Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung e.V.

Story shapes and style

There are two basic types of story content, whether investigative, hard news or feature:

  • chronological – in which the story unfolds through time, and sequence and actions are the material of the investigation (narratives; following a situation through a period of time; following the actual investigation as it unfolds); and
  • topical – in which the story revolves around issues and arguments (depending on the specific story, these may be systems, processes, trends or explanations).

The crop-spraying story is clearly the latter: it’s about issues and arguments.
As we’ve seen, you start sorting your material by doing a fairly crude division into sections: the issue; who’s affected; the conflicts and discoveries you make. On a relatively simple, short investigative story, these sections, with an introduction and conclusion added, may make a perfectly satisfactory plan for the final story.
In investigative writing, literary flair takes second place to making the issues and facts crystal-clear to readers. So a sections structure, without any ‘frills’ can work well. On our crop-spraying story, the sections are:

  • The issue: the damage that spraying appears to do
  • Who’s affected: villagers, company, government
  • The technical background: the harmfulness and non-approved status of the chemical; the regulations
  • The villains: authorities who don’t respond or fail to issue warnings
  • The motives: the relationship of the company to district and national authorities
  • The end: where this leaves us or what might happen next.

But you may feel that this bald outline of the story could be made more interesting for readers if you worked it more. There are a number of different ways to shape your material into a story; a number of ‘recipes’ and approaches that writing coaches suggest for investigative stories. Your material is longer and more complex than a normal hard news story, and imposing shape and structure gives your reader a pathway through complex information. The three most common investigative story structures are:

1. The ‘Wall Street Journal’ formula

This involves

  • starting with a person or situation to set the scene
  • broadening out from that individual case to deal with the bigger issues, by means of a ‘nut graph’ that explains the link between the case and the issues, and then
  • returning to your case study for a human, striking conclusion.

2. ‘High Fives’

This is a model developed by US writing coach Carol Rich. Her five suggested sections are:

  • News (what’s happened or is happening?)
  • Context (What’s the background?)
  • Scope (Is this an incident, a local trend, a national issue?)
  • Edge (where is it leading?)
  • Impact (Why should your readers care?)

This structure needs the ability to write good links and transitions, so that the five elements fit together. Otherwise, it can feel like five shorter stories one after the other. But it can make an excellent structure for a long story on the web, where you need to break an extended narrative into manageable sections so readers can browse.

3. The pyramid

Whereas the traditional approach to a hard-news story was the ‘inverted pyramid’ (main points first; less important supporting material added later ) the pyramid turns the structure right-way up. You have the length in an investigative story to build up to the punch, leading the reader with you through the discoveries you make. So, you

  • Start with a summary of the story’s theme
  • Foreshadow some of what you’ll discover
  • Then walk step by step through your investigation, keeping the suspense alive and building the story towards the most shocking or dramatic discovery, just as if you were writing the story of a scientific breakthrough – or a mystery novel
  • Save the most important, dramatic information for last.