That elephant. That one. Right there. In the middle of the damn room.

5 11 2009

There’s an old story that is sometimes told in journalism school. It goes something like this.

A new reporter, in his first assignment, is sent by his editor to cover a dog show for the evening edition. The reporter goes out, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, and stumbles back in the office just barely under the wire. When asked why he was late the reporter tells him that on the way there a truck jackknifed on the freeway, spraying rocket fuel all over the road. A car flipped and caught the whole mess on fire, trapping the driver, when suddenly an off-duty fireman ran into the flames, pulled the truck door of its hinges with his bare hands, and pulled the driver to safety.

He then handed his editor a late, but thorough account of the dog show.

This story illustrates an important journalistic point. Go where the story is.

Still today, reporters don’t follow this advice. I just got done reading a story with a killer headline: Bricklayer shows up at his own funeral in Brazil. Now, who out there reading this post hasn’t fantasized about showing up alive to their own funeral?

So the story goes on giving a detailed account of how the local authorities misidentified the body. But no where in the entire article does it mention the WTF moment OF A MAN SHOWING UP ALIVE TO HIS OWN FUNERAL!!!

That’s the story! Sure, I want to know about the mix-up, but what did people think? Did he just run in? Did he wait in the back to see what people were saying about him? Did anyone have a heart attack and die?

It’s insufferable. But this isn’t just a problem for reporters; writers deal with this problem too.

Don’t get caught in the minutia of your story. Details are great. Yeah, you want to foreshadow that bit at the beginning, and refer back to it at the end. It’s so fricking cool. Yeah, you want to make sure every character has their little moment.

But remember what the story is about. And go over what you’ve written. Is there another, more interesting story growing out of it? Follow it.

Always follow the story.