It’s Not the Size of the Story; It’s How You Use It

Bora Zivkovic, the blog editor at Scientific American, posted a piece few days ago about the rise of forms of storytelling other than “the kind of short, inverted-pyramid article many in the professional media think of as “The Story”. Instead, Zivkovic envisions this “middle” form fading away in favor of either very short (tweet-length) reports or much lengthier narratives:

My bold prediction is that the length of a typical article will go in two directions: super-short, just the gist of the news, like a tweet; or super-long, an in-depth, detailed explainer or narrative. Long articles are doing very well these days, are popular and are quite capable of fetching money from their readers who are paying for such quality content quite willingly.

I especially agree with Zivkovic’s push for storytellers to make much greater use of the wide array of new forms at a storyteller’s disposal, such as tweets, links, and visualizations. However, there are a couple points in his piece I want to address in greater detail.

First, as some commenters on his post have pointed out, it is a false caricature to think that “for journalists, a story is a filed, fact-checked, 400-word inverted pyramid with the punch line in the title followed by the most important stuff.” Sure, that form was taught in journalism school, but so was feature writing — where we definitely did not write 400-word inverted pyramid stories — and now so is multimedia storytelling. Journalists write everything from three-sentence briefs to features, explainers or investigative reports that are thousands and sometimes tens of thousands of words long, and all of these are referred to, in the the industry lingo, as “stories.”

Second — and this is the point I want to focus on — the length of the story and, to a degree, the style in which it was written (e.g.: inverted pyramid vs. narrative), are not really the appropriate criteria by which to judge the effectiveness or usefulness of stories.

The beauty of the Internet and the new forms of storytelling is not that they give us the freedom to turn every piece into a lengthy narrative or a video or a tweet, but rather that they give us the flexibility to make a story exactly as long as it needs to be to serve its purpose and lets us pick and choose the optimal style and format for that particular story. A story’s value to its audience lies not in whether it’s 140 characters, 400 words, or 30,000 words, but in what the storyteller does within that length. Used correctly and effectively, any story length can inform and satisfy. Used poorly, any of these formats can make the audience loses interest and focus, and the story in turn loses its audience.

Zivkovic presented the example of how he used to “filter” a newspaper by selecting certain sections that he’s interested in, then skimming headlines before picking a story that he might be interested in reading. He concludes:

The point of this exercise is to realize that for the most part inverted pyramid can be reduced to just the headline. The ultimate inverted pyramid article is a single tweet.

And for those who want to know more than just that one sentence, a short inverted-pyramid article is not sufficient, so one has to look for a longer narrative explainer.

There is not much utility for the short article in the age of the Web, where limits of the paper medium do not apply, thus no article needs to always try to be both a part of River Of News and a part of News In Context – it does neither perfectly. And in the age of the Web, the two can be separated, yet linked by hypertext.

I’ll offer up my own example of filtering here by describing how I read Zivkovic’s post. I found his post via a link on Twitter. The tweet interested me and so I clicked on the link to read the story. When I got there, the headline at the top of the story kept my interest, so I read on. But then, the first five paragraphs had nothing to do with the subject of the tweet or the headline, which was what brought me to the story in the first place. I skimmed the first two sentences and quickly realized this to be the case, so I skipped past the first 300-some words of the 5,400-plus-word post.

After the real intro of the story, which sets up the rest of the narrative, I got to the section titled “What is a story?” and the first sentence I saw under that subhead started with “According to Wikipedia …” and immediately my attention began to waver because of how overused the “The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines X as …” device has become and how ineffective its usage tends to be in the first place. So I quickly skimmed through that paragraph and resumed actual reading with the paragraph below it. The ensuing section, “Narratives vs. Inverted Pyramid”, held my interest throughout.

And then I got to three consecutive sections that seemed to take a detour from the story up to that point — “Typology of science stories”, “Science in the story: hero or villain?”, and “Is a scientific paper a story?” While interesting, these three sections interrupted the train of thought and the line of argument that had been built in the previous parts of the post, and it wasn’t until almost 1,400 words later that we jumped back onto the narrative-vs.-inverted-pyramid train, with the section titled “How do readers know what to expect: inverted pyramid or narrative?” So for almost 1,400 words, I skimmed and my attention was starting to wane and I was beginning to wonder where this was all going because, after all, I have work to do and my job description doesn’t say anything about sitting here all day reading lengthy blog posts, as much as I wish it did (and yes, I do use Instapaper, but keep in mind there are also countless other stories out there vying for my attention and trying to keep me from coming back to this one).

The point of recounting how I read Zivkovic’s post isn’t to imply he’s a bad writer, to line-edit his post, or to suggest that all of his readers read the way I did. Instead, it’s meant to illustrate that filtering takes place not only while one chooses which story to read, but also on an ongoing basis while one is reading a story. The more someone has to skim and filter while reading a story, the harder one has to work to get to the central message of the story, the less effective and satisfying that story becomes, and the less likely the reader will continue reading. On the point of losing readers’ attention, Zivkovic wrote:

Unlike with Inverted Pyramid articles, in which the reader’s focus rapidly falls off after reading the headline, the narrative sustains focus (it may even rise as the reader progresses through the piece). The reader needs to concentrate better in order not to miss important clues and information. Thus, more information is retained. Thus, narrative form is more educational – readers can actually learn and retain new knowledge, not just get temporarily informed.

