Does your story have any teeth?

Does your story have any teeth?

“All I want for Christmas is my two front teeth.” – Orson Welles

This is the infernal question many a journalist must ask whenever they get a tip or overhear a conversation in the bathroom stalls of The Caucus Room. But a seasoned journo can evaluate in two seconds whether a story has legs because of her years of networking and hiding out in toilets. She knows the players, the rumors, the trumors, and the rumths.

If you’re a green cub reporter or even just a wannabe freelance writer, you may not be able to tell if the random blog post you read on the outer reaches of the internet can make the FOB or the Well. Most of the time, the editors you’re pitching won’t care to tell you why your story needs a root canal.

As someone in-between green and yellow, here are my strategies to figuring out if the story is worth the paper it will be printed on…or the hits from reader clicks.

At the center of every good story is conflict…

Capulet versus Montague. Faust versus the Devil. Harry Potter versus Voldemort. Snooki versus the World. All great stories need a conflict and hopefully a resolution.

There doesn’t have to be a clear hero – that belongs in fiction. And if you’re wondering how a story can revolve around two villains, I invite you to watch Alien vs. Predator or even Freddy vs. Jason.

Why is conflict important? Well, if everything was honky-dory, what the hell do you care?

But people do want a likable person in a story. In journalism, that likable person is often the reader. “Oh, dear reader, you’re so smart and enterprising for reading this article that will change your view of this whole situation. How can you and anyone else live without knowing about the facts in this story? Spread the word!” is what we say with ev’ry keystroke.

I’m getting away from my main point, though, which is that a story needs conflict. There is conflict in everything. In environmental journalism, it’s usually Gaia versus greedy corporate interest or human apathy. Business journalism is supposed to protect consumers (That’s you, again! You’re so popular!). Journalists covering City Hall are fighting to make sure you know that your sidewalks are going to get smaller, damn those Escalade driving City Councilors!

Why is conflict important? Well, if everything was honky-dory, what the hell do you care?

That doesn’t mean all stories will end in crushing defeat of the proletariat. It just means that there has to be some juice squeezing, whether the conflict happened months or years ago.

In summary: Find the conflict in the story that preferably puts the reader in the protagonist role, those charmers.

But your conflict also has to have teeth and have an adequate answer to the question…

So what? 

I hate this question. Editors always ask this stupid question when you present a story to them. Ok, it’s not stupid but it is frustrating and I have a tendency to take things personally.

Depending on your piece, though, the answer doesn’t have to be earth shattering. The exceptions are investigative pieces – if the rag is gonna put a brick ton of money that they don’t have and hours of overworked staff time, your pitch better knock their titanium socks off. Yeah, titanium socks.

However, if you’re writing about keeping your pots clean the So What can just be a soft breeze from your derriere.

A good way to figure out the So What is researching the publication’s readership. Who are they? How old are they? Where are they in their lives? Why are they so handsome? What makes them so wonderful? What kind of angels are they – Cherubs? Seraphim? Blue?

Then you can write up your So What to hopefully solve some sort of problem (conflict!) in their lives or get them to pay more attention.

I hope this helps you, dear precious readers. If it does, please shine your ray of healing light in the comments below.



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