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Five Key Ingredients for Cooking Up Terrific Feature Stories

Use These Elements to Bring Your Features to Life

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Five Key Ingredients for Cooking Up Terrific Feature Stories
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Hard-news stories are typically an assemblage of facts. Some are better-written than others, but they all exist to fulfill a simple purpose - convey information.

Feature stories, on the other hand, aim to do much more. They convey facts, yes, but they also tell the stories of people's lives. To do that, they must incorporate facets of writing often not found in news stories, ones that are often associated with fiction writing.

Here are five components necessary for any feature story.

A Great Lede

A feature lede can set a scene, describe a place or tell a story, but whatever approach is used the lede must grab the reader's attention and pull them into the story.

Read this lede from a New York Times story about former New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer and his meetings with a prostitute in a posh Washington hotel:

It was after 9 on the night before Valentine’s Day when she finally arrived, a young brunette named Kristen. She was 5-foot-5, 105 pounds. Pretty and petite.

This was at the Mayflower, one of Washington’s choicer hotels. Her client for the evening, a return customer, had booked Room 871. The money he had promised to pay would cover all expenses: the room, the minibar, room service should they order it, the train ticket that had brought her from New York and, naturally, her time.

A 47-page affidavit from an F.B.I. agent investigating a prostitution ring described the man at the hotel as “Client 9” and included considerable detail about him, the prostitute and his payment methods. But a law enforcement official and another person briefed on the case have identified Client 9 as Eliot Spitzer, the governor of New York.

Note how the details - the 5-foot-5 brunette, the room number, the minibar - build a sense of anticipation about the rest of the story. You're almost compelled to read more.

Description

Description sets the scene for the story and brings the people and places in it to life. Good description prompts a reader to create mental images in his or her mind. Any time you accomplish that, you're engaging the reader in your story.

Read this description from a St. Petersburg Times story by Lane DeGregory about a neglected little girl, found in a roach-infested room:

She lay on a torn, moldy mattress on the floor. She was curled on her side, long legs tucked into her emaciated chest. Her ribs and collarbone jutted out; one skinny arm was slung over her face; her black hair was matted, crawling with lice. Insect bites, rashes and sores pocked her skin. Though she looked old enough to be in school, she was naked — except for a swollen diaper.

Note the specifics: matted hair, skin pocked with sores, the moldy mattress. The description is both heartbreaking and repulsive, but necessary to convey the horrific conditions the girl had to endure.

Quotes

I've written about the importance of getting good quotes for news stories, and in feature stories this is absolutely imperative. Ideally, a feature story should include only the most colorful and interesting quotes. Everything else should be paraphrased.

Look at this example from a New York Times story about the bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City in April 1995. In the story, reporter Rick Bragg describes the rubble and the reactions of the firefighters and rescue crews responding to the scene:

People could not stop looking at it, particularly the second floor, where a child care center had been.

"A whole floor," said Randy Woods, a firefighter with Engine No. 7. "A whole floor of innocents. Grown-ups, you know, they deserve a lot of the stuff they get. But why the children? What did the children ever do to anybody."

Anecdotes

Anecdotes are nothing more than very short stories. But in features they can be incredibly effective in illustrating key points or in bringing people and incidents to life, and they're often used to construct feature ledes.

Here's a good example of an anecdote from a Los Angeles Times story about the skyrocketing cost of fighting wildfires:

On the morning of July 4, 2007, ranch hands were fixing a water pipe on private land in a narrow canyon off the road to Zaca Lake, about 15 miles north of Solvang.

The temperature was headed toward 100 degrees. Rainfall the previous winter had been among the lowest on record in Southern California. Sparks from a metal grinder jumped into some dry grass. Soon flames were rushing through the brush toward Zaca Ridge.

By the next day, nearly 1,000 firefighters were trying to box the fire into a small area. But late that afternoon, the Zaca made a run, moving east into Los Padres National Forest. By July 7, Forest Service officials realized they were facing a potential monster.

Note how the writers, Bettina Boxall and Julie Cart, quickly and effectively summarize the genesis of a fire that plays a central role in their story.

Background Information

Background information sounds like something you'd find in a news story, but it's equally important in features. All the well-written description and colorful quotes in the world won't suffice if you don't have solid information to back up the point your feature is trying to make.

Here's a good example of solid backgrounding from the same Los Angeles Times story about wildfires mentioned above:

Wildfire costs are busting the Forest Service budget. A decade ago, the agency spent $307 million on fire suppression. Last year, it spent $1.37 billion.

Fire is chewing through so much Forest Service money that Congress is considering a separate federal account to cover the cost of catastrophic blazes.

In California, state wildfire spending has shot up 150% in the last decade, to more than $1 billion a year.

Note how the writers marshal their facts to clearly and unequivocally make their point: The cost of fighting wildfires is rising dramatically.

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