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Good storytelling: feature fundamentals

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on 14 October 2014

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Transcript of Good storytelling: feature fundamentals

Good storytelling:
feature fundamentals

So what actually
a feature?

First, it is
not news
. News informs:

– it is factual, dispassionate, frontloaded
– its sole aim is to convey information quickly, to a reader who's in a hurry
– it has a formal structure and delivery
Jon Henley, senior feature writer, The Guardian
News might look like this:
A feature's job is to
at the same time as it informs
– Like news, features are based on facts. You don't make stuff up or embellish

– Unlike news, the facts are embedded in, and interwoven with, scenes and mini-stories that show, rather than tell, the information conveyed

– Features are solidly grounded in time and place, and
above all in characters
who inhabit both

– They are less formally structured.
A feature might look like this:
or this:
Detail, detail, detail
– News is about specific facts and substantiating quotes from named sources: experts and eye-witnesses

– Features paint pictures of places, portray characters, explore emotions

– To do this
you must

We want telling detail, revealing action, vignettes, exchanges:
"street-level" reporting
a feature story
– Extrapolate: look for the "why" behind a news event (the backgrounder)

– Synthesise: look for a common thread that links a series of events

– Localise: take a bigger issue or global or national trend and look at it in a smaller context (your town; an individual)

– Project: build a story round how the news is affecting one person or a group of people
Background it
– On-the-ground reporting will give you the street-level lived experience that will make your story sing

– But it must be informed by forethought and backgrounding: research, reports, sources (official and otherwise).

– Backgrounding will set the direction of your reporting and give you the questions to ask
Honing your focus
– A limited tale well told is better than a sweeping story that can't be illustrated

– A strong, focused storyline is

not biased writing, it's purposeful reporting (perhaps you'll find a better story)

– You should be able to sum it up in one sentence (you can always change it)

The process ... The questions
– Is this story's scope too broad?
– Am I getting down to street-level?
– Suspense: is there a question that isn't answered, or a problem that's not resolved, until near the end?
– Does something
? (Action informs character; the best stories are about real people confronting real problems)
– Contemporary relevance; historical interest?
Structuring your story
The lead:
– the anecdotal (illustrative vignette)
– the scene setter (place)
– the zinger (kerpow)
– the narrative (history)

: it's the most important sentence in your story
(The second most important sentence is usually the last)

– a sense of resolution
– surprise; resonate
– circle back; bookend

Read, read, read
Managing the middle
– A lead that teases ...
– Nut graph(s) that establishes the story and summarises its key point
– The middle ... Think in terms of chapters (ideas) illustrated with scenes/characters from real life.
– The rule of threes: you are
strong reporting into your ideas. So: fact, example, quote. Or example, example, example.
The art of interviewing
– Do your homework
– Prepare questions, but don't read them
– Record
take notes
– Start off easy and general; wind up to the hard and specific
– Listen, listen, listen. It's not the quality of the questions that matter but the quality of the answers

And finally ....
Style matters, of course. But the most beautifully written sentences in the world are worthless unless the
right material
, and a
pleasing variety
of it, is missing ....
Storytelling is first and foremost about reporting, and reporting is about places and
Working off the news ...
– Who's left out?
– Who's affected, and how?
– What's behind it, and why?
– How does the past inform the story?
– What led up to this?
– Is this part of a trend?
– Can I
this by going somewhere in particular and/or meeting a specific individual?
Scotland rejects independence with No winning 55% of vote

Majority reject Scottish first minister Alex Salmond's plan to become a separate nation and choose to stay in UK
Scotland has voted against ending its 307-year-old union with England and Wales, with the Scottish National party conceding defeat in the historic referendum.

The result was mathematically certain to be a victory for the Better Together campaign after 30 of Scotland's 32 local authorities declared, including the major cities of Glasgow, Edinburgh and Aberdeen. An estimated 55% of voters are expected to reject First Minister Alex Salmond's prospectus for independence when all the results are declared.

The yes campaign scored four big successes, winning 53% in the largest city of Glasgow, 54% in West Dunbartonshire, 57% in Dundee and 51% in North Lanarkshire.

However, the no camp was victorious in 26 authorities. It won overwhelmingly in areas where it was expected to do well, including Edinburgh, Aberdeenshire and Borders, but also in areas that could have gone to the yes campaign, including Falkirk, Inverclyde, Eilean Siar and Clackmannanshire.

Awaking to a likely victory for Better Together, David Cameron, the prime minister, tweeted that he had spoken to Labour former chancellor Alistair Darling, leader of the no campaign, and congratulated him on a "well-fought campaign".

Salmond sounded a defiant note in a speech shortly after 6am, saying he accepted Scotland had not "at this stage" decided to vote for independence. He also issued a warning to the unionist parties that they must make good on their promises to give more power to the Scottish parliament.

"Scotland will expect these to be honoured in rapid course," the first minister said, adding that he would "work constructively in the interests of Scotland and the rest of the UK".

