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Finding Great Stories

Discussion in 'Writers' Workshop' started by Simon, Jul 12, 2007.

  1. Simon

    Simon Active Member

    You might be able to write circles around anyone but without a good story idea you aren't going anywhere.

    Just wanted to discuss finding the great stories how to go about it. What makes it easier? What not to do? What to do?

    Can apply to the long feature like SuperFlySnucka's soccer ball story or a simple game story.

    Some starting thoughts thoughts: "A story consists of a sequence of actions that occur when a sympathetic character encounters a complicating situation that he confronts and solves." --Jon Franklin, Writing for Story

    "A story, any story involves a special relationship between character, situation and action. If all the parts are not present, and if their necessary relationship in order, then the story cannot live"
  2. verbalkint

    verbalkint Member

    Any good story I've gotten has come from pure dumb luck or hearsay. Helps to have friends, I guess, and it helps to listen when somebody says, "You know, this person said this about that guy." I'm not much of a gossip, but I've benefited from them.

    If you walked into a high school journalism class, or the sports section of a newspaper (unless it's a good one), five different people have heard this or that about heartbreaking or uplifting stories that no one's ever written.

    Then I've just always been dumb enough to ask the subject, "I heard this, is it true?"
  3. This might be more about execution than the actual finding... but if you do get a great idea sent your way, don't go into it with preconceived notions.

    Example: Back in the day we got word of a local HS football player with an artificial leg.

    I head in ready to write a classic weeper.

    Instead, I was treated to one of the most hilarious interviews ever. Turns out this kid had all kinds of amusing leg-related anecdotes he was all too happy to share, and the leg--and its backup--had become a good-luck talisman for the team, passed around on the bus and rubbed for luck by every individual, et cetera.
  4. Wow, Omar, that's a great story, and a great lesson.

    I'm guilty of overestimating a story myself sometimes.

    Finding a compelling story is easy if you go about this job with a simple mantra: Everyone has a story. If you keep your eyes and ears open, you'll find some good ones.

    The most important aspect is to treat sports simply as a vehicle for someone's success. An awesome swing is no different than a great guitar riff or a beautiful brush stroke. What's important are the CIRCUMSTANCES and the PEOPLE not the end RESULT.

    Call it C-P-NO-R.

    This soccer drop story that I'm working on -- I got a lead on it, pitched the story as a freelance gig and, next thing you know, I have 140 inches (though it will be trimmed). Why? Because I looked further than "A guy drops a soccer ball to a kid in Afghanistan." What about how he got the ball? What about the guy who dedicates his time and money to shipping the ball?

    Too often, we as writers focus just on the finale, the ending. What about everything that goes into it? Montana never would've found Dwight Clark if he didn't have time to throw the ball. There is no Willie Mays 54 WS catch without Vic Wertz.

    Someone, I want to say Red Smith, wrote about the losing pitcher in Don Larsen's WS perfect game. EVERYONE else was writing about Larsen. What an angle.
    Jimmy Breslin wrote an AMAZING piece on the man who dug Kennedy's grave in 1963.

    Good luck...
  5. I'd love to know what DD, jmac, Jones or Alma have to say on this topic.
  6. lono

    lono Active Member

    Keep an open mind when looking for the story. It may not be obvious at first and it may change halfway through your interviews.

    A highly underrated skill in that regard is the ability to ask questions. The more you can mine down into a story - or into a person's soul/psyche - by asking penetrating questions, the more information you'll learn.

    The more information you learn, the better the odds of finding something interesting.

    And when you find something interesting, you have the rudimentary beginnings of a story.

    Ask questions about everything. Be polite, but ask.

    The word 'why' can be your best friend in this regard.

    And when your subject answers, listen.

    Find out what your subject's hot buttons are, what motivates them. If they are excited about a topic, capture that enthusiasm in your writing.

    And don't think you have to write a Pulitzer right away.

    Learn to write good, crisp shorter features and then, as the subjects become available, work on longer-form writing.

    Practice your craft relentlessly and work to improve every aspect of it: Become a better reporter AND a better writer. They are two vastly different skills. The great ones excel at both.

