The Complete Writer
Writing Nonfiction: Magazines, Newspapers, Books, Blogs
Chapter 13. The Structure of Feature Articles
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Like a work of fiction, an article has a beginning, a middle, and an end. Accomplished writers organize their material up front. Before they sit down at the keyboard, they know how the story will begin, how it will conclude, and what path it will take to reach the end.
If you look closely at published feature stories and at most journalistic blog posts, you’ll see they follow a fairly standard format.
- The lead, which opens the story with a person, an anecdote, a set scene, or—rarely—dialogue.
- The transition, often called the capsule statement, bridge, nut paragraph, or “nut graf.” It tells the reader why you’re writing about this subject. The nut graf has its equivalent in the “thesis sentence” of freshman composition.
- A strong ending, a real gem saved for the last paragraph.
The way the writer develops these elements depends on his or her purpose and material. An effective story is shaped logically to fit its substance.
The story’s architecture
The typical news story is shaped like an inverted pyramid. It starts with a lead that concentrates the so-called “5 W’s and an H” of classical journalistic style: who, what, when, where, why and how. The facts of the event are then presented, as objectively as possible, in descending order of importance.
This structure made it easy for the reporter to call in or submit a typescript that disgorged whatever happened on the scene, and for the copy desk to shorten the story to fit the space available simply by cutting from the bottom—the closer to the end, the less important was the content.
The feature story, in contrast, can take on any of several shapes. The basic structure is what I like to call the “paper doll”:
Here the story opens with an attention grabber. A transition between the striking image or statement of the lead bridges the gap between the lead and the main part of the story, which develops facts and observations in a coherent way. Finally, a strong ending wraps up the narrative.
Without the transitional plateau of the nut paragraph, you get a footed bowl, also a useful structure:
Some feature stories are circular: the ending brings the reader back to the lead.
Others may be Y- or menorah-shaped. In this fairly complex structure, several distinct strands or parallel substories are braided to form a narrative that come together in a rousing conclusion.
The best writers understand the importance of structure. William Howarth, in his introduction to The John McPhee Reader, notes that McPhee, a master craftsman, seeks “to create a form [for a given story] that is logical but so unobtrusive that judgments of its content will seem to arise only in the reader’s mind.” In designing a structure, Howarth observes, McPhee may “either find an idea for order in the material or impose one upon it, selecting what Coleridge called the ‘organic’ or ‘mechanic’ principles of structure.” Levels of the Game, a study of Arthur Ashe and Clarke Graebner’s September 8, 1968, Forest Hills semifinals match, takes up the back-and-forth action of a tennis game, deriving the story’s form from the material at hand.
The structure you choose for your story must give it unity, balance, and coherence. You can point out the facts’ meaning simply by the order in which you present them, sometimes by setting two telling items side-by-side without editorial comment. Search for a structure that complements your story’s theme. You might, for example, write a human-interest piece about someone caught in a bureaucratic runaround: the story could have a circular structure, taking your subject from Point A right back to Point A. This would effectively underscore theme with structure, conveying the victim’s frustration or bemusement without ever preaching or explicitly criticizing.
The lead’s purpose is to grab the reader’s attention, provide the central idea, and persuade the person to read on. It need not state the story’s point or most important facts. Feature leads are less formulaic than a hard news lead; they give you more room to be creative.
Feature leads for newspapers are necessarily short and to the point. This is true of leads for blog posts, where brevity is often the point in itself. Newspaper and blog editors invariably prefer a punchy opening over the impressionistic lead that may appeal to a magazine editor. Try a magazine lead on a newspaper editor and you’ll hear that you’re “backing into the story.”
In any event, the lead’s information must be related to the story’s main point. Don’t open a piece with a colorful descriptive passage that has little to do with your message. If a catchy anecdote illuminates the story’s point, fine: use it. Otherwise, find a better lead.
Many writers will start a story by focusing on a person whose experience underscores what the story is about, and they’ll try to put a good quote near the top. Bloomberg News focuses on entrepreneur Richard Branson to open this story:
In 2014, disaster struck Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic. The company’s experimental spaceship tore apart and crashed during a test flight, killing the co-pilot and injuring the pilot. The crash added tragedy to a string of delays and disappointments for the company, which Branson founded in 2004 to make space tourism routine. This year, Virgin Galactic came back with the unveiling of the beautiful SpaceShipTwo.
