"In any really good subject, one has only to probe deep enough to come to tears."
- Edith Wharton
Hard news stories require a direct lede ("Gimme the facts, Conrad, I wanna know what happened!") as the immediacy of events provokes the readers' desire for information. A feature story, by contrast, floats free; it is dreamed up by an editor or reporter who stumbles onto something, or more likely someone, and thinks, Well, there could be a story here. The story may be timely, with a news peg (It's opening day at that little swimming pond; let's send a reporter to check it out), or it may connect to nothing except a journalist's curiosity (Remember that kid, the basketball player who got shot? What's going on with him now?). But one thing every feature story should have is a heart, and the feature writer's job is to find that thing and show it beating.
You do this, first, by reporting and, specifically, by gathering details. I was once assigned to write a profile of a county commissioner who met me at the construction site of a new public library. I described how he plowed right toward me through the mud, never even hiking up his pants, and I guarantee you that anyone who read the rest of that article forgot—just as I have forgotten—every other thing I said about the man. I wrote a long story; it went on for columns and columns. I described the guy's job (as if writing his résumé), his "challenges" (his was a boring job), and, I presume, his life, but I don't remember now if he was married or single or straight or gay or happy or miserable or devoted to county commissioning or just going through the motions in order to get to the bocce pit, not that he played bocce, or maybe he did, I wouldn't know. I so completely failed to locate the heart of this man or show it beating that my story was totally DOA, kaput except for that one detail about the mud, which is the best way I know to teach you that details are what matter, details are the definition of "probing deep," and if you want to write feature stories, details are what you must collect, like butterflies, like stamps and coins. They are treasures.
As for how to write the feature story once you've done your reporting and gathered all those details, most of the old rules apply. Write tight. Write clean. Keep it simple; make it look easy. Do not think about yourself when you write—think about the story; give the readers the story, not your performance art in black on white.
But having said all that, I'll now say that writing features is different from writing hard news. Features can contain mood, atmosphere, emotion, and even irony, as well as information; thus, with features, you have more room in your writing for creativity, for style. I hate to confuse you by talking about mirrors again, but my editor-from-hell Andrew Gully used the image a bit differently and it struck me: He said when you write a story, you should think of yourself as a mirror and a sponge. You're a mirror as you accurately reflect the world of your story, and you're a sponge as you soak up all the emotion and humanity of the people in it. Then you return to the newsroom and squeeze all of that onto your keyboard.
Here is Gully agreeing to let a reporter write a feature story about a basketball player Gully knew who'd been shot:
"The kid was a lightening-fast athlete who could leap and twirl only a few week ago. Now, he cannot even walk, let alone soar. Healthy, paralyzed; great future, no future; happy, miserable.
If you are going to write this story well, the only way to pull it out is to dig far into the details: how an arch-foe said it was his left shoulder he always ducked a split second before he turned on the jets and blew by—'Even though I knew he was going to do it, I couldn't stop him.'
And how now the physical therapist rubs and massages his legs which are already starting to grow scrawny because of disuse, and those once telltale shoulders now have to be washed with antiseptic to prevent bed sores.
Details, details, details. The look on his mother's face when he isn't watching. The sound of the hammers as basketball players build a wheelchair ramp at their teammate's home, and the simple yet intimate ways they discuss what happened to him.
Features should be narratives, storytelling with lots of color, with soul and taste and feel. And even with delayed leads, they must capture an essence of the real story.
How do you write them? Watch, listen, feel, describe."
Here's how to write a feature:
Most feature stories use a delayed lede, in which you don't deliver the main information right away but instead begin with something else. Delayed ledes can be narratives, descriptions, anecdotes, or even quotations. They should make the reader interested in the story, and that's enough said about that. Most textbooks say you should "pull the reader in," but I hate to offer that advice, soaked as we all are with media come-ons and teases that don't deliver anything at all. In my own case, whenever I deliberately tried to "pull the reader in," I overwrote lame little vignettes that I knew in my heart wouldn't pull in a tennis ball if the reader were a Golden Retriever.
I say better to just plunge right in. Plunge in with a narrative, which begins the tale in chronological order. Or plunge in by establishing the conflict or challenge. Even direct ledes can be great. Find a writer whose work you admire and do what they do. My favorite lede of all time was in a story about the Red Sox's march toward the pennant. The sportswriter described the team "stepping over the Yankees' carcass on its way to the playoffs." What a great choice of words.
The lede I hate the most is the question lede, because it's usually pointless: "Have you ever wondered what it would feel like to win the Kentucky Derby?" No, not really. But if I did wonder, I'd probably figure out fairly quickly that it feels great, like you just won a whole lot of money in front of a lot of screaming people. So if you must ask a question, be sure it's one for which you have a really good answer—something unusual, or truly interesting, or a laugh riot. For example: "Do you know what Gloria Swanson said to the agent inspecting her passport?"
"If I look like this," she said, "I need the trip."
With a hard news story, you really can't go wrong with the old inverted pyramid structure. It works for you and your readers alike: They want to know what's going on, and you want to get them the information.
