November 29, 2002

A Serial Workshop: Day Five

Five Boxes to Build a Story Fast: A Suggestion from Rick Bragg

Pulitzer winner Rick Bragg of The New York Times says he doesn’t outline his stories, but he does preach the value of the “five boxes” method of story organization. In an interview in Best Newspaper Writing 1996, Bragg described how he learned it from an assigning editor, Pat Farnan of the St. Petersburg Times, who advised him to draw five boxes:

1. The first box, the lead, contains the image or detail that draws people in the story.

2. The second box is a “nut graph” that sums up the story.

3. The third box begins with a new image or detail that resembles a lead and precedes the bulk of the narrative.

4. The fourth box contains material that is less compelling but rounds out the story.

5. The fifth, and last, box is the “kicker,” an ending featuring a strong quote or image that leaves the reader with a strong emotion.

Fill the boxes with bulleted lists of information, quotes, statistics and you have an instant outline.

The five boxes approach is the easiest method for quick organization of material. Using the boxes you can select and arrange information, settle on the beginning and ending of the story and decide what the story is about. Armed with this rudimentary outline, you can flesh out your story. It breaks the story into components that can be developed and refined.

“Even if you just completely scramble it later on, at least it got you rolling,” Bragg said.

Although Bragg doesn’t outline his stories, you can find echoes of the “five boxes approach” in the package of stories that won the Pulitzer Prize for feature writing and the ASNE award for non-deadline writing in 1996. If you’d like to see an analysis I did of one of those stories, or if you have any questions about this serial workshop, I read my e-mail at chipscan@poynter.org.

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Christopher “Chip” Scanlan (@chipscanlan) is a writer and writing coach who formerly directed the writing programs and the National Writer’s Workshops at Poynter where he…
Chip Scanlan

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