Tuesday, August 21, 2007

What Makes a Good Story?

In today's (8/21/07) New York Times, Regional Editor Jodi Rudoren answers readers' questions. In addition to the several question about why and how she and her husband (also a writer) combined their two names into one (take that, you genealogists!) she also answered a question about what makes a good story, something she had spoken about in a writing class. I thought her answer was fascinating in how it related to the work of developing museum exhibitions. She said,

"I think I probably pointed out that stories, even the truest of them, even the hard-news boring-but-important ones, need to have: plot (an arc of stuff happening), characters (people you care about and can relate to), conflict/tension, scenes (that you witness and describe in vivid detail) and a beginning, middle and end (though not necessarily presented in that order).

I probably also posed the question, "What is a story?" and offered the ridiculously simple formula:

1. Something people care about.
2. Something people fight about.
3. Something people wonder about.

And I might have said something about making people laugh or cry -- or both.

"Tenets of Good Newspaper Writing" is an intimidating title; I'm afraid that whatever I would say, I'd be leaving much more out. I'd start any such list with something about good, deep, vivid, person-center reporting being at the heart of good writing. The lead paragraph, and as much of the story as possible, should be stuff you couldn't have written before you went to the place or made your phone calls, something you couldn't have written when getting the assignment. The quotes should be carefully chosen and sharply edited so that each quoted sentence is a fresh, original thought expressed as only the quoted person can, not something that could be more simply stated in paraphrase. Oh, but now I haven't said anything about organization and big-thought nut paragraphs....anyhow, it's a start."

So think about it--when was the last time you used the frame of what people care about, fight about or wonder about in developing an exhibit? Her observations on newspaper writing are people-centered in a way we often forget. Caring, fighting, wondering--those are things we all do. And "good, deep, vivid, person-center reporting"--that's what our research should be as well, leading us away from this 'this is a this and that is a that" approach so often seen at community museums.

It's funny that I came across this just as I randomly watched "All the Presidents Men" on television last night. Although I am glad to see that Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman have aged, just like me, and that it was a great period piece for the 1970s. It was most importantly an empassioned reminder of two writers' commitment to the story. Although community history may not have the stories that bring down a president, every place has stories that make people care, fight or wonder about.

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