With features, though, you're really telling your readers a story. And indeed, that's how you should think of a feature story—not as a report or a newspaper article, but as a proper story. Yes, you'll be telling the truth without bias, and yes, you'll be writing tightly. But in a feature story, your reader should see characters and setting, understand the conflict, feel the atmosphere and some suspense, and enjoy a beginning, middle, and end.
All sorts of narrative structures can help you craft such a compelling story. Here's a terrific and thorough description of the hourglass structure, with additional links to the "five boxes approach" and the "nut graf story" structures as well, from Chip Scanlan of the Poynter Institute.
You could also read the paper for a few days and cut out (or save on your computer) the feature stories you like most. How did the reporters craft them? Deconstruct the stories, and you'll find out. Figure out what's in the lede: Is it direct? Is it a narrative? A scene? What's in the next graf? And the next? Where do the quotes come in, and where is the central dilemma described? Write down precisely what's in each graf, and you'll see the story's structure. Notice the transitions and the repetition of certain words or images. Then use that excellent feature story as a model. And follow your instinct to tell your reader a compelling story.
Some Mistakes to Avoid
When I wrote my first newspaper article, for The Chronicle at Duke University, I wrote a profile of a blond-haired basketball player from Texas named Tate Armstrong. I conducted the interview in the school dining hall, where Tate and I chatted over lunch. He ate fried shrimp. He put them in his mouth, and he chewed them, and in my article, I actually described this. Now, clearly I had gone awry. Maybe people would be interested to read what the guy ate for lunch. But that he chewed? Clearly not.
So writing something totally boring and pointless is one way you can go awry when you're writing a feature story. There are several other ways as well.
You can err by turning a rich and complicated story into a cliché.
You can err by writing too many words that don't say a lot.
You can err by staying on the surface of things, describing only what anyone would see but what means very little—so the tree was 20 feet tall, so the ladder was aluminum, so the fireman climbed up the ladder using both hands (duh), so what? If the tree was 20 feet tall but very, very skinny and bending under the fireman's weight, okay; if the ladder was aluminum and slick from rain, okay; if the fireman climbed up the ladder using only one hand because in the other he held a tea cup and saucer with very hot Darjeeling tea (with which to coax the woman down from the limb), then ADD THE DETAIL. But if you offer pointless details, or if you just describe what anyone could see, you aren't contributing enough to the reader. It's your job to hunt for details others don't see, jot them in your notebook, evaluate them, and if they deserve to be included, describe them in your story.
And here's the worst mistake of all, the real skull-clutcher, which you must try your level best never to make: You must never write something that, while well written, you don't believe is absolutely true.
Let's deconstruct my hideous story about Tate Armstrong in order to consider this. What I should have written was: "At lunch, Tate ate a big plate of fried shrimp." That's a fairly boring sentence, but it's accurate. It gives specific information, which people like to read. I did consider writing, "He enjoyed them," because "enjoyed" is a verb with more life in it than "ate," but actually, to be perfectly honest, I couldn't really even say that Tate enjoyed the shrimp; he really didn't act one way or another about them. We were eating in the dining hall over blue plastic trays. The fact is that Tate might have actually hated the shrimp! He might have been gagging them down in order to increase his protein intake, because Tate even back then was a nutrition nut who ate handfuls of enormous vitamins from the health food shop (which frankly was kind of a creepy place back then, because it was small and crowded and smelled of patchouli). We all gave Tate a lot of grief for his vitamin regimen because it was so crunchy granola for a big-time jock. (Granted, we were idiots, but in our defense, Tate really was ahead of his time.)
And anyway, where was I? I was talking about how I did the right thing in that story by hunting around for a strong verb—you should always hunt for the verb—but I ended up choosing poorly and writing that Tate chewed his shrimp. Boring, boring, boring. But at least I didn't make the bigger mistake of writing that he enjoyed them, because that might not have been true.
Bottom line: Had I been less dense as a young reporter and written a better profile of my friend Tate, I would have included the fried shrimp, because actually, people like to read about what other people eat, and also what they wear, and how they speak and gesture, and whether they squint or limp, and what their tattoo says, and so on and so forth (Tate did not have a tattoo, by the way, though this paragraph might imply he had—back then, most college kids didn't). In any event, in a profile—as in any news story—details are key, so you must gather them. And verbs are terrific, so you must fish around for them in your mind and use them in your writing. Just remember that at all times, your details and your verbs must matter to the story—to bringing your subject to life—and they must always, always, ALWAYS (you already know this!) reveal the truth.
- Brainstorm a local folo. Read a news story about a national event, and come up with an idea for a folo feature story that is local to your community. How does the national story affect the people or a person in your town? Think through the "story": Who are the characters? What is the setting? What is the conflict?
- Go to a public place in your town. Stay there for one hour, and do not say anything to anyone. Notice and write down or photograph details. What does the sign say? What color is the slide? What is someone wearing? Write down the things you hear and overhear. Find a story. You may have to be patient until one unfolds. Who's the character? What's the setting? What's the conflict? What's the beginning, middle, and end? Write a mini feature story from your observations.
- Make a list of feature stories for your school or town. If you're stuck on finding ideas, re-read Melissa Wantz's story brainstorming tips.