Chapter 3: The shape of the news story

Here we will introduce the concept of the inverted pyramid, which is the basic shape of the news story. We see why this is a good way to present news.

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News stories go straight to the point. In this respect, they are quite unlike other forms of written English, such as novels and short stories, committee reports, letters and theses. All these are written primarily for people with the time to consider and absorb what has been written.

They also follow the usual pattern of spoken language, in which it is generally impolite to jump straight to the main point which you wish to make without first establishing contact.
For example, a female student writing home may say:

"Dear Mum and Dad, I don't want you to worry about me, but I have some news for you which you are not going to like. I met a boy here at the start of the semester and he likes me a lot. Well, we have been seeing a lot of each other and ..."

What she is not likely to write home is:

"Dear Mum and Dad, I am pregnant."

But news stories do that; that is why they are different.

In the following example, you will see that the narrative form starts at the oldest part of the story, then tells what happened in the order in which it happened. The news form starts at the most newsworthy part of the story, then fills in details with the most newsworthy first and the least newsworthy last:

NARRATIVE   

When electricians wired the home of Mrs Mary Ume in Hohola, Port Moresby, some years ago they neglected to install sufficient insulation at a point in the laundry where a number of wires crossed.

A short-circuit occurred early this morning.

Contact between the wires is thought to have created a spark, which ignited the walls of the house.

The flames quickly spread through the entire house.

Mrs Ume, her daughter Peni (aged ten) and her son Jonah (aged five months) were asleep in a rear bedroom. They had no way of escape and all perished.

NEWS

A Port Moresby woman and her two children died in a house fire in Hohola today.

Mrs Mary Ume, her ten-year-old daughter Peni and baby son Jonah were trapped in a rear bedroom as flames swept through the house. 

The fire started in the laundry, where it is believed faulty electrical wiring caused a short-circuit. The family were asleep at the time.

The flames quickly spread and soon the entire house was blazing.       

etc etc   

 

 

The reader knows the outcome of the drama in the first sentence of the news story. The background information about how it happened, and why it happened, are filled in later in the story.

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Top priority

News stories are written in a way which sets out clearly what is the top priority news, what is the next most newsworthy, and so on. This makes it easier for readers and listeners to understand.

In many societies, people read newspapers and web pages in a hurry. They probably do not read every word, but skim quickly through, reading headlines and intros to see which stories interest them. Some which seem at first glance to be interesting may seem less interesting after a few paragraphs, and so the reader moves on.

In other societies, people may find reading a newspaper hard work. This may be because it is written in a language which is not their first language; or it may be because they are not good at reading. They, too, will look at headlines and intros to decide which stories are interesting enough to be worth the effort of reading them.

In either case, the readers will generally read less than half of most stories; there are very few stories indeed of which they will read every word.

Similarly, people do not listen intently to every word of a radio or television news bulletin. Unless the first sentence of each item interests them, they allow their minds to wander until they hear something that interests them.

The way a news story is written therefore has to do two things:

  • It has to sell the story to the casual reader or listener.
  • It has to give the main point of the story very quickly, so that even if the reader moves on after one or two paragraphs, or if the listener stops listening after the first sentence or two, they will still have a fair idea of what the story was about.

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The inverted pyramid

This way of writing a news story, with the main news at the start and the rest of the detail following in decreasing order of importance, is known as the inverted pyramid. A pyramid has a broad base and tapers towards its top; the news story is just the opposite, with a broad top and tapering towards the base. It is therefore called an inverted (or upside-down) pyramid.

the inverted pyramidThis "shape" of the news story, with a "broad" top and a "narrow" base, is in the weight of the news itself. Look back at the earlier example, of the Hohola house fire. See how the first paragraph of the news story is the biggest news, and how the story begins to taper down towards the minor detail.

The first paragraph, which is called the intro, contains the most newsworthy part of the story - the newest, most unusual, most interesting and most significant - told clearly and simply. This is followed by a full explanation and all the details. The most newsworthy parts of the story will be written nearest to the top of the story.

The later part of the story - the tapering point of the inverted pyramid - contains detail which is helpful, but not essential.

Here is an example of a short news story in the inverted pyramid; structure:

A Palauli woman whose body was found in the sea is believed to have drowned.
Police say the 35-year-old woman, whose name has not been released, was an epileptic.
Her body was found floating in the sea near Palauli, Savai`i, on Monday.
A post mortem examination will be conducted today.

This format has a practical advantage, too. If it is necessary to cut a number of lines, to fit the story into the available space on a page or into the available time in a news bulletin, it is best if the least important facts are at the end. They can then be cut without harming the story.

It will be clear from this that the most important part of any news story is the intro and that intro writing is one of the most important skills of a journalist.

We shall look in detail in the next chapter at how to write the intro.

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Advanced news writing

The simple inverted pyramid, as described here, is not suitable for all news stories. Later, in Chapter 25, we will look at some more advanced and sophisticated shapes for news stories.
However, you should first master the basic inverted pyramid before moving on.

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TO SUMMARISE:

News stories put the main point first, with other information following in order of importance, finishing with the least important.
This helps readers and listeners by identifying the main news and saving them time and effort.

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>>go to next chapter

 

 
Index of Chapter 3
  1. The news story goes straight to the point
  2. Top priority
  3. The inverted pyramid
  4. Advanced newswriting
  5. To summarise
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