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The Inverted Pyramid

Here's the way Lawrence Surtees of the Globe and Mail describes the structure of a news story:

Take a look at a recent daily newspaper (in print or on the Web) and look at the front page. Scan several stories briefly.

No matter how different the news is and the stories they tell, it doesn't take long to realize they all seem similar.

News stories are organized in much the same way.

Once you learn how they are organized, they will be much easier to write.

  • The first paragraph is called the LEAD or LEDE (pronounced as in "to lead")

  • The rest of the story is called the BODY, which generally backs up the LEAD.

  • And, finally, as with any good story, there should be a pithy ENDING.

The structure of a news story is often referred to as the inverted pyramid. That is because the main, and most important, point is contained in the first sentence. The rest of the story contains elements of less importance as the reader nears the bottom.

The inverted pyramid arose during the era of movable lead type. It allowed editors and composers, who laid out columns of type set stories, to trim a story quickly at the last minute from the bottom up. The replacement of hot type with computers has made it easier to edit a story to fit its allotted space on a newspaper page -- and eased the strictures about news story writing.

The rules of newswriting have relaxed over time and different styles are popular with various newspapers. But many reporters still use the inverted pyramid technique to organize their stories and ensure that the most important information goes at the beginning of the story.

Here's how it works:

1. Lead/lede.
The lead is the opening sentence/paragraph which summarizes the basic facts of a story and conveys to the readers what you, the writer, found out in your reporting. But it must be more than just an opening to your story. The lead must also catch a reader's or listener's attention and make them want to read the rest of your story.

Journalists are taught a simple rule about basic news leads, called the "5-W's." They are: Who? What? Where? When? Why? A sentence or paragraph that gives a reader the answer to all the five W's will automatically summarize any story.

There are many other kinds of news leads, but they all fall into two categories: "hard" leads and "soft" leads. The choice depends on the nature of the story and determines the form of the rest of the story. A hard lead is suited for an urgent, breaking event, while a soft lead is more indirect and suited to feature writing.

A hard lead:
If Canada and France don't reach an agreement on fish quotas by Sept. 30 Ottawa will unilaterally impose one, Fisheries Minister John Crosbie says.

-- St. John's Evening Telegram, Sept. 16, 1992.

A soft lead:
Bryan Adams spoke and the fans listened.

"Be good to Osoyoos," Adams told the crowd of 30,000 who gathered in the Okanagan town Sunday for the only B.C. stop in his Waking Up the Nation tour. "Osoyoos has been good to you tonight. So have a good time and don't wreck the place."

Then the clean cut kid from North Vancouver gave the fans what they had come for.

-- Vancouver Sun, Sept. 8, 1992

2. Body of the Story
The rest of a news story is called the body. In a hard news story, the body supports the lead and in the classic inverted pyramid style is organized so that the facts and quotes are written in declining importance.

After the lead, a story may have a theme paragraph that spells out the theme or sub-themes in greater detail. The story then proceeds with sections that explore the theme and sub-theme in more detail, and in order.

In addition to the writer's narrative, each sub-theme is backed up with background facts and relevant quotations that you have selected. Remember that readers want to know who said something that appears in quotation marks, so identify the speaker. And that means asking permission and making sure you know how to spell a source's name correctly.

The body of a story can be written in other ways that depart from the inverted pyramid. One form is called the hourglass, which tries to retain the suspense of traditional fictional storytelling.

A story should proceed in a natural and CHRONOLOGICAL order. Sticking to a logical order will make it easier to write the story, as well as to allow you to keep track of your ideas and material. Don't jump back and forth and keep paragraphs short and simple -- one idea at a time.

After you write down a lead, begin the body of the story with a brief point-form outline. An outline is real simple, especially on a personal computer, quick to start, helps organize your thoughts -- and allows you to remember all the great stuff you want to put in your story.

Newswriters also refer to a story's "flow". Writers don't just plop down a string of ideas and sub-themes, one after another. You have to string them together, which you do by writing "transitions." Those come at the end of one idea and relate that thought or statement to the next idea.

3. The Ending
Inverted pyramid stories don't need a strong ending since those hard news stories simply end when there is nothing more to say. But other kinds of news stories often need a good ending. And as with any other kind of writing, the ending can be as difficult as the beginning.

One way to end is with a "kicker," which is often a catchy quote. Another effective ending is to conclude with a quote or anecdote that relates the story back to the main theme and leaves the reader thinking about the essence of the story.

Avoid preaching or lecturing at the end of the story. It is often hard to resist, but if the story is told well, the quotes and facts that a newswriter chooses will allow the reader to come to the same conclusion on their own.


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