Salmond began his address by thanking the people of Scotland for casting 1.6m votes for independence and praised the inspiring nature of the campaign. "We have touched sections of the community who have never before been touched by politics," he said.

Nick Clegg, the deputy prime minister, said the referendum "marks not only a new chapter for Scotland within the UK but also wider constitutional reform across the union".

Echoing the SNP's argument, he said a vote against independence "was clearly not a vote against change".

"We must now deliver on time and in full the radical package of newly devolved powers to Scotland," he added.

Yet that result raises the risk of further turmoil, with MPs from Cameron's Conservative party threatening to revolt against the prime minister's late and potentially vital vow to quickly increase the Scottish parliament's powers while protecting its spending.

Jon Henley
Twenty miles or so off the west coast of Shetland is an island. It measures three and a half miles long by two and a half miles wide and consists, to the west and north, of five mighty hills that rise at their peak to more than 1,300ft and end, abruptly, in the highest cliffs in the country: lob a pebble off the top and it will hit the waves below 11 seconds later.

To the south and east there is a bleak lowland strip of rock, bog, peat banks and coarse, wind-flattened brown grass. When the Atlantic storms blow, which at this time of year is almost all the time, it is almost unbelievably windy here; the kind of wind that makes your eyes water as you lean into it and lifts you half off your feet when you turn your back. The sky, consequently, is filled with startled-looking seabirds, many of them flying backwards.

There are reasonable, although not conclusive grounds for supposing that this could be the place the ancients called Ultima Thule, the edge of the known world. It lies on the same latitude as St Petersburg in Russia, and Anchorage in Alaska, and is roughly as far from Aberdeen as it is from Bergen in Norway. London, mercifully, is closer than Reykjavik. But not by much.

This place is called Foula, and it is Britain's most remote inhabited island.

To get here, you can either catch a small twice-weekly ferry, which in winter is more often than not stuck in what might generously - if not very truthfully - be termed Foula's harbour, or take a tiny eight-seat twin-prop Islander aeroplane that flies whenever the prevailing force eight is kind enough to blast straight up or down, as opposed to across, the homemade landing strip. This does not happen every day.

Astonishingly, people live here. It's hard to say exactly how many because they come and go a bit, but at the moment it is 21, 22 or 24, depending on whether you count Magnie Holbourn and his girlfriend, who have been away but appear to have come back, and the baby born four months ago to Amy Ratter and her partner, Wullie. What is more, they profess surprise at the notion that their existence might in any way be considered unusual.

"As far as we're concerned, you're the weird ones," says Marion Taylor, by way of welcome. "Everyone has to have a roof over their heads and ours is here, that's all. We're just getting on with our lives. We don't really see what there is to get worked up about."

What there is to get worked up about, I reckon, is that if you took 100 people at random and deposited them somewhere like Foula, 98 would probably go mad (I'm not making that up; a Shetland GP thinks so too). Foula is life on the edge. The island has neither pub nor shop, apart from a post office the size of a front porch, which is what it probably once was.

Its inhabitants have, however, been able to communicate with the outside world by telephone since the late 1960s, and enjoyed the amenities of running water and a communal electricity supply since the mid-1980s (although at the moment, what with the ferry being stormbound for the past three weeks, the generator is running low on diesel and the power goes off every night at 12.)

Nearby Fair Isle, which boasts a population nearly three times Foula's, may dispute the title of most remote inhabited island (it is further from the Shetland mainland, apparently, but closer to Orkney), but I can assure you that in early February, in a southerly gale-to-severe-gale veering west and, so help me, strengthening later, Foula feels just about as far from anywhere as it possible to get in this country without hitting, say, the Greenland ice cap.

Living at the edge of the world
Welcome to Foula, Britain's most remote inhabited island, where the wind blows at gale force most of the time and there are no shops or pubs
The Berlin Wall: where are the remains?
It's 20 years since the Berlin Wall was breached and few people then thought of saving any of it for posterity. Jon Henley goes in search of the last remnants
We are gathered here today to remember Werner Probst. Not, some might say, the most innocent victim in this city's eventful history, nor the wickedest; not by a long shot. But like all of the 136 men and women who fell as a consequence of that great grey slab of concrete standing just outside, he did not deserve to die when he did, doing what he was trying to do.

So here we are, then, 50 or so of us, well-upholstered, middle-aged tourists from Frankfurt and Cologne and Amsterdam and Copenhagen, a retired couple from Cheshire, a shuffling bunch of schoolchildren from Bielefeld. We sit on wooden chairs in an unadorned oval chapel, and an avuncular man in one of those felted German cardigans takes a book lying on the altar and reads from it about Werner Probst.

He was born on 18 June 1936 in the working-class district of Friedrichshain in what became east Berlin. He left school early, with no qualifications and barely able to write. He was in constant trouble with the police for a string of petty thefts. At the time of his death, in October 1961, he was a driver for a truck firm in west Berlin, living with his parents. Because he worked in the west, Werner interested the East German security service, the Stasi. Because he had a police record, he was a cinch to recruit: help us, and we'll wipe your slate clean. So, since 1959 Werner had been a Stasi informant, codename Harry, providing a valued picture of the lowlife he supposedly frequented in the bars of west Berlin.