Hello World’s Ashlee Vance went to the desert to attend the SpaceShipTwo press event at the Mojave, Calif., airport and to find out how much resolve Branson has left. With his typical flair, Branson brought the spaceship out amid a sea of champagne and celebrities and huge helpings of optimism. Flashing his brilliant smile, he said that the world’s wealthiest people will be able to travel to space soon. Some more of us will follow, someday.
Some of the most effective leads are anecdotal. An anecdote is a ministory with its own opening, middle, and end. When you use it as a lead, its ending should tie into the rest of the story by making a transition into the capsule statement or body of the story, by making a strong point that underscores your story’s subject, or by serving as a capsule statement itself.
The letter arrived on a spring day. It had flown across the Great Lakes, over cornfields, across the Rockies, and out over the Pacific—8,000 miles across the briny deep and up into a satellite somewhere in orbit that flicks emails from one end of the earth to the other. It zipped through the stratosphere above the skyscrapers of Hong Kong, over the sprawl of Guangdong and the rice paddies beyond, to the foothills of the Himalayas. And finally to Kunming, a city of seven million people in southern China. The day it arrived, Jessica was sitting at home, eating dinner with a friend from school.
When she saw the words “Northeastern University” on the subject line, Jessica almost didn’t want to open it. It was clear outside, “but I was afraid of raining in my heart” if the college refused her, she said. Jessica was a high school senior at the time, in 2013. She had grown up in Yunnan, the Chinese province edging on Tibet, Myanmar, and Laos, but her dreams rested in a distant land, the United States. Slowly, she scanned each line of the letter, carefully. Then she turned to her friend with a huge smile and said: “I did it!”
Similar to the anecdote is the single example or series of briefly stated examples. These are often short case histories illustrating a problem the story will address. They are popular in women’s magazines, especially for health-oriented stories.
“Pop had to be put in a nursing home at a cost to my mother of about $2,400 per month,” a man from Cicero, Ill., wrote to the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare,” and neither Medicare nor Medicaid could help because my parents had a nest egg. The law is without pity. Had my father lived for just two more years in a nursing home, my mother would have had to spend the rest of her life in poverty, but God called Pop to his eternal rest in one year, instead of two. My mother and I can never forget the terrible feeling of relief we had when Pop died. We can only live with it in shame. We loved him.”
This lead, which appeared in a newspaper’s magazine, begins with a quote. Many editors, especially those with a newspaper background, dislike a lead that opens with dialogue. Although they sometimes go with it if the lead works exceptionally well, beginning writers should avoid leading with a quote.
Similarly, many editors disapprove of leading with a rhetorical question. This approach has become more common, though. The problem with the rhetorical question—posed so the writer can provide the answer—is that it may appear patronizing. Also, it can lead your reader to provide a different answer from the one you’re trying to elicit.
Which freshwater fish weighs an average of between 12 and 20 pounds, slams your lure with a hair-raising jolt, screams line off your reel with alarming speed, splits the air with slashing, leaping runs, and shucks free about three out of five time to leave you with nothing but a memory of it?
The answer is Skamania, a very special steelhead found almost exclusively in Indiana.
The narrative lead opens the story with a chain of events unfolded in a dramatic, chronological way. First this happened, then this, then we get to the substance of the story. Long form nonfiction pieces, such as this one by Siddartha Mukherjee for The New Yorker, often open with a narrative lead.
On a Saturday morning in April of 2014, Nenad Macesic, a thirty-one-year-old doctor-in-training, received an urgent phone call from the emergency room of Austin Hospital, just outside Melbourne, Australia. Lean and taut, with a swirl of dark hair, Macesic resembles an aspiring urban d.j. In fact, by night he spun electronica in clubs around Melbourne; by day he was a fellow in infectious diseases. The call concerned a woman in her late forties who had come to the hospital complaining of a fever, headaches, and an unusual rash.
