Telling a Story Backwards

A good story is more than a beginning, middle and end. A good story begins with a hook (grab the reader’s attention), builds the tension, runs into problems, reaches a climactic scene, and crests Freytag’s pyramid with some of the most interesting information. The promise of a fascinating tidbit to come is one of the things that’s supposed to keep a reader interested.

A few years ago, I was pretending to be a journalist for a living. One of the first and strangest lessons I had to learn coming to journalism from fiction was that what’s called “good storytelling” in fiction, is there called “burying the lede.” You want the hook to be the really fascinating conclusion, and expect the reader’s attention to peter out as your story does. There differences in how one approaches the two different kinds of stories, especially in the Buzzfeed-fueled era of journalism where the article just has to be “good enough” to get out the door, but I’ll spend a good few hours happily rewriting from scratch an idea for a short story I like until every last comma is in the place I think it should be.

Writing for journalism usually struck me as a little sad: we were writing words with the foreknowledge that no one would read them. That we expected people to get 90% of the info from the first two paragraphs, and included the last several mostly for the handful of people who needed more background. I took some pleasure from the archival processing of information for posterity, but knew that readership would sharply drop off as soon as newer news took its place. There’s probably something to be said about the collectively short attention span of the average news-consumer, and I will at least make my comment this: It’s terrifying how easily that brevity can be manipulated; outrageous stories that call for immediate action can be instantly derailed by a different, equally large story that calls for similar levels of action.

Apropos of nothing: one of my favorite writers, Neil Gaiman, and one of my least favorite, Ernest Hemingway, both started their writing careers as journalists. I’ve always found Hemingway’s work to read more like journalism, using a style I’d describe (using a friend’s phrasing) as “Third-grade descriptive,” while Gaiman’s prose tends to sound beautiful to my ears. I suppose that really should be a sign that anyone can have the spark of literary genius about them.

Unabashed man-crush.

Where journalism and fiction intersect is in their ability to capture a zeitgeist. The way the world looks around a thing speaks volumes about that thing. It’s important, I believe, to read both kinds of stories written in a particular period to best understand that period. Journalistic stories capture, as best as possible, the facts of a particular event. Fiction stories will try to capture the emotions about that event. You need both to best understand anything. Where journalists and historians work to preserve the details of an event, authors exist to bring humanity back into it. Journalism is the study of what happened, and I suppose I’ve always been more interested in the author’s focus, which is why.

As a reader, I’m certainly guilty of leaving the crusts of news articles on my plate, while I devour prose whole–cover to cover–just before bed.  It’s not really my place to judge what that says about the quality of the news compared to prose, That I’ll leave to more interested, verbose and likely boring critics. but as a writer I can say that’s not really what I want when I put pen to paper–or at least finger to keyboard. But, this may have a lot to do with why I’ve never sought out a journalism job since.

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One thought on “Telling a Story Backwards

  1. Pingback: Horror Comics: We Built a World and Filled It With Monsters | It's Cool, But It Sucks.

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