do better. If you’re telling me a story, describe things to me. Put the reader at the scene. What did you see?

Members of an overflowing crowd got into a shouting match with city council members at Monday’s meeting, upset and angry about the council’s decision to build low-income housing in the downtown area.

That’s a lead that puts you right in the middle of the action. You can sense the emotion, hear the shouting, see the overflowing crowd.

Leads are important to storytelling. If you called your mom to talk about the story you wrote, you wouldn’t start that conversation by saying “the city council met yesterday to discuss the long-term impacts of a study regarding low-income housing downtown.”

Ugh.

You would probably start your conversation with “People were yelling at the city council members,” or “the city is building new housing and some people were mad!”

Treat your reader like you’re explaining the story to your mom, or a friend. Keep it simple and grab their attention.

Of course, don’t forget to include characters, either. The best stories always connect readers to their main character. Why do you think the original Star Wars movies were so good while the prequels were so reviled? Because the original Star Wars made us care about Luke Skywalker, the person. The prequels wanted us to care about intergalactic trade tariffs.

Use the same approach for your news stories. Give readers a character to get invested in. Let’s go back to the city council example. Pick the most interesting character there and craft a narrative around him or her. Maybe it’s a city council member who came up with the plan. Maybe it’s an upset downtown business owner. Here’s another potential lead:

Longtime downtown business owner Sam Smith pounded his fist on the podium and shook his finger at the council.

“You can’t do this to us,” he said. “We have rights!”

Smith was one of several shop owners who criticized the council’s decision Monday to build low-income housing in the downtown area.

Now only does that lead put us in the action, it gives us a character to connect to. Then, after you’ve introduced the character in the first paragraph, you can reveal the big picture to the reader about why this story is important.

First we meet Luke Skywalker, the farm boy, then we learn about the larger threat of the Empire. Take a big story and make it small.

The rest of your story can lay out the details and the background information. But never forget that you’re simply telling a story. Keep the reader interested and keep them entertained. You’re not a robot listing facts in order of importance. You’re a storyteller, taking people on a journey to a galaxy far, far away.

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