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How to make feature stories interesting

Discussion in 'Writers' Workshop' started by nempreps, Aug 30, 2020.

  1. nempreps

    nempreps New Member

    I have been writing sports for awhile now, but one thing I am inconsistent at is finding the most interesting angle for sports features. Sometimes I get lucky - one time I wrote a story on a state champion bowler who wore a lucky necklace and I incorporated the necklace in the story and it turned out really good.

    More often than not if I write a story about a local high school athlete it turns into "he/she is good because he/she practices a lot and they want to go to college someday"

    What are some questions or techniques you have to find the most interesting angle?
    Liut likes this.
  2. Mngwa

    Mngwa Well-Known Member

    You have to talk about more than sports
  3. nempreps

    nempreps New Member

    Like what? I was asking for specific examples... take me through your phone call like I am a newbie. You aren't going to offend me.
  4. MNgremlin

    MNgremlin Active Member

    I don't think I would go into an interview without already having an idea of what makes this athlete's story worth a feature article. You don't have to know the player's whole story, but ideally it would be something more than "Jimmy is having a good season." I know papers like to do athlete of the week profiles and those get generic real fast like you described. But talk to people around this athlete. Talk to parents or coaches or community members at games. Sometimes these feature-worthy stories come out of nowhere. You can go into it thinking you'll profile John Smith, but come away from a conversation at a game wanting to write about Billy Bob Johnson. Or sometimes these stories are just obvious.

    We had a pair of brothers who were very good wrestlers, but what brought my coworker's feature on them up a notch was knowing that they grew up in Burma and lived in a refugee camp. That's something that can draw people in. Or we had a girl in our area who was in a farming accident at age 11, but still played sports (basketball and golf) all the way through high school.

    Here's a thought, I'm not sure what others would think about it. Many times, I think your feature subject is the first person you interview and then you follow it with maybe a coach or teammate. But what if you reversed it? Could you find more insight and dig deeper into the player's back story by maybe talking first to the coach? The player maybe wouldn't be likely to volunteer info about their story unless prompted (kids are nervous), but the coach might not hesitate to bring it up. Then you can directly ask the featured athlete if they're willing to go into detail about that part of their story.
    sgreenwell and Liut like this.
  5. Mngwa

    Mngwa Well-Known Member

    Background. Sometimes there are great stories about beginnings. Sometimes there are great stories about drive and perseverance. You can't limit yourself with a static set of questions.
    And you have to listen.

    What do sports mean? What else does the kid do? Family ties.

    Research your own paper's files for relatives... I once went to do a story on a running back at an area high school, and went looking for him and his brothers in the files and found his father and his uncles. It led to a great story.
    Liut and MNgremlin like this.
  6. ADanielPandR

    ADanielPandR Member

    What does the kid's current coach have to say about them? Can the coach single out a moment that typifies the kid's best qualities within and/or without the arena?

    For college recruitment candidates, what schools do they have their eyes on and vice versa? Why?

    What would potentially make the student-athlete a good fit for the program/school and vice versa? How?

    What are some common threads between prospective colleges and the local high school?

    Depending on how substantive, specific and articulate your questions are, you can cultivate intriguing anecdotes and other little-known insights worth following up on and possibly turning into the lede/meat of the story.
    Liut likes this.
  7. nempreps

    nempreps New Member

    Thank you. One issue that I run into is that our coverage area is so large I sometimes write a feature on an athlete I know little about.

    I think most of this is stuff I have learned or knew deep down over the years but simply have not done. I hate to admit it but sometimes I am lazy... or maybe rushed or maybe it's a story I am really not interested in but I need the paycheck. No matter how long I have been doing this I always feel the need to get better and I hope some of you out there are like that too.
    Last edited: Sep 2, 2020
    Liut likes this.
  8. Liut

    Liut Well-Known Member

    Good stuff above.

    I do general and sports enterprisers. Mngwa mentioned a couple of points that really struck close to home: listening and not limiting yourself with a static set of questions.

    Larry King used to say he didn't read an author's book before interviewing them. The premise, IIRC, was to go with the flow depending upon answers.

