Alex Blumberg on “What Constitutes a Good Story?”

In this 2005 article in Transom Review, NPR radio reporter and journalism instructor Alex Blumberg offers some great advice for determining if you on the right track to finding a good story.

Here are some takeaways from the article:

1. Don’t confuse a location or premise with an actual story.

2. You need someone to talk to and a situation to discuss.

3. Trust the first question that comes to you. Figure out what question you want to answer or what story you want to hear. If the question seems obvious, chances are it’s a story.

4. Just because something is a story or takes the form of a story doesn’t mean it’s an interesting story.

5. Don’t pursue a story just because it’s story you’ve heard before. In fact, do the opposite. Look for the story that is the most surprising and unexpected.

6. People often tell you the boring part first. Sometimes they think it is exciting or think it’s what they are supposed to tell a reporter. Dig deeper. If you are bored, your audience will be bored.

7. Everyone has a story, but it’s not always that interesting or something you can adapt. If you don’t have a story, find someone else.

8. Try the “and what’s interesting test.” Blumberg has developed a simple test to see if you are on the right track. He writes:

You simply tell someone about the story you’re doing, adhering to a very strict formula: “I’m doing a story about X. And what’s interesting about it is Y.” So for example… “I’m doing a story about a homeless guy who lived on the streets for 10 years, and what’s interesting is, he didn’t get off the streets until he got into a treatment program.” Wrong track. Solve for a different Y.

Y = “… and what’s interesting is there’s a small part of him that misses being homeless.” Right track.

Y = “… and what’s interesting is, he developed surprising and heretofore unheard of policy recommendations on the problem of homelessness from his personal experience on the streets.” Right track.

Y = “… and what’s interesting is, he fell in love while homeless, and is haunted by that love still.” Right track.

Y = “… and what’s interesting is, he learned valuable and surprising life lessons while homeless, lessons he applies regularly in his current job as an account manager for Oppenheimer mutual funds.” Right track. In other words, who the hell knows what you might find out. Just don’t settle for the story you already know. Find the exciting or surprising or unusual moment, and focus the story on that.

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