The reverse-pyramid method of writing is particular to news stories’ features. This style evolved over the past two centuries, with the advent of technological, fast-moving changes and greater access to world-events making a big impact on how we share and consume news.
From the arrival of Samuel Morse, who sent the first message ‘What hath God wrought?’ across the first US telegraph in 1844, news became a commodity of immediacy that was no longer in danger of being yesterday’s news due the wait of news by horse, boat or pigeon.
News today is big business. Tragedy is re-imagined and re-constructed into an explosive multi-modal package of conflict, sensationalism, suspense and sometimes, resolution. With the rise of mobile-first news media consumption, the news churn cycle has now moved from morning and evening editions, to hourly updates, and the trend of 24/7 news channels stand testament to the insatiable demand of an anxious readership.
So to unpack one of the methods that creates a news-feeding frenzy, let’s take a look at the role of the intro in a news story.
The way we tell stories to each other naturally orientate the audience first, introduce the characters / scenario, lead to a crescendo, followed by a denouement and conclusion. The structure of news stories is completely un-natural. The reverse-pyramid starts with the most sensational punchline first, with the most vital and dramatic facts leading the story first – hence, in the US, they call it ‘the lead’ but in Australia, we call it ‘the intro’.
The structure of a news story therefore, is written backwards.
Bare events come before background information. We begin with the climax and work with the most important information first and end with the least important detail. Knowing this is important because the editor may often need to chop your story in two – so having the most vital details in the first third of your story will ensure the reader will get everything they need to know about the story. In terms of reader behaviour, often times they will not read past the first three or four paragraphs, which is why getting your intro right is critical to getting your message across very quickly.
Those who do this well are those who excel at re-formulating a scenario into an intro in the briefest, but most impactful way possible.
The intro in a hard news feature is generally the first paragraph – made up of one to three sentences only. Once the writer has distilled the main message into an intro, the rest of the story naturally unpacks itself. Some news organisations will have a set word limit for intros – but aim for somewhere between thirty to fifty words.
A good tip to help you find the intro is to imagine yourself trying to tell a friend who just asked you what drama happened. Most people would give the most interesting point first, and then re-construct their experience chronologically afterwards. Same would go if you had to report something to the cops. What would be the first thing you would say if someone just stole your wallet and you saw a cop nearby? Would you start by telling the cop that you were on your way to work, stopped for a coffee and then someone stole your wallet or would you start with, “Hey! That guy stole my wallet! Catch him!”.
Another method is to assess all the information you have at hand, and find an angle that gives your story a fresh perspective, and orientate your narrative around this position. Often the best angles are born from a small quirky detail so keep your wit on high alert!
Conventions to keep in mind
Your intro should:
- Attract attention
- Highlight the salient point of your story
- Have an angle / theme
- Make one to three points
- Be informative
- Set the tone and tempo of the story
What to avoid:
- Intros that have empty rhetoric
- Hypotheticals and unanswered propositions
- Exaggeration of sensational incidents
- Pointless anecdotes that have no bearing on the angle
There is nothing more amateurish than when a writer poses lots of unanswered questions in a news story – so avoid it at all costs.
Try to avoid cramming the intro too. Keep it sharp, with specific details – and as always, on message.
Till next time,