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20. Follow the arc

Like a person following a track, our stories traverse the terrain of the imagination.

Like a person following a track, our stories traverse the terrain of the imagination. We start our story and take the reader on a journey, looping back or forwards and leading to the culmination. This is the ‘story arc’. It is the direction our story takes, its path through time.

The story arc is a common device in fiction writing that we can borrow for longer-form nonfiction. It starts with the everyday. Then something unexpected happens that sets the protagonists on a different path that takes them out of their everyday. Other characters come in to influence the protagonists and expand the story. One thing leads to another as challenges, action, excitement and anticipation mount. Then comes the culmination of the story, the resolution. It does not have to be the anticipated resolution. It can be something different to what the story was seemingly leading to — remember the idea of giving the unexpected in the chapter on making our stories stick?. Doing that introduces surprise and makes the story memorable.

The style suits longer, feature pieces and goes into character descriptions of the people central to the story, their appearance, their thoughts and motivations.

Nothing new

None of this is new. Adopting fiction writing technique to tell factual stories appeared as a new type of journalism in the 1980s. People like Tom Wolfe, Joan Dideon and Norman Mailer rose to prominence on the back of what became known as the New Journalism.

Despite initial resistance from other journalists and publications, some print media were prepared to fund journalists to spend time pursuing stories and to publish them as longform pieces in their magazines. The result were major, investigative, multi-page articles that delved deeply into a story and the people swept up in it.

We can use the form for our citizen journalism stories combined with a story arc different to the common flat, start-to-finish timeline.

Following the arc

Conventionally, stories start at a moderate pace before the arc rises with anticipation and excitement and culminates in a concluding action, after which the issue is resolved. Although nonfiction can follow this story arc, sometimes reality doesn’t lend itself to it.

An example is a story I wrote about a search and rescue operation on Tasmania’s Central Plateau. The story had two purposes: (1) The narrative of the search operation (2) Providing an insight into how search operations were run. I wove these into the narrative.

I chose a time-ordered narrative which followed an arc:

  • I start with the callout of the search team and their journey to the search base — the introductory material to get into the story
  • setting out on the search follows, with an excursion into the signs (ie. clues) which searchers look for — an educational element
  • the search continues, with descriptions of the terrain and weather of the search area — an educational element
  • then, a discontinuity in the narrative — a clue is found and a tracker helicoptered in to assess it; this raises reader anticipation and forms a peak moment in the story
  • the search continues, with a description of how searchers are organised inserted into the narrative — an educational element
  • the searchers reach the destination where they thought they might find the missing person and search the area — no sign of him; the description of this this raises questions in the readers and raises reader anticipation, a moment of intrigue
  • then the culmination in the form of an anticlimax — the search base radios to tell the search team the missing boy has been found; this differs from fiction stories which would raise reader excitement by culminating in action such as finding the missing person, however as a nonfiction piece these was no scope to fictionalise it to satisfy the story arc reaching its climax
  • the ending of the story contexts the search in the bigger picture of searchers and bushwalking in the Tasmanian highlands.

Why end on an anticlimax? This was non-fiction, a report of an actual search. A fiction story might have ended with the rescue of the missing person. In journalism we report what actually happened. This was that the search team didn’t find the missing person.

Knowing this, I made the story more an educational piece by weaving relevant information into the narrative of the search. I thought this had value because most people know little to nothing of how search and rescue operations work.

What story arc best fits?

In adopting fiction-writing structures to tell nonfictional stories, practitioners of the New Journalism of the 1980s, we call it ‘creative non-fiction’ today, would probably have structured the story to include more drama.

When we come to write, it’s a good idea to sit down and review our notes and memory. What arc, what story structure best suits what we are reporting on?What best suits our readership? Do we treat the story as a piece of conventional journalism? Do we structure it more dramatically? Do we introduce educational elements into our story or keep it a narrative of events as they unfolded?

Like a person following a track, our stories traverse the terrain of the imagination. Where we start our story, and our looping back or forwards and introducing mini-climaxes and challenges leading to its culmination, is the ‘story arc’. It is the direction our story takes, its path through time and narrative.

The Citizen Journalism Manual…

  1. Citizen journalism: A few definitions

2. Introducing Citizen Journalism

3. Backstory

4. Making a start in citizen journalism with basic skills and equipment

5. Our challenge: the distrust of media

6. Things we will encounter

7. Dealing with conspiracy theories

8. The legals

9. An insight into copyright

10. On offence

11. On bias

12. Be wary of word salads

13. The necessity of skepticism

14. Types of stories and writing

15. Practices for citizen journalists

16. Writing and distributing our stories

17. Writing: a few considerations

18. Let’s start writing

19. About formats: News or features?

20. Follow the arc

21. Write sticky stories

22. Writing reviews

23. Doing radio interviews

24. Civic affairs reporting for citizen journalists

25. Using audio and video

26. Photography for the citizen journalist

27. Shooting video for MOJO

28. The time is now



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Russ Grayson

Russ Grayson

I'm an independent online and photojournalist living on the Tasmanian coast after nine months on the road in a minivan.