Story types: A look at feature genres
Place/Travel Features: Travel stories are almost always feature stories because there is rarely an element of timeliness. A travel writer faces a special challenge of writing a story that presents without promoting. Take a look at this profile by Jayne Clark of a USA Today. It profiles a bed and breakfast with an unusual theme.
This story begins with a fairly straightforward lead, then launches into humor. We get a brief introduction to the facilities, then a fourth paragraph quote:
…unabashedly proclaims the Shack Up Inn as Mississippi’s oldest B&B.
“That’s bed and beer,” he quips. “We don’t fool with breakfast.”
The quote matches the overall humorous tone of the story. Despite the light touch, the story is replete with specific observational detail: specific numbers for acreage, distance and prices. We learn all about building materials and furnishings. It’s enough information to allow a reader to make an informed decision about visiting, yet it never actively encourages a visit. That’s good, ethical journalism.
Trend Features and Science/Medical Features: Good writers are always on the lookout for great ideas, and hot topics often provide those. This Los Angeles Times piece by Shari Roane was a trend feature I’d been waiting for. Tattoos had surged in popularity and entered the mainstream of acceptability. Tattoo removals couldn’t be far behind. This piece is also a science/medical feature. Science writers have to work especially hard to keep a reader’s interest. This story is full of great techniques to do just that.
This feature begins by introducing a patient enduring tattoo removal. The writer, though never present in the story herself, takes us right into the procedure room to watch. This technique is often referred to as “putting a face on the story.” It involves using an alternative lead that focuses on a person rather than launching into facts and figures about the topic/trend itself.
Tattoo removals, Olivia Berckley will tell you, are a pain — physically, mentally and financially.
We see clearly the fire-breathing dragon tattoo on Olivia’s “otherwise porcelain skinned upper arm.” We hear the laser, watch it blister her skin and wince in pain ourselves even before we see and hear Olivia react. That’s powerful writing. Suddenly we, as the readers, care very much about the hows and whys of tattoo removal. Now we’re ready to get the detail. Five paragraphs in, the writer hits us with the nut graph, linking the person with the trend.
Feature writing is no excuse for sloppy, careless reporting. Facts, figures and multiple, reliable sources are still essential. This story provides detail from nationally-prominent medical organizations and is packed with hard numbers. Just when that sort of detail is getting tedious, the writer drags us back by reintroducing the patient and her story. She intersperses fact with truly great quotes throughout the piece.
News Features: Feature stories actually can be timely, and that’s especially likely for a news feature — stories that show the human impact of a news story. Many of the Pulitzer Prize-winning stories in our workshop introduction were news features.
News features are likely to use an alternative lead, but fairly high in the story a nut graph will reference the original news event with sufficient detail to inform a reader who might have been unfamiliar with the story previously.
James Card wrote this story on location for The New York Times. The lead is packed with observational detail. The ending is a “real” ending that reinforces the story’s theme. News stories typically focus on flood crests and flood damage. This one focuses on the lives of those effected. (NOTE: The New York Times does not follow AP Style. If your publication does, note style exceptions such as the use of courtesy titles.)
Sports Features: Player profiles, staff profiles, backgrounders on poignant wins and losses, even a piece on how the field grass is grown — opportunities for sports features are numerous.
The first link below is a light-hearted video interview with a university basketball player who grew a mustache. That’s all there is to the story. It’s a converged media piece in that it appears on a newspaper’s website. It’s a nice example of how a good reporter can get a story out of very nearly anything. It’s a great example of taking a very narrow approach to topic selection. Teachers, however, may find the video helpful as an interview example. We hear the interviewer establish rapport and encourage this personable young man to talk. She asks great, open-ended questions.
The next story is a lengthy, more traditional newspaper sports feature from the Atlanta Journal Constitution. The subject: the Atlanta Braves’ baseball park organist who takes an irreverent approach to entertaining fans by poking musical fun at opposing players. It uses an alternative lead, multiple sources and is up-to-the minute with its mention of social media.
Profiles/Personality Features: The Virginia Robinson story we analyzed yesterday is a classic personality profile. Though it seems to be about a place, as one workshop participant points out, the place is also all about Virginia.
While a good writer can find a story in nearly any person’s life, some lives are especially compelling. The Associated Press article below, by Marta Aldrich, is a once-in-a-lifetime kind of story. (We’ll look at another of these tomorrow.) The subject never attended any school until he was in his 30s. His neighbors had assumed he was retarded. They could not have been more wrong.
While I take exception, in the strongest possible way, to the L.A. Times’ “hillbilly” headline, this is quite a remarkable story. Let’s talk about this one on the discussion forum. I want to know what you think.
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