February 20, 2017

Standalone alternative story forms (ASF) do just what their name implies: They stand alone as independent stories, with no traditional story to accompany them. Like a standalone photo or graphic, the standalone ASF needs to be a complete story. It might be all the reader will see about the topic, particularly in print media.

Typically, a standalone ASF begins with some introductory text. This is similar to the lead on a news story, but it can be more conversational in tone. Direct address, such as, “Here’s what you need to know,” often works well.

Many standalone ASFs are collections of bite-size nuggets of information. Some journalists call these pieces “chunky text.” The key to a successful ASF is making all those bite-size nuggets add up to something nutritious for the reader.

Here are some examples:

  • Interview: This form is a Q&A with a newsmaker. Similar to a transcript, it allows the reader to see the give-and-take between a reporter and source.
  • Breakdown: This story form breaks down stories by theme. What happened? Who was involved? What’s next? They are useful for any sort of hard news, and they can preview an event or recap one. To make them effective, consider the news values of who, what, when, why, where and how. They will help you root out the themes in the story.
  • FAQ: These are perfect for those “teachable moments” about topics in the news. A good FAQ anticipates readers’ questions — and in the order they would ask them. Often, the nugget for the next question is in the previous answer.
  • Vignette: This form is a brief description of a person, place or thing. It’s useful for giving background and context.
  • Grid: Similar to tabular charts, grids are a good way to compare competing items to highlight similarities and differences. Sometimes called a “tale of the tape,” a grid needs to use parallel structure in the writing and presentation.
  • Comic Panels: In a news setting, consider the comic as an illustrated FAQ. Each panel can be used to explain a single concept. As a whole, the comic then informs the reader fully on a complicated topic.

Taken from Beyond the Inverted Pyramid: Creating Alternative Story Forms, a self-directed course by Andy Bechtel at Poynter NewsU.

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Vicki Krueger has worked with The Poynter Institute for more than 20 years in roles from editor to director of interactive learning and her current…
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