Once Upon a Time: The Joys of Chronology

A longer version of this column was first posted in March 2013.

By Mike Feinsilber

“Once upon a time…” we say when telling a story to a child.

“So a bear walks into a tavern and orders a beer…” we say when telling a joke to a friend.

“I was walking down L Street yesterday and this car comes racing along, going the wrong way, and suddenly…” we begin when relating what we saw yesterday.

These yarns have something in common. They’re told chronologically. This thing happened, then this, then this. That’s the way people speak. That’s they way they think. That’s the natural way of relating an event. And that’s the opposite way so much writing—especially so much journalism—goes about telling a story.

Blame the inverted pyramid, the curse of journalism. It’s the chief cause for making news stories complicated, uninviting, and dull. The doctrine of the inverted pyramid holds that a news story should look like a pyramid turned upside down, with the most important element at the top and the less important elements following in descending order of importance. They used to teach that in journalism classes.

But we still see instances—though fewer these days—of awkward last-things-first writing. Even inside the story, where the urgency to blurt out the news has been satisfied, we find last- things-first sentences. That makes no sense. It forces the reader to read the sentence and then reconstruct it in his mind to make it make sense.

Over the years, attempting to preach the value of telling things chronologically, I collected from real news stories some examples of last-thing-first writing. Here’s the worst

In late November, the American Family Association had cancelled a boycott of Ford vehicles, which had been announced in May when the organization criticized the nation’s No. 2 automaker for making contributions to gay rights groups, offering benefits to same-sex partners and recruiting gay employees.

Unraveled, here’s how writing-in-order might say it:

In May, Ford announced it would give money to gay rights groups, offer benefits to same-sex partners and recruit gay employees. The American Family Association responded by calling a boycott of Ford vehicles. Eight months later, the association cancelled the boycott.

When writers are forced to rely on mid-sentence terms like “when,” “following” “as” and “after,” that’s a tipoff that their sentence might be in chronological trouble. This isn’t a problem in most news stories. Most writing is not chronological. Most news isn’t about things that happen in a sequence. More typically news is: The president vetoes a bill. Someone important dies. The stock market falls. These aren’t chronological. With news like that, the inverted pyramid works.

What I’m talking about here are accounts in which this happened, this happened next, then this happened. So when a plane crashes into a cornfield near Figment, Iowa, journalism typically writes:

FIGMENT, Iowa – Five people, including a farmer on the ground, were killed today when a two-engine airplane crashed into a cornfield near here. (Passive voice alone makes it static.)

Instead of:

FIGMENT, Iowa – A crop-dusting plane crashed into a cornfield today and killed the pilot, three passengers and a farmer on his plow.

Not Pulitzer stuff, but comprehensible.

Nor is this posting talking about another kind of news telling: the writer starts by spinning a yarn leading to the point of the story later on. The denouement comes after the writer has set the stage so the reader is prepared for it. An example from the Washington Post of Tuesday, March 26, 2013:

“NEWARK — Measured in millimeters, the tiny device was designed to allow drones, missiles and rockets to hit targets without satellite guidance. An advanced version was being developed for the U.S. military by a small company and L-3 Communications, a major defense contractor.

“On Monday, Sixing Liu, a Chinese citizen who worked at L-3’s space and navigation division, was sentenced in federal court to five years and 10 months for taking thousands of files about the device…”

That’s good but it’s not the way traditional journalism would tell the story. But newspapers, aware that most readers, through the internet and the airwaves, already know the gist of the news, have tumbled to what magazines have long known: to be read, stories have to be interesting. So they’re finding interesting ways to tell the news. And writing chronologically is one of those.

Some readers are irked by the delayed-lead story. In a posting on March 20, 2013, I quoted the writer of a letter to the editor of the Washington Post: “The Post should leave out its creative writing and just deliver the news,” she said.

If it is any consolation, most news is  told straightaway. But publications are going to continue to look for interesting ways to write and chronological writing will be one of them. What journalism wants to do is to make the news compelling, whatever it takes.
Mike Feinsilber spent about a quarter century with UPI in Pittsburgh, Columbus, Harrisburg, Newark, New York, Saigon and Washington and about a quarter century with AP in Washington, with a spell as assistant bureau chief and a stint as writing coach. He was a deskman, reporter, and editor and he covered Congress and 18 political conventions.

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