This is why we write stories

Most of the texts we call stories in journalism are more properly called reports. The imprecision of our nomenclature matters because the differences between reports and stories are important, both in how they are produced and how they are received.

The differences, I have argued, begin with the purpose of a report. In general, we write reports to collect, sort through, check out, and dish out information in the public interest. In short, we report to inform. A good report points you there. This is what you need to know. Pay attention to that.

A story is different. In the end, no one reads a story for information. No one reads "Gone with the Wind" to gain information about the Civil War. No one reads “Hamlet” to find out how to get to Elsinore castle. You need a map or a train schedule for that.

The purpose of a story is to enrich your experience. A story doesn’t POINT you there, it PUTS you there. In a sense, a story is a form of transportation. It lifts you from where you are reading and carries you to another time and another place. That time may be yesterday and the place the next village. Or the time may be 2,000 years ago and the place a stable in Bethlehem.

Reports are by design meant to be non-fiction. A fictionalized report is a form of malpractice.
Not so with stories. God or Evolution or both have given human beings a brain of a certain size. That brain empowers us with language. That language can be used to issue reports or tell stories. Those stories can correspond directly with what happened to us. Or they can be entirely made up, a form of story that we call fiction.

In a brilliant and helpful book, "On the Origin of Stories," New Zealand scholar Brian Boyd suggests that from an evolutionary point of view, fiction trumps non-fiction. Fiction is the higher power. Why? Because fiction greatly expands the range of vicarious human experience. It allows us to be rescued with Ishmael at the end of "Moby Dick", or to wander New York City with Holden Caulfield.

Without being reductive, Boyd frames the power of storytelling in evolutionary terms. In short, the experience of stories must contribute to our survival. It does this in two ways: first, it helps us learn the threats to our survival, the villains, monsters, plagues, and maelstroms. Then stories show us models of collaboration, how human beings work together to form community or battle against tyranny. In short, it teaches us what to do, and what to avoid.

My friend Tom French, one of journalism’s great storytellers and teachers, disagrees with Boyd on the superiority of fiction over non-fiction. He argues that a work of fiction can be dismissed as “just a story, or just make-believe.” A work of non-fiction is drawn directly from the real world and points to dangers or heroes that you can see now.

I returned to these theories and arguments after reading a story by Rukmini Callimachi for The New York Times. The headline in my local newspaper was: “System of rape forced by ISIS.” The subhead was “The fighters cite their religion to justify enslaving Yazidi girls.”

This was a terrible story to read, but I felt a duty to do so. In the end it filled me with rage and persuaded me, for the moment, that civilized countries, whatever their inhibitions, must unite to wipe ISIS off the face of the earth. What would provoke such a response? From the story:

QADIYA, Iraq — In the moments before he raped the 12-year-old girl, the Islamic State fighter took the time to explain that what he was about to do was not a sin. Because the preteen girl practiced a religion other than Islam, the Quran not only gave him the right to rape her — it condoned and encouraged it, he insisted.

He bound her hands and gagged her. Then he knelt beside the bed and prostrated himself in prayer before getting on top of her.

When it was over, he knelt to pray again, bookending the rape with acts of religious devotion.

“I kept telling him it hurts — please stop,” said the girl, whose body is so small an adult could circle her waist with two hands. “He told me that according to Islam he is allowed to rape an unbeliever. He said that by raping me, he is drawing closer to God,” she said in an interview alongside her family in a refugee camp here, to which she escaped after 11 months of captivity.

The story becomes more and more disturbing. It demands more than a single nut paragraph, that device in which anecdotal leads are converted to context and information. In the words of my former Poynter colleague Chip Scanlan, this piece has a “nut zone”:

The systematic rape of women and girls from the Yazidi religious minority has become deeply enmeshed in the organization and the radical theology of the Islamic State in the year since the group announced it was reviving slavery as an institution. Interviews with 21 women and girls who recently escaped the Islamic State, as well as an examination of the group’s official communications, illuminate how the practice has been enshrined in the group’s core tenets.

The trade in Yazidi women and girls has created a persistent infrastructure, with a network of warehouses where the victims are held, viewing rooms where they are inspected and marketed, and a dedicated fleet of buses used to transport them.

A total of 5,270 Yazidis were abducted last year, and at least 3,144 are still being held, according to community leaders. To handle them, the Islamic State has developed a detailed bureaucracy of sex slavery, including sales contracts notarized by the ISIS-run Islamic courts. And the practice has become an established recruiting tool to lure men from deeply conservative Muslim societies, where casual sex is taboo and dating is forbidden.

Stories are strange and complex vehicles of communication. Each one of us brings our own autobiography to the reading of a text. As outraged as I am by the Times story, a potential candidate to ISIS may be emboldened by the scene described by Callimachi.

The key to that lead – and to all narrative writing – is the building block of the scene.

A report the next day in The Washington Post revealed that “The leader of the Islamic State personally kept a 26-year-old American woman as a hostage and raped her repeatedly, according to U.S. officials and her family.” As hard as it was to learn of the terrible fate of humanitarian worker Kayla Mueller, that fact that it was delivered as a news report and not a story changes the nature of the experience of the reader.

A report hangs on a set of reliable questions that go back more than a century: Who, What, Where, When, Why, and How.

A story converts these elements and sets them in motion, so that Who becomes Character, What becomes Scenic Action, Where becomes Setting, When become Chronology, Why becomes Motive, and How becomes How it happened.

Graphic: Gurman Bhatia / Poynter

The versatility of these forms means that writers can combine a report and story, as does Callimachi. Such hybrids have different names in journalism: the broken line, the hourglass, an anecdote buttressed by a nut paragraph.

Journalism is built upon the foundation of reports. But nothing in a report can create empathy the way a well-told story does. The Times reporter in essence forces me to watch that girl being raped by a praying man. The report part tells me that 5,270 such young women were kidnapped last year. That’s a shocking number, but not in any way more shocking than what the story forces me to experience: a single girl suffering at the hands of a single man whose heart is corrupted by an intolerable ideology.

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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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