Travel-related illnesses may be an Australian obsession: foreign contagions brought into the country can spread like, well, rabbits. The woman in the E.R. had just returned from the Cook Islands, an isolated spray of atolls in the South Pacific, where she and her husband had been attending a family funeral. Other people at the funeral had been sick with mysterious fevers, but she hadn’t made much of it. Now that she was home, though, a mild headache had progressed to a full, persistent throb. Migratory pains appeared in her joints, and an angry, blanching rash—the kind that pales when you press it—was now blooming across her torso.
When Macesic entered her hospital room, the woman, a textile worker, looked more medically stable than he had expected she would. She spoke in measured sentences, with no sign of confusion or delirium. But Macesic was struck by her strange rash—vivid raised red dots coalescing into islands—and the color of her eyes (pink, with streaks of vermillion), which was indicative of conjunctivitis, a symptom of certain viral infections.
Was it dengue? Macesic wondered. Dengue—colloquially known as breakbone fever, because of the intense corkscrews of pain that can occur in the bones, muscles, and joints—is caused by a mosquito-borne virus and was endemic in the Cook Islands. But the woman’s symptoms seemed too mild for dengue: the disease can cause catastrophic drops in white blood cells and platelets, but her blood counts were nearly normal. Could it be chikungunya? Another mosquito-transmitted viral fever, chikungunya can leave its victims with months, or even years, of wracking joint pains. But this woman’s joint pains and swellings weren’t severe. It was as if she had acquired a milder variant of those diseases—a more temperate cousin. And the conjunctivitis was a tipoff: neither chikungunya nor dengue is usually accompanied by those blood-tinged eyes.
Macesic decided to consult an online reporting system called ProMED, which tracks infectious diseases around the world. Even surfing the site casually takes a fair amount of fortitude: one day this month, there were eleven new reports on the site, including an undiagnosed measles-like disease that killed forty children in rural Myanmar; anthrax outbreaks among deer in Siberia; food poisoning from cyclospora at a Mexican resort; and a form of strep, normally found in horses, that sickened a woman in Washington State and killed her mother.
As Macesic went through previous entries in ProMED’s database—malaria in Oman, Lassa fever in Nigeria—he found a cluster of cases in French Polynesia, some six hundred miles east of the Cook Islands, that seemed remarkably similar to the woman’s condition: a dengue-like, mosquito-borne viral syndrome, but with a milder course. Those cases had been attributed to a little-known virus called Zika, a member of a family of RNA viruses that includes dengue, West Nile, and yellow fever. (Zika gets its name from the Ugandan forest where the virus was first found, in a monkey, in the nineteen-forties.) Macesic sent the woman’s blood to a specialized laboratory for viral analysis.
The next morning, the woman’s husband arrived at the hospital, enveloped in the same diffuse, blanching rash. By the end of the week, the woman’s blood test had come back positive for the Zika virus. The husband, however, had no detectable virus in his blood: he had seemingly cleared the infection almost completely. In both cases, Macesic noted, the symptoms had also begun to resolve on their own. He figured that the man and the woman had been bitten by Zika-carrying mosquitoes. (The sexual transmission of Zika had been described in one prior case report, but Macesic did not know about it.) Macesic wrote the case up as an abstruse curiosity—a medical “quiz”—for an infectious-diseases journal. “The illness is typically mild and self-limited, with resolution over 1 week,” he noted. “In a previous outbreak with 49 confirmed cases of Zika, no deaths, hospitalizations, or hemorrhagic complications were reported, but neurological complications . . . have been described.”
Medical students are often taught a piece of diagnostic wisdom: “When you hear hoofbeats, think horses, not zebras.” But this case, a rare illness that closely resembled common ones, was a classic zebra. Macesic didn’t expect to encounter it again—at least, not anytime soon.
Setting the scene can also be exceptionally effective. To do this, the writer establishes the story’s locale or circumstances and puts the players in place. This gut-wrenching investigation begins in the most ominous way:
It was a joke among members of the ragtag maintenance crew at the Section 8 housing project, as well as a convenient answer for local fire marshals who sometimes inquired: “Blacks frying chicken with grease, they keep burning down these apartments!”