    I cannot begin to count the number of stories I've done, broadcast and print, that veered off in entirely different directions than originally anticipated. If a subject gives a unique answer, follow-up on it. Follow-up on that answer. Then follow-up until the well runs dry. That involves a certain amount of thinking on your feet, but it sure beats sticking to some sort of pre-interview list of questions.

    This member of the peanut gallery is also a big advocate of in-person interviews. I realize phoners are necessary but for enterprisers, I go where the potential story is. They get to eye-ball me and I get to eye-ball them. It seems to be more effective for me. Couple of weeks ago, did a feature on a gentleman. He basically said he could give me 30 minutes. Ended up spending two hours with the fellow and got a lengthy detailed tour of his facility.
  9. WriteThinking

    WriteThinking Well-Known Member

    Don't be a afraid to be, well, kind of ballsy. Not rude or intentionally off-putting, because if you're open-ended enough about something, it most likely wouldn't be rude or intentionally off-putting, or be taken that way.

    Ask things like:

    What would you change about yourself/your situation, if you could, and why?

    At the end, ask what haven't we talked about? Or, how would you describe yourself, if you had to, to someone who doesn't know you?

    What do you consider your best strength? What are the most important things in life to you, and why?

    (And then, listen well to the answers, and go from there, drawing the interviewees out if that seems warranted and they're willing).
    ADanielPandR and Liut like this.
  10. sgreenwell

    sgreenwell Well-Known Member

    Use your lack of knowledge as an advantage. Like, the people you're interviewing usually aren't stupid - They know if you've been to a dozen games, or zero. If you haven't been to a dozen, they're unlikely to tell you about the time they almost died when they were 8, and how that made them into a great running back now. But if you don't have experience with them, it allows you to ask them more about their process, and more open-ended questions. "I haven't seen many of your games, so how often do you guys run the halfback pass? Is it something you work on a lot in practice, or is it just something that coach knows you can do?"

    Whenever possible, try to interview the primary and secondary sources for a profile one on one. Even if it's probably going to be a positive feature anyway, people can get over the top if the subject is right there.

    I've done news and sports, but for either, interviewing someone at their house can be good too, although somewhat impractical right now. Then you can notice shit like the swimming trophies, and ask if they think it helped with their current sport, etc. That's something that you can hopefully do in the future though.
    Liut likes this.
  11. ADanielPandR

    ADanielPandR Member

    Great point here, especially. When I went to a summer workshop back in high school, one takeaway I never forgot was that you should always close any one-on-one interview with "Is there anything we didn't touch upon that you still want to mention?" (Or something to that effect, however you want to phrase it.)

    Another takeaway, also related to another point WriteThinking was mentioning, is that while you should not be afraid to ask potentially touchy or otherwise angering questions, save those for last. The last thing you want is someone storming off before giving you enough to go on, so if they are going to ditch you, at least make sure you got as much on the record as they would give you.
    Liut and sgreenwell like this.
  12. Dog8Cats

    Dog8Cats Active Member

    The feature should focus on one thing. I hate reading features that are like a laundry list of interesting but not terribly rare things. "In addition to scoring 14.5 points a game, she has a 3.8 grade-point average. How does she do it?" Find the reason you're writing the feature and subordinate everything to that.

    Say it's a basketball player who has improved from a little better than meh to all-league/district/county/parish. You find out she committed herself to shooting 500 shots a day in the offseason. That last fact to me is more interesting than a year-over-year comparison of her stats and expectable comments from a coach about her improvement. How'd she do the 500 shots - get a key to a gym? what about on vacations? best story about making sure she got in the 500 shots on a given day? ... From there, maybe, the discipline to get in 500 shots a day leads into mention of other cool things - ability to hold down a job during school year, great GPA, volunteer work, whatever.

    Keep the interview a conversation. Ask "why?", "why do you say that?", etc., a lot. Give the conversation time to breathe. I've found a lot of times the best material from someone came after that pause when he/she thought she had finished answering a question.
    swingline, MNgremlin, Liut and 2 others like this.
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