    You've already taken the critical first step: You want to improve. That puts you ahead of half the field right there.
  7. TyWebb

    TyWebb Well-Known Member

    I love the advice Iono gave. Keep asking questions. Get every detail out of your subjects.

    One thing that has really helped me is developing relationships, and not just with coaches and players. Some of the best tips I have been given were from trainers, announcers, players' friends and parents, SIDs and administrators. If you show people that you really work hard to get attention and coverage to their team, player, whatever, they will WANT you to write a story they heard about.

    Another thing: look for the strange stuff happening around you. PAY ATTENTION! Try not to get stuck in the "going through the motions" attitude. Some of the stories I've had the most fun writing were because I just happened to catch a minor thing that turned into something bigger.

    After watching a soccer game, I noticed there was one kid running up and down the field working as a ball boy. After the game, he high-fived the players, gave advice to the coach and then helped clean up. This kid became one of my best interviews ever because he loved the team so much, he would talk for days and it was so easy to write about his enthusiasm.
  8. friend of the friendless

    friend of the friendless Active Member

    Mr Simon,

    I spoke to a couple of journalism classes recently about this subject recently. Not great stories per se, not even great ideas. Just any story idea outside of the day-to-day.

    As far as features go, magazine or newspapers, here are a couple of avenues I offered up.

    1. Show up. More of an issue for magazine types (who would be inclined to try to think of an idea before they leave their homes) than newspaperists (who are sent out into the world daily or almost daily). Still, only by going places and talking to people do you generate stories. And really, it's an attitude of what you do once you show up. Once you have the story you need for the day (if with daily or whatever) keep talking, keep asking questions, strike up conversations. The example I use here is when I saw a US Marshal travelling with an American under-20 team after 9/11. I asked the trainer (who else) if it was a constant reminder of looming terrorist threats, etc. (Everyone else was off scrumming the coach and players asking about line combinations or whatever.) The trainer told me the US Marshal was along because a player's father was considered a threat, court ordered to stay out of hockey arenas, no contact, 1,000-yards and all that ... which is a story.

    2. Look for dangling threads. In stories already told, look for stories left unresolved. Characters who aren't central to the main story or book are veins to mine. (I saw the other day that one writer spun a book out of Secretariat's stable boy or groom or whatever.) The example I used is a thing I did for e-ticket on a baseball scout who committed suicide when he was let go by the Phillies back in the late 80s. His story was told and retold at the time, even in book form. The newspaper stories and the books described the scout's mentoring of a couple of teenage players in his hometown--how they were the best prospects in his territory. In fact, the one book described how one teenager actually found the scout's body. So I spun a feature out of that--not just a where-aren't-they-now about the scout, so much as how the scout (and his suicide) touched the teenagers' lives.

    Anyway, my two cents.

    YHS, etc
  9. MCbamr

    MCbamr Member

    Tycobb sums it up well. The key is to GET OUT OF THE OFFICE AND TALK TO PEOPLE. Just shoot the crap and you never know what will come up. Somebody near the top of this thread called it dumb luck, but when you spend the time to build a relationship, the results aren't just luck. That's what you get from covering a beat.
  10. jgmacg

    jgmacg Guest

    Just to provoke some debate:

    Everything's a story. Everything.

    The problem for inexperienced writers is in recognizing them as such.

    The solution to the problem is simple.


    Read everything.
  11. Simon

    Simon Active Member

    Thought for debate: Maybe everything is a story but is everything a story that people want to read?

    I guess that is my point in starting this discussion. I'm in 2100 basic reporting right now. I see stories all over this place. I'm just missing that great story that I want to use for my convergence project that I can do video on, audio, graphics along with the traditional print story.

    Thanks for all the help.
  12. lono

    lono Active Member

    I take it the above means you're in college? And the great story you're looking for is to fulfill obligations for a convergence project?

    If that's the case, I don't mean to sound snarky, but it sounds like you're going about it backwards, trying to find a story that fits all your project needs.

    Find a great story first. When you've found a great story, then figure out how to add video, audio, etc. Don't look at the story initially from its multimedia value; look at it from its interest.
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