Let your lead be a flashlight and 9 other ideas for focusing a story

Leads can help you and your readers see what's coming next. (Photo by Alex Johnston/Flickr)
Leads can shine a light for you and your readers to see what's coming next. (Photo by Alex Johnston/Flickr)

Over the next few months, Poynter will publish shortened versions of 21 chapters of the book “Help! for Writers,” by Roy Peter Clark. Published by Little, Brown, the book lists common problems writers face and offers 10 solutions for each of the problems.

Problem #7: I don’t know what my story is really about.

Solutions:

1. Limit the scope of the topic.
Thinking about the scope of the story – the width of your topic – will help you figure out your focus. Early in the process, look for the sharpest possible angle of approach. If you wait until the drafting stage, you may miss the chance to gather the evidence you need to make your point. In other words, don’t write about education, but about a school, or a classroom or a student.

2. Ask yourself over and over: “What is this story really about?”
That question has become a mantra among the writers and writing teachers who work at Poynter. The first efforts to discover your deeper meaning will be expressed in thematic abstractions: It’s really about fear, or comfort, or home, or family, or courage, or loyalty, or denial, of the hundred other themes writers depend upon most often. Remember, a topic – exotic pets – is not a story. A story is when a woman’s pet chimpanzee attacks and disfigures her best friend and neighbor – and then tries to kill the owner.

3. Try writing a lead sentence that captures the focus.
John McPhee calls the lead the flashlight that shines down into the story. Write a sentence or a paragraph or even a passage designed to help readers see what’s up ahead or round the bend: “The sport of shuffleboard, with a rich history in St. Petersburg, is undergoing a revival thanks to a group not usually associated with this haven for retirees: young people.” There is no stronger tool for finding the focus of a story – and sharing it with readers – than the well-turned lead.

4. Write a six-word theme statement.
A theme statement, of whatever length, need not appear in a story to do its work. Because a theme is often expressed in abstract language, it can lend a story altitude but not particularity. In other words, the theme “tells,” when the writer may be looking for opportunities to “show." A theme statement may look or sound like these:

• Real cowboys don’t ride fake bulls.
• Culture, not race, produces great athletes.
• More women than men reach ninety.

A version of a theme statement can go almost anywhere in the story: at the very top, down four or five paragraphs to illuminate the lead, right in the middle, or at the end as a conclusion.

5. Make sure all the evidence in your story points to a single idea or conclusion.
All writers collect more than they can use in a report or story. How do you decide, then, what to use and what to leave aside? That part of the process – selection – can challenge the writer and editor. All the more reason to be clear about the focus. Think of the focus using two metaphors. The focus is a door that lets all the best stuff into the story. But it is also a knife that cuts material that may be interesting, but does not advance the focus.

6. Cut the elements least supportive of your focus.
Not all evidence is equal. If you can identify the weakest evidence, what is left – your strongest stuff – can support a sharp focus. But what makes evidence weak?

• It will appear in the story only because of your interest in it.
• You will find yourself making lame excuses for its inclusion.
• It is neither important nor interesting.

7. List three things that your story is about. Which is most important?
Theme in stories can be over-rated. The best stories turn out to be about lots of things. That said, it makes sense to articulate any message or meaning that will lend your work unity and coherence. If you can’t say yet what your story is about, create a list of things it could be about. Which items on your list are the most persuasive? Such strategic thinking can lead you to a workable focus.

8. Ask yourself, “What feeling do I want to leave with the reader?”
You cannot control how your reader feels, but you can influence this through your choices. Imagine the most desirable effect on the reader. Write your story with that result in mind. Desirable effects include things such as: “I want my reader to have empathy for characters like mine,” or “I want my reader to understand why this proposed amendment, no matter how technical, can have a profound effect on public education in my city,” or “I want readers to be able to make a good choice on whether to get this medical test or not.”

9. List questions your story will answer for the reader.
List those questions in random order. Now choose which questions are most important and see if your story is focused enough to answer them. The writer must sort through such a list and test out the various possible angles to find the most productive for the reader.

10. Brainstorm titles for the work.
Writers should always be thinking of titles. It should not matter whether the writer is asked or not, or whether the writer has any say in or influence on decisions about titles. Simply put, if the writer can’t come up with a decent title, the task of finding a focus has not yet been completed.

For the previous chapters in this series, go here.

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    Roy Peter Clark

    Roy Peter Clark has taught writing at Poynter to students of all ages since 1979. He has served the Institute as its first full-time faculty member, dean, vice-president, and senior scholar.

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