Here’s one place where I disagree with Zivkovic. Readers may need to concentrate more in order to not miss important clues and information in a narrative, but it doesn’t follow that they will. The latter only happens if the story, regardless of format, gives them a reason to stay engaged. What sustains focus isn’t so much style or length, but rather substance. A story loses readers not because it’s long or because it’s short, but because it runs out of interesting substance or becomes so much work to follow that it outweighs the quality of the substance being presented. A 400-word story that runs out of steam after the first three paragraphs is bound to lose readers, but so will a narrative that takes too long to get to the point or takes so many twists and turns that the readers give up after a while (ever hear someone tell a story in excruciating detail and think to yourself, “Get to the point already!”?). In fact, I’d argue that it’s more difficult to keep readers engaged throughout a narrative — especially in online reading — because by its very nature, a narrative takes longer to develop and covers more ground and more angles than an inverted-pyramid story, and thus has to contend with more potential distractions. It’s different when someone opens up a novel. That’s a situation where one not only expects the narrative form, but also a case where the narrative journey to the big reveal is as much a payoff as the reveal itself, if not more. In online reading, however, and especially in online news, where the overwhelming majority of pieces tend to be more informational, one is conditioned to expect a more direct path to the point of the piece — since the point of the piece often is the payoff — and generally has less time or tolerance for detours.

The Internet has removed the space constraints that previously prevented us from saying what needs to be said when more needs to be said. However, it cannot do anything about the pitfall at the other end of the spectrum — saying too much and getting in the way of what we are trying to say. A lengthy story where one ends up mentally filtering out big chunks of the story may not be as effective as a much shorter story that grips people’s attention throughout. The same idea applies no matter what length or style a story adopts. The 400-word inverted pyramid is definitely not the perfected universal form of storytelling, but neither is the 140-character tweet, the 5,000-word narrative, or the 90-second video. Each style serves a particular purpose better than others, and the ideal choice changes from story to story, depending on a myriad of factors, including the content, the intended audience, and the aim of the storyteller.

While the Internet has liberated storytellers to write as much as they want to, no less significant, especially in the realm of news, is the fact that it has also liberated them to write as little as they need to. I’ll be happy to see the extinction of the short stories where the writer strains to turn three sentences into 400 words because that’s the allotted space, but I will be just as happy to celebrate the continued existence of the short stories where someone writes 400 words because that is exactly what’s necessary to serve its purpose, no more, no less. I suspect Zivkovic and I probably agree on the idea of “the right length and style for the right story” (see the example of the runaway elephant story in his post). I think where we diverge is perhaps how often a short story is the appropriate choice. Whereas he seems to think the Web selects against short stories, I think people’s reading habits on the Web will help keep that format alive. After all, as Zivkovic points out in his post, reading a short, inverted-pyramid story is a less risky venture because it requires less investment of time and it’s easier to quit at any point (though I don’t think guilt has anything to do with it, as he suggests), whereas longer narratives require readers to be more selective in what they read because they are a much bigger investment.

Also, this is not necessarily an either-or scenario, since we’ve seen that people are segregating their reading into different times set aside for content of different lengths (think Instapaper). True, the short story does not do the “river of news” as effectively as tweets, nor does it do explainer as effectively as lengthy narratives (then again, neither of those two formats would effectively fill each other’s role either). However, those two are not the only important niches, and the short story can serve as an effective compromise of the two, balancing our need for more details than what’s conveyed in a headline and our need for pieces we can finish and get something out of without making a substantial time investment. Aside from being appropriate for the low-information stories that Zivkovic wrote about, the short story can also serve as the risk-free trial period for meatier subjects — a low-investment gateway to help you figure out if you are interested in a topic. In fact, Zivkovic entertained this possibility in the section of his post titled “A link is worth a thousand words” (and to serve as an effective gateway on the Web, a short story would indeed need to embrace linking as he describes). If you find you’re interested in the subject, you can move on to the linked narratives for total immersion. If not, you can quit without having lost too much time.

I think this gateway function will become an ever more important niche — important enough to keep the short, inverted-pyramid story a key part of people’s daily reading routine — because it helps people filter through the endless streams of available information vying for their eyeballs. In the age of the Web, it’s no longer the limits of the paper medium that we should worry about; it’s the limits of the human audience — their time, their interest, their attention span. With a little evolution, the short, inverted-pyramid story would still be an important and effective tool in that role.

Update (7/18)

See the discussion (below) I had with Zivkovic on Twitter after this post went up. He makes a good, and important, point that he was talking specifically about science stories, which often require much more context to truly make sense of and be useful to readers. After our discussion, it does seem that we pretty much agree on the key things and where we may disagree is only a matter of degrees. And also an important mea culpa: While writing my post, I had misread a sentence in Zivkovic’s post in a way that was definitely not a matter of degrees, as you’ll see in the Storify item below: