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Story-telling skills still important, Roberts says; here are some places to use them

May 2, 2011

Michael Roberts

By Cathy Bayer

Opportunities are rare today for reporters to write in-depth narrative pieces at most newspapers, but don’t toss out good story-telling skills.

Even if there’s no time or space for a five-part series, heart-wrenching stories with compelling characters can be told in 20 inches or fewer.

Michael Roberts, a longtime editor, newsroom trainer and consultant, offered tips to reporters and editors in a session called “Telling Stories Through People” at the MPI/APME NewsTrain workshop Friday, April 29, in Madison, Wis.

Roberts outlined four levels of using people — in a good way — to tell stories:

Stories with vignettes and anecdotes that illustrate the story: They’re regularly used as anecdotal ledes, so beware of using them too often.

Stories with occasional scenes that help tell the story: These are typically longer than a vignette, and they set a scene with character, details and a conflict, such as telling how a family goes grocery shopping, trying to cut costs and stick to a budget.

The layer cake or explanatory model: Stories framed in a linear arc that tell the story with alternating blocks of background.

Stories told in a series of scenes that tell the story: Chronology can be a reporter’s best friend, Roberts said. The timeline can also help narrow the focus and plan ahead.

Roberts quizzed the group on popular movies and their basic story. For example, in “The Wizard of Oz,” the bottom line of the story is that Dorothy wants to go home. There’s the bit about the tornado, magical land of Oz and a witch, but remember not to clutter up the story’s main idea with too much information, he said.

No matter how long or short, good stories need to have a main character, complication, a resolution and universal theme.

Roberts emphasized the difference between showing and telling stories. It’s easy to write that a student was shy or a woman was sad. It’s better, however, to give the reader details that offer the reader the idea a student was shy, because she was crossing her arms, slouching and looking downward. Let readers piece the information together and draw their own conclusions, Roberts said.

Reporters should also rely on their senses to describe how something smelled, sounded — not just what those smells and sounds or sights mean.

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