Telling a Good Story Salvation Army Writers Conference October Two approaches to our topic:

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1 Telling a Good Story Salvation Army Writers Conference October 2013 Two approaches to our topic: Telling A Good Story What are the elements of a good story? What kinds of stories do readers find helpful or inspiring or thought-provoking. Because this is where the whole process starts. This is the story that exists before we ever begin gathering information about it, processing that information and putting it down on paper or on our hard drives. But, of course, the story and its characteristics form only one part of this. So after we identify a potentially good story, the second part of our job begins: Telling A Good Story This is where we get to bring our natural gifts and talents as writers into the process. We have selected the story we want to share with our readers, and we re certain it s a good story now we have to decide exactly how we want to unfold the story. What are the techniques we will use to present this story to the reader? What kind of tone do we want to set? What do we want the reader to think or feel after he or she reads the story we have written? The Good Story Take just a moment to think about some of the books you ve read over the years, or some of the movies or plays you ve seen. They could be great works of art or a child s story you read years ago. Think about why these stories are important to you. What makes them compelling stories, the kind of stories that stay with you. Discussion We re The Salvation Army, an organization whose very stock and trade is human lives we re in the life-changing business. That is at the very essence of who and what the Salvation Army is. So, depending on the type of writing you do, the type of publication you are involved with, this concept of a life that has been changed is very often at the very heart of the stories that we tell. That s always a good story to tell. And it s a story that, if told thoughtfully and skillfully, people never get tired of hearing or reading. But we don t want to restrict our vision only to those stories that tell directly about a life that has been changed: in other words, we don t want to limit ourselves to stories of alcoholics who have been rehabilitated or drug addicts who have overcome their addiction and found new life through Christ, or to stories about people who have come in from a life lived on the streets, found a relationship with the Lord and made a

2 new life for themselves. Those are stories that certainly are worth telling and in fact need to be told, but they are not the only kind of story that needs to be told. A more straightforward news story can in its own way be extremely useful to the organization as well as to the reader who is seeking information about the organization. When our territorial newspapers print breaking news stories on the massive relief efforts mounted by The Salvation Army after a major disaster, the reader learns how lives are being affected for the better. These are good stories, too, and they deserve the very best telling we can give them. So when you start trying to identify good stories to share with your readers, look for stories that tell of lives that are being changed for the better as a result of the Army s ministry. But that s only a starting point. Let s get a bit more specific with this. What are some of the other, more specific elements that make up a good story? Human interest In most cases, we want to look for stories with a strong human interest element. This means the effect or the consequence that a certain action or event has on the life of a person. For example, let s say you want to tell your readers about a new program in a corps that focuses on helping kids from the neighborhood come to grips with a certain threat to their well-being, let s say teen sex. Well, it s fine to tell the reader about this bold new program and how it is designed to help the kids avoid the pitfalls of sexual activity. But rather than describing the program, try focusing on the people that the program seeks to help. Tell their story, and in so doing let their experience illustrate the message you want to pass on to the reader. Painting a picture of the kids dilemma establishes the need for this program it helps the reader make a decision on his or her own that we need such a program, and then the reader is hungry to hear about the program all because you have offered him a story. You have given the reader a story that he or she can relate to by placing themselves in the story, they can relate to the information that is being offered them on a much deeper level. Relevance What does the story have to do with the reader? Why will the reader go to the trouble to read the story and then react in some way? When you are considering a story to report on, you want to consider what is in it for the reader. Generally, if the story is significant to the Salvation Army in some way, the reader should find it relevant since he is reading an Army publication. But let s don t leave it at that. Let s work a little harder to capture the reader s interest. Timeliness is one of the attributes that helps sell the story to the reader. The more immediate the topic of the story is, the more relevant it will be to the reader. If there s a topic that s reported on tonight s evening news let s say gang activity is becoming a critical problem and is getting coverage then anything the Army is doing to address the problem becomes relevant to the reader because it is timely. A French

3 novelist (Gide) defined journalism as everything that will be less interesting tomorrow than today. Proximity People tend to be more interested in issues and events that are close at hand. If you are putting together a corps newsletter, a story about a new Bible study group would be of special interest to soldiers who read that corps newsletter. It would be of only limited interest, probably, to readers who found out about the Bible study group by reading about it in a divisional newsletter. If the report was printed in the territorial newspaper, it would be of little or no interest to the vast majority of the readers, simply because they are quite removed from the story. Impact Will the story affect your readers? A significant part of Salvationism is our outreach to our fellow men and women who are in physical need or whose lives are broken and need to be restored, so it s important that we let our readers know that the Army is hard at work in that type of ministry. So that kind of story impacts our readers. Many other kinds of stories do as well we report on Army events because these events help build and strengthen the organization, we report changes in leadership because the policies and decisions of Army leaders directly affect Salvationists. These stories impact our readers. Uniqueness Don t overlook the curiosities, the rarities, the oddities that occur around us all the time. People want to read about these things. If Aunt Mimi grows a 300- pound tomato in her garden, it might not be all that important in the overall scheme of things, but it is interesting. We like to know about those things, and your readers will appreciate it if you share the odd or the unusual with them. Telling the story We ve talked about the characteristics of the story itself and how to identify the story that needs to be told. Now let s look at the other side of the equation how to go about telling a good story. Readers always are looking for a good story. They like plenty of detail sights, smells, sounds, things that pull them right into the story. They like colorful, descriptive quotes and interaction between a central figure and other characters that are part of the story. They like clarity and simplicity. They want the story told to them in clear and simple language that doesn t call attention to itself. They like words they understand, and sentences that are short and to the point. They like a story that flows, moving smoothly and seamlessly from one paragraph to the next. A well-written story is clear, easy to follow and easy to understand. Good writing helps the reader see the event or the subject the writer is trying to describe. George Orwell once said, Good prose is like a window pane. He was saying that the clear window

