The doctor at the Army base had a young corporal as his assistant to keep track of the paperwork. The young man was curious about the doctor’s affairs. He was always asking questions and one morning said, “In civilian life were many of your cases accidents?”

“I don’t know,” the doctor replied.

“How come you don’t know?” the corporal asked.

“Soldier,” the doctor said, “I was an obstetrician.”

An Army doctor informed his young assistant that he did not know whether his cases in civilian life had been accidents because he had been an obstetrician.

One version’s funny. The other isn’t.

Why? The information is the same. The only real difference is in form. The first example is a story. The second is a summary.

The story, which a graduate student named Adina Gewirtz used to illustrate a University of Maryland paper on journalistic storytelling, derives its impact from the way it sets up the punchline, which is a joke’s equivalent of the dramatic story’s climax.

Like almost all stories, this little anecdote begins with exposition – it introduces the characters and offers some explanatory background. It includes dialogue, a storytelling technique that’s quite distinct from the journalistic quotation. And it lasts long enough to provide a basis for the sudden twist into humor.

Therein lies a great lesson. Bright or moving human-interest items, the “brites” that we’re eager to get on our section fronts, usually work best when they assume a natural story form. They often fall flat when told as the abstract summary, which is the form characteristic of newswriting.

They also work best when they’re short, which gives them the shape and feel of a standup comic’s joke or one of Garrison Keillor’s poignant tales.

All of which suggests several things that can help us do a better job of finding and crafting brites:

  • First, we must recognize stories with potential as brites early, before they’re written. If reporters and editors agree that a set of facts justifies a brite, then the reporter can adapt it to a natural story form, rather than a news treatment.
  • Second, we need to keep brites short so that they will have maximum impact and a good chance of fitting onto a crowded page.
  • Finally, line editors need to sell brites at news meetings and work closely with news editors to make sure they get appropriate play and treatment.

© Jack Hart, 1999

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