The London Square apartment complex where the crew worked was an aging misfit in the midst of a well-established middle-class neighborhood in Tulsa, in central Oklahoma. When it was built in 1965, the sprawling complex was considered a jewel in the midtown community, boasting seven private in-ground swimming pools and immaculate landscaping. Fifty years later, neighbors see it as a tinderbox—its aging wooden roofs, dilapidated stairs, and boarded windows a testament to neglect. Numerous fires through the years served to evacuate unlucky tenants, along with the colonies of bedbugs hiding in mattresses of previously burned-out units.
One of those occurred on November 18, 2013.
For Miashah Moses, it began with a plume of black smoke. She saw it rising from her building as she crossed the parking lot. She broke into a run. Her two small nieces were inside.
Sometimes you can lead with a bit of striking, well-written description:
Before me is what looks like a small, serene idol. It is in fact a beautiful child, eyes outlined in black ointments, dark hair gleaming with mustard oil, relieving herself in the street. I try to move but bump into a businessman’s briefcase. Nudging right, I’m nudged back by a bull wearing a necklace of marigolds. Pressed from behind by a piping flute seller, I step over the child as a bus blares up the narrow brick canyon, missing us all by inches. Within its coils of exhaust a man painted orange, carrying a snake-headed staff, takes form, nods at me, then vanishes behind a jostle of teenagers with stereo headphones working out their rock-n-roll moves. Pagodas that writhe with erotic carvings thrust roof upon roof above the trees, where big bats hang like fruit. and above the rooftops pure white snow peaks reach upward toward the stratosphere. At the moment all I’m looking for is the local computer club—somewhere in the magic confusion of modern Kathmandu.
With this tapestry-like imagery, National Geographic writer Douglas Chadwick introduces us to the sights, sounds, smells, and people of an almost unimaginably exotic locale.
Occasionally, you can use some odd, unusual, or outrageous statement:
Hendricks County, Ind.—Detective Michael Nelson is walking a beat with one foot in the Twilight Zone.
So a Wall Street Journal piece led into a story about a cop on the witchcraft beat.
These aren’t all the possibilities, but they should be enough to get you going. Read a lot of the kind of stories you enjoy, and observe how each one opens. Decide which ones work best, and then go forth and do likewise.
The nut graf or transitional capsule statement, often called the “bridge” by newspaper writers, moves the reader smoothly from the lead, which may be startling, into the body of the story. It explains what the piece is to be about and how the opening ties into the subject.
Many writers compose a one- or two-sentence thesis statement before they begin the story. Some version of this can often fit into the nut graf, but whether or not it does, the habit helps organize and focus one’s thoughts.
In a story about the AT&T break-up, Wall Street Journal reporter Francine Schwadel introduced a customer in the lead, showing him making a snap decision to sign up for the company’s long-distance service. She continued:
Millions of Americans have made the same call. In the big wave of balloting that started two years ago and ends Sept. 1, roughly 75% of the voters so far have chosen AT&T to provide long-distance service to the home or business. And a recent Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll indicates that feelings like Mr. Seitz’s are largely responsible for the outcome: half of the 1565 respondents who expressed a preference for one of the phone firms cited familiarity with AT&T as the most influential element in their choice.
Though the next paragraph concedes that the then-monolithic telecommunications giant was seeing some inroads from its new competition, the gist of the story is summarized in the nut graf: AT&T was still beating the dickens out of its rivals.
In the body of a feature story, you make your points or discuss the issues at hand. These details must come in a logical order, one leading reasonably to the next. Most writers accomplish this by outlining the information they plan to present, whether on paper, in a computer file, or mentally.
A newspaper or magazine story may be organized along the lines of any of the standard rhetorical approaches. You may compare and contrast issues. You may develop an argument inductively, working from particular facts to a general conclusion, or deductively, reasoning from the general to the specific or from a familiar principle to the unfamiliar. You can build a chronological narrative, presenting events in the order they occurred. You can show cause and effect, or write a story that is an extended definition of some abstract concept.
