Navigate your way to great stories and photos with story planners

Learn how to plan, gather and structure a story for your newspaper, yearbook, website or newscast using a story planner for your photos and stories.

Navigate your way to great stories and photos with story planners

By Rob Melton
It’s all about the story, whether in words or photos. The trick is learning how to plan, gather and structure a story for your newspaper, yearbook, website or newscast.

The purpose of the new Story Navigator planner forms is to lay everything on the table where you can work with it to plan the best way to tell a story as well as manage all the particular details that will lead to success. Included in these forms, which are ready to DOWNLOAD AND PRINT, is the Story Navigator, Story Questionaire, Story Problem-Solver, Story Evaluation, Rate This Narrative, and Photo checklist.

In order to effectively use the planners, you should know the step-by-step process that should be used to find a story, pick the central character, gather information, and present it in a compelling narrative.

The process of creating a great story

You’re not writing a history for all time; you’re writing about a time that will become personal history to those involved. They will want to remember their piece of that history along with a few others. It’s a history of the life of you and your friends and your school and community. Sure, bigger things are going on, but your power as a storyteller comes from the small, everyday details of the people whose lives you are chronicling. Good. Now that we’ve got that out of the way…

You are a hunter-gatherer when you are on the job as a writer. In the field, you have to decide what you want to keep and what you want to throw away. The power of observation and the importance of being there writing it down in your reporter’s notebook in person as the eye witness to history — your history — is the cornerstone of reporting. Good