Wednesday, March 12, 2008

The Four Boxes

The Four Boxes
©2007 Doug McGill

The Four Boxes is a story structure that’s adaptable to almost any conceivable journalistic form – news story, feature piece, personality profile, issue analysis, trend story, investigative piece, and many more. It answers the need for every piece of journalism to be timely, relevant, useful, and aesthetically pleasing enough to attract a reader’s attention and to spend some quality time reading.

Learning it is a bit like a musician the musical scales. It takes only a little while to memorize, and a lifetime to master. But you can start producing credible, useful and readable journalism very quickly by simply following this paint-by-the-numbers method:

Box #1: The Anecdotal Lead

Box #2: The Cosmic Paragraph

Box #3: The Motley Middle

i) Statistics, Quotes, Anecdotes
ii) Chronologies
iii) Paraphrase-quote, Paraphrase-quote, Paraphrase-quote.
iv) Bricks & Pillows

Box #4: The Kicker

Box #1: The Anecdotal Lead
Professional journalists call this the “anecdotal lead,” and it is the most common way to begin a piece of journalism. It can be used with many kinds of articles – profiles of individual people, trend stories, feature stories, analytical pieces, news events, and many other types. Generally it’s only a paragraph long, or two at the most. An anecdote is only a small story, a small event that in some way illustrates the larger story that you are writing about. It’s helping, in trying to find the best anecdote to start your piece, to ask yourself: “If I were at a dinner with friends and wanted to tell this story, instead of writing it, what’s the story I would start by telling?”

For example, in the case of the story about the migrant workers, I might start by telling the story of Maria, a migrant who lives in Mapleville:

“One morning, Maria phoned home during her coffee break and learned that her six-year-old son was running a fever of 103 degrees. She rushed to her boss for permission to drive her child to the hospital, but instead was coldly told: ‘Don’t bother coming back if you leave, because you won’t have a job waiting for you.’”

That little anecdote could be a good lead for an article about poor working conditions and lack of human rights for Mexican migrants working at the local vegetable canning plant in Mapleville.

Box #2: The Cosmic Paragraph

This section is what professional journalists call the “nut” or the “nut paragraph.” It is where the journalist explains the wider significance of the small anecdote that started the story for the whole community, state, nation, or whatever is the article’s full context. It’s usually a paragraph long, or two at the most. In addition to showing the lead anecdote’s larger significance, the nut paragraph also often includes brief allusions to important parts of the story ahead. For that reason, the nut paragraph is sometimes also called the “billboard paragraph,” because it gives readers quick highlights of the article to come.

For an investigative story about migrant workers at the local cannery, the two-paragraph story “nut’ might read something like this:

“Maria’s story is one of dozens of nearly identical tales told by seasonal workers at the Peppy Foods plant in Mapleville, and at the company’s sixteen other food-packing plants throughout the Midwest. In interviews with more than three dozen workers, a picture emerged of a company that routinely exposes its seasonal workers to hazardous working conditions even while it denies them access to medical care, affordable housing, and a minimum hourly wage.

“In the most egregious case of abuse, one Mexican worker, according to county health records obtained yesterday, died after complaining of headaches but was forced to continue working until he collapsed. State legislators say this case and dozens of others documented by Migrant Rights International, a human rights group, are certain to influence a controversial “illegal immigration” bill that is supported by Governor Tim Plenty and scheduled for a vote this week.”

Box #3: The Motley Middle

This is the most free-form and varied part of journalistic articles. Pick up a newspaper or news magazine and peruse a few pieces to see how many different ways writers develop their stories. Whatever their form, however, the middle section of stories always must support the statements and allegations made in the “lead” and “nut graf” sections.

In addition, when you boil it down, the middle section of nearly all journalistic stories are all built from three building blocks which are: 1) Anecdotes, 2) Quotes, and 3) Statistics. And the three most common ways to organize the middle sections are roughly as follows:

1. Anecdote, Quote, Statistic -- Tell an anecdote (one paragraph), give a quote (another paragraph), give just one or two carefully chosen statistics (a one-sentence paragraph). Repeat, repeat, repeat, all the way to the end.

2. Chronologies
-- The most ancient and time-honored storytelling method, a succession of paragraphs based on the logic and suspense of the formula “and then … and then … and then.”

3. Paraphrase-Quote – Let’s say you have three quotes from a key interview that are colorful, each different from the another, and each of them making a key point. A good way to handle this is, in a one- or two-sentence section ahead of each quote, to paraphrase what your source said in your own words. Follow this paragraph-long paraphrase with a paragraph that contains the person’s quote. You have just created a two-paragraph block of text, the first being a paraphrase of the source’s quote, and the second being the quote itself. Repeat, repeat, repeat.

4. Bricks & Pillows – In this popular writer’s tip, “bricks” stand for statistics, numbers, or a paragraph of dense logical reasoning or dry-but-necessary description. “Pillows” meanwhile stands for a colorful quotation, a funny or compelling story, or something else that emotionally fun or rewarding and not intellectually taxing. The idea is to alternate -- a paragraph of brick, then a paragraph of pillow. Repeat, repeat, repeat.

Box #4: The Kicker
A “kicker” is journalism lingo for the last paragraph or two of a story. It wraps up the story in an aesthetically and emotionally pleasing way.

The best way to learn to write kickers is to read lots of stories to see how other journalists do it. When you write a kicker, you have gotten to a point in writing the piece where you feel you’ve emptied your notebook and your mind. You’ve reported what you needed to report, and you’ve said what you needed to say. Now you can stop, clear your mind of everything, and just tell a last little anecdote.

Like the lead anecdote, this one should have some symbolic resonance with the whole story. Play around until you find one. A survey of successful kickers shows the following frequent characteristics in their writing:

1. Super quotes – The most common successful kicker is memorable quote, especially one that creates a strong mental picture that restates the story’s main theme in a fresh way.

2. Author’s language (as opposed to a quote) that restates the story’s main theme in a fresh way.

3. A question, in either a quote or the author’s language, that applies one last turn of the story’s main theme and opens it imaginatively to a new line of speculation or questioning.

4. A phrase that lightly strikes or echoes a phrase or theme from the story’s lead.

5. Phrases that evoke or directly mention endings, beginnings, continuity or finality, births, deaths, etc.

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