Think Like an Editor blog by Steve Davis and Emilie Davis, S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications, Syracuse University

10 easy steps to a better story

By · Friday, July 17th, 2015

Story ideas come from a number of places, including your own curiosity. An effective way to develop an idea into a story is to ask yourself questions.

But the key is to ask these questions at the start of story planning, not after the story has been written. Here’s a checklist of 10 questions to get you started.

  1. Who are the people affected? Go for personal stories from ordinary people in the community. Prioritize your interviews.
  2. How are the people affected or how might they be affected? Seek ways in which a person’s behavior will change or not, how this story will affect a person’s habits or routine, opinions, emotions or attitude.
  3. Why am I writing this? Find out why this story is important to anyone; you might need to do a bit of research to answer this one. Be able to finish this sentence: This story is important because …
  4. Who are the bureaucrats? Interview people who have authority, realizing that even students can be bureaucrats if they have a role of authority in an organization.
  5. What are the key questions to be answered? Ask different questions of different people, remembering that sometimes there are situations when one question should be asked of everyone. Different answers to the same question will establish the kind of conflict that will make the story interesting.
  6. What research must I do? You must find out some background and understand how this story idea fits into what’s happening locally and elsewhere, whether it is the start of a trend, and whether something happening locally might be an evolution of a story that happened locally in the past.
  7. Where can I go? Use your five senses to get a feel for people by interviewing them in person — in their homes, their places of business, their favorite places to relax, such as a coffee shop or a park. Stories that have a location allow you and, ultimately, the reader to see things directly.
  8. What am I missing? Take some time to answer this one. You might need to do more research first. You want to go beyond the obvious questions that already have been answered; identify a person who should be interviewed; uncover an angle not yet recognized.
  9. How can I be creative? Have fun with this one. Stretch your imagination. Think about the unusual. Look for an interesting twist.
  10. What is my vision? Take your time and do your research to answer the first nine questions. Then take a personal interest in imagining what your story will look like, how it will begin and how it will end. It all has to do with which people were interviewed and how questions were answered.

Stories rise and fall on the answers to these 10 questions. Sometimes there is no story. That’s the point of having this conversation with yourself — to make a good story better or to move on to another idea if there’s just no story there.

If this process seems tedious, you are right. But it’s essential if you want to end up with a story that is better than good.

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