But what mattered most to Probst was the freedom to go where he wanted, when he wanted, and once the wall was up, in August 1961, he no longer had that. At 10.30pm on 14 October, he jumped into the river Spree at the Schillingbrücke and started swimming. Wounded by machine-gun fire on the way across, he was fatally shot in the back as he hauled himself out on the other bank.

"One name stands for many," says the man in the felted cardigan, "and yet each name stands for one." Two of the schoolgirls sniff; a couple of the boys take a sudden interest in their shoes. An elderly gentleman from Frankfurt blows his nose. "He was the same age as my brother," he says, outside. "Would have been 73 this year. I'm glad those kids are here."

There is a ceremony like this most days at the Chapel of Reconciliation on Berlin's Bernauer Strasse. Amid all the perverse enormity of the Berlin Wall – the brutality, the ugliness, the absurdity, the tainted lives, the weight of all that it represented ("The wall", as they're fond of saying in Berlin, "was a symbol not just for a divided city, but a divided country, a divided continent") – it is perhaps good to begin here, in a bare and chilly chapel with a bunch of strangers moved to tears by the story of a man none of us had heard of 15 minutes ago.

Good also because, to be perfectly frank, if you're hoping for an idea of what the Berlin Wall was actually like, you are going to be disappointed. For something that loomed so large, physically and in the minds of a generation, there is amazingly little of it left. Along with the border "death strip" and the patrol paths, watchtowers, guard posts, signal fencing, telephone lines, spotlights, road blocks and all the rest of the sinister paraphernalia that went with it, the 184km of concrete wall – all 45,000, 3.6m-high, 1.2m-wide, 2.75-tonne segments of it – and 154km of border fence have, basically, vanished.
or even this:
The enemy invasion: Brussels braced for influx of Eurosceptics in EU polls
Special report: parties demanding everything from reform to withdrawal are riding high on wave on discontent, reports Jon Henley from Coulommiers, Erfurt and Helsinki
The Foire aux Fromages et aux Vins in Coulommiers, an attractive town on the undulating Brie plateau an hour east of Paris, is a fabulously French affair: a monumental marquee, hordes of happy visitors and more than 350 stalls laden with Gallic bounty.

Among the cheeses are tomme from Savoie, crottins de chèvre from Aveyron, and great roundels of brie from nearby Meaux, alongside case upon case of chablis, Pouilly-Fumé, Nuits-Saint-Georges. And today, in amiable conversation with a local cheesemaker, there is Aymeric Chauprade, academic, author, consultant, and leading candidate in the European elections for Marine Le Pen's freshly fumigated Front National.

Here's the problem, explains an immaculately suited Chauprade, who besides degrees in maths and international law has a doctorate in political science from the Sorbonne: all this – he gestures around him as the throng prods, nibbles, squeezes, swills and swallows – is at risk.

Aymeric Chauprade, leading candidate for Marine Le Pen's Front National. Photograph: Jon Henley for the Guardian
These artisan French foods, proud produce of our terroirs and all protected by Appellation d'Origine status, will soon be at the mercy of multinationals, under the new transatlantic trade and investment partnership the European Union is negotiating with the US.

"American farmers and 'big food' will rule; our regulations and standards will count for nothing," Chauprade continues. "This is an EU that has no respect for national specificities; it's an EU of bureaucrats, of ever greater normalisation, in the service of big banks and corporations. It is not the EU we want."

Understandably, this message plays well here. But not only here.

Across the EU, insurgent parties from right and left are poised to cause major upset, finishing at or near the top of their respective national votes. As a result, rejectionist parties look set to send their largest contingent of anti-European MEPs ever to the European parliament: perhaps 25% of the assembly's 751 members. (Down from 766 in the current parliament.)

Does this matter? Dominated by the mainstream centre-right European People's party and centre-left Socialists & Democrats, which between them almost always muster a "grand coalition" of nearly 500 loyally pro-European MEPs, and with much of its work consisting of complicated compromises cosily worked out with envoys from the EU's other decision-making bodies, the European parliament does not function much like other parliaments.

Nor, although it now has a greater say over many more areas of EU law than before, are many European voters yet convinced of its relevance: while it supposedly represents some 500 million people, voter turnout among the 28 member states has fallen steadily since the first ever elections in 1979, when 62% of the electorate turned out, to just 43% at the latest vote in 2009.

But the near-certain election in a few weeks of a very substantial minority of MEPs actively working to derail, or at the very least disrupt, the parliament's work passing EU laws could come to be seen as something of a defining moment in the European project.

"I think," says Juri Mykkänen, a political scientist at Helsinki University, "that there is a lot of potential for these elections to become some kind of turning point for Europe, in large part because of the populist parties. I think the established pro-European parties are going to have to start listening. This has to be seen as a signal that for a lot of people in Europe, the European Union has gone far enough in this direction."
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