Your approach to your story’s organization should fit your purpose. Chronological ordering works effectively with how-to stories and straight reports. Deduction—leading the reader from something familiar to new, unfamiliar concepts—is especially useful in science writing, where you may have to present bizarre, difficult ideas. Induction—drawing general conclusions from specific, concrete facts—helps clarify economics, sociology, and business issues, and it also works well in writing profiles. Cause-and-effect and comparison-and-contrast are useful approaches to the report.
One dramatic variety of development involves abutting a series of peaceful or pleasing events against an ironic fact or a stunning change in fortune. A writer discussing feral horses, for example, described the beauty and grace of a wild stallion that eluded capture for many ears. She wrapped up this idyllic passage with a bald statement: “The next year the big black and five of his mares were gutshot in cold blood by vandals and left to die in a meadow where once they peacefully grazed.” This can be a forceful way to make a point.
However you decide to develop your facts, they should hang together coherently. Short but smooth transitions should tie each paragraph with the ones that come before and after it. You can accomplish this by repeating key words and phrases and by using transitional words such as but, and, however, so, or nevertheless. Schwadel leads almost every paragraph of her AT&T story with some transitional device. The story’s second developmental paragraph begins, “AT&T’s success in the balloting,” echoing “impressive victory” in a preceding paragraph. This paragraph ends with “The theory was that people would desert AT&T in droves once federally mandated “equal access” enabled them to enjoy cheaper service without having to dial extra digits.”
Next graf begins, “But the results indicate. . . .” Now we see a steady progression of transitional function words heading paragraph after paragraph:
“Another reason for AT&T’s strong showing. . . .”
“But AT&T didn’t succeed solely. . . ”
“Still, some people didn’t buy. . .
“AT&T’s efforts, however, were clearly. . . ”
“AT&T describes such defectors. . .
“Indeed, of the customers that AT&T’s rivals . . .”
“In some parts of the country, meanwhile, . . .”
Although this approach seems mechanical when shown out of context, it demonstrates the importance of everyday transition words. They help your reader follow your train of thought.
Careful, logical ordering of your points so that the reader’s thought moves easily from one paragraph to the next will do the job, although you’ll need an occasional assist from those mechanical transition words. To succeed with this, you lay out a meticulously organized outline before you start to write. If the outline flows logically and the writing is coherent, the article should move logically, too.
The Last Word
Save a strong quote or a striking observation for the ending. It may or may not hark back directly to the lead, but it should summarize what you’ve said in a powerful, colorful, or succinct way. Sometimes you can use an ironic or telling quote for this purpose.
As a prosodic note, some writers try to end a story on an accented beat. That is, the last syllable in the last sentence is stressed, rather than unstressed. About Indiana’s steelheads, Homer Circle concludes,
The dictionary defines mania as “a form of insanity characterized by great excitement.” After you do battle with your first one, you’ll see why Skamaniacs are well named.
Because English usually stresses the first syllable, this reversal subtly catches the readers attention and, like the final flourish in a song, it ends the piece on an emphatic note. It’s not necessary to do this—it’s not always possible—but it’s a nice touch.
 Bloomberg News, “Virgin Galactic’s Next Big Bet,” July 29, 2016. http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2016-07-29/virgin-galactic-s-next-big-bet?cmpid=google&google_editors_picks=true
 Caitlin Dwyer, “Escaping the Gaokao,” September 17, 2015, The Big Roundtable. http://www.thebigroundtable.com/stories/escaping-the-gaokao/
 Daniel Holzman, “Endless Care with Costs to Match,” December 28, 1987, Insight.
 Homer Circle, “Skamania: Indiana’s Super Steelhead,” January 1985, Sports Afield.
 Siddartha Mukherjee, “The Race for a Zika Vaccine,” August 22, 2016, The New Yorker. http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2016/08/22/the-race-for-a-zika-vaccine
 Carol Mersch, “A Trial by Fire,” May 26, 2016, The Big Roundtable, http://www.thebigroundtable.com/stories/a-trial-by-fire/
 Douglas H. Chadwick, “New Forces Challenge the Gods at the Crossroads of Kathmandu,” July 1987, National Geographic.
 Alex Kotlowitz, January 7, 1988.
 August 22, 1986.