Structuring focus stories

What’s a “focus story” you ask? It’s a story about an issue or trend that starts out by focusing on an individual.

Focus story structure allows you to “humanize” or “put a human face” on a complex issue or trend. It’s an effective way to draw attention to an important issue or trend that might not otherwise engage our interest.

You can see outlines of a couple variations on focus story structure on p. 48 of our text: “the kabob” (a.k.a. The Wall Street Journal formula) is one type of focus story, and the story outline in the left column that starts out “I. Look: This Person Has a Problem” is another.

You’ll find an example of a focus story lead on page 201 of our text in the box titled “Openers.” It’s the lead on the top right that starts out: “Derrick Hanna, 16, would-be car thief, pointed a .357 magnum at a kid in a driver’s seat one night.”

You’ll notice that this lead could also be described as an anecdotal or narrative lead, since it starts with a mini-story. In this case (and this is usually the case when using focus story structure), the opening anecdote has “symbolic resonance for the bigger story you’re about to tell” (see p. 44 in the text for more info). In the paragraphs that follow, the writer makes the transition to the larger issue: the unrecognized medical and legal costs of America’s gun culture.

For another example of focus story structure, read the opening paragraphs of this story, “Nail salon workers exposed to toxic chemicals,” in today’s San Francisco Chronicle.

Notice that the extended lead — the two opening paragraphs — tell the story of a nail salon worker who’s become ill. Then, in the third and fourth paragraphs, writer Elizabeth Fernandez introduces the larger issue: cosmetic products contain hazardous chemicals that are unregulated. Next, you find out that state Sen. Carole Migden is holding legislative hearings on the hazards posed by these chemicals and what should be done about them.

Consider how less interesting this story would be if the writer had simply written about the legislative hearings. By using focus story structure and focusing on an individual, the writer helps us recognize and understand the issue’s impact and relevance.

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