Connection: The core of storytelling

Today in class I told the students: You don’t really have a story if you simply tell me about an issue, a trend, or even an event. If you want me to relate to the issue, you’re going to have to personalize it.

The best way to do that: Use a character.

I don’t mean a fictional character — this is journalism! I recommend that you find a person whose connection to the story focus (poverty, crime, health, wealth, education, etc.) will give the reader/viewer a way to connect — through that individual.

After class one of my students, Curt Franklin, told me about an article in the latest CJR that seemed to back up my assertion about finding a good character as the pivot point for your story. What’s more, it indicates that ONE character is better than a whole bunch.

A research study showed that people were more likely to donate money to a cause illustrated by ONE starving child than to the same cause illustrated by TWO starving children. If the findings are correct:

[T]hen the challenge for journalism is to cover genocide and other “psychically numbing” catastrophes in ways that move beyond the big picture to the wallet-sized photo that attaches a single human face to the tragedy. With Darfur in mind, Slovic praises the persistent and intimate reporting of the New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, and suggests that bringing people from Darfur to our communities and our homes to tell their stories could rouse people in a way the occasional news story from afar does not.

Food for thought, yes?

According to an article in EurekAlert! (also sent to me by Curt), researcher Paul Slovic is “trying to determine how people can utilize both the moral intuition that genocide is wrong and moral reasoning to reach not only an outcry but also demand intervention.” Well, in other words, he’s not directly trying to help journalists — but indirectly, there’s something in it for us.

We were also talking in class about some very effective photo stories that led to action being taken to change a terrible situation (example: substandard care for people in nursing homes). Not all stories call for change, of course. But one way or another, if you’ve decided a story is important enough to tell, then you will want the readers or viewers to recognize that importance.

If you’re not using a dominant character in your story, maybe most people in the audience can’t connect with it. If they don’t connect, probably you’ve failed to communicate why the story is important.

7 Comments on “Connection: The core of storytelling

  1. This reminds me of the image of the frightened child in Vietnam, running along the road. Or the monk who set himself on fire. Or the person who stood in front of the tank in Tiannamon Square. There are so many cases. I guess when you talk about large groups. Everything becomes a statistic.

  2. This echoes a point made by Jim Merithew (picture editor, SF Chronicle) in one of his semi-regular articles at

    “One of the things I always tell my photographer is if you want it to be a story, you have to put a name to it. Give us someone, not something, to care about.”

    I’d be curious if there is any psychological research showing that empathy is stronger toward individuals than toward groups or issues.


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  4. Character, conflict, resolution: the three elements to narrative storytelling. You can have them every day — a good example, look at the sports page. Jon Franklin’s “Writing for Story,” is a must read along this thread of throught.

  5. But the challenge for the new journalism student would be how to tell the story through focusing on one character without turning the story into a profile.

  6. Sanam mentions a problem that several of my students are finding with their first Soundslides, because they are required to use audio from only one interview subject (plus natural sound). I did not expect so many of them to turn their story into a profile — the story is supposed to be about an aspect of campus life (their choice). I’ll have to figure out a way to solve this next time …

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