4 pane, unlike the stained glass window, does not call attention to itself. Good writing does not shout for attention. It calls attention to the people in the story. The well-written story brings its subject to life through anecdotes, quotations and examples. Human interest elements and descriptive quotes are placed high in the story, helping to convey what the situation or the main character is all about. The writing style is appropriate to the subject. If it is a serious event or topic, the tone of the writing should be serious and straightforward. If the subject is of a more lighthearted nature, then you want the tone to reflect that. The story is written only after the writer has arrived at a thorough understanding of the subject of the story and only after he or she has decided exactly what needs to be communicated to the reader. When you are interviewing or gathering information for your story, make it a point to collect even more information than you will include in your story. This helps give your understanding a depth that will probably come across to the reader. Show, don t tell If you have attended writing workshops before, or you have picked up a guide to effective writing, you have heard what I am about to tell you. It s nothing new. But it needs to be said, I have been writing for 35 years, and I have to remind myself of this from time to time because it is that important. Show the reader, don t tell the reader. Tolstoy, talking about why his novel War and Peace was successful, said I don t tell; I explain. I show; I let my characters talk for me. An old newspaperman in Boston learned a lesson early in his career that he never forgot. As a young reporter trying hard to prove himself to his editors, he was assigned to write a story on the quarterly report of the transit system, whose history was a nearly unbroken record of deficits. But on this occasion, the transit system showed a profit. That was a story, a good one. His lead paragraph read like this: The Boston Elevated had a remarkable record for the previous quarter. It showed a profit. The old night editor read the young reporter s story and brought it back to his desk and explained the problem. He pointed out that the word remarkable is not a reporting word. It is an editorial word. He advised the reporter to strive to write the story in a way that there was no need for him to include the word remarkable. Rather, he should find a way to write the story in such a way that the reader would read the story and say to himself, Hey, that s remarkable. Show the reader, don t tell him. I see this principle illustrated in my work as editor of the territorial publication all the time. Some of the material we print comes to us in the form of reports written by people on the field who attend and write about certain events. Some of the reports we receive are well-written and need little re-writing or only a bit of editing. Some of the reports need major surgery. But very often these stories report that so-and-so was the special guest and preached a moving sermon, or that so-and-so perhaps gave an inspiring testimony. And they leave it at that. What they need to do is relate to the

5 reader what the preacher said, or what was shared in the testimony. Then, when the reader reads the report, he can say Gee, that is very moving, or, How inspiring. Write it, then write it again, and again Before I came to work for the Salvation Army, I worked in the newsrooms of several daily newspapers. I enjoyed the daily pressure, the urgency with which I was often forced to write. Racing to complete my copy before the deadline was fun, and I often felt I did my best writing under such pressure. There s something to be said for this, I suppose, but there s also a lot to be said for leaving yourself time to give a thorough and thoughtful review to what you have written and then sitting down and giving it a good write-thru, or revision, or re-write, whatever you want to call it. This is invaluable, and in almost every case you will sharpen and improve your piece by working through it in this way. Challenge your own copy as you read through it try to approach it as though you were one of your readers, encountering the story for the first time. Ask yourself if the story is clear, if it moves and transitions, if it is honest and authentic. Trust you instincts and reactions, and make the changes that need to be made. Make this a habit, and I can guarantee your stories will get better and better. Read good stuff I don t think you can function at your full potential as a writer unless you read good writing regularly every single day if possible. Cram your brain with good writing. Find writers whose work always hits the mark with you, whether it s C.S. Lewis or Philip Yancey, or a writer from the secular arena that you always enjoy and learn from. You don t even need to analyze their work as you read although you can if you like. Just read, absorb, and I can promise that the effects will be positive. Finally We re helping tell the greatest story that has ever been written. That s very humbling when you think about it. It s a little scary. I still don t really think I m good enough to be charged with such a responsibility. And you know what? I m not, not on my own merits. Neither are you. We both need help. Don t forget to call on the Holy Spirit. Don t forget that the stories we tell are a very important ministry, and through prayer and reliance on the Spirit, we can set aside our own limitations and inadequacies and let the real author of the greatest story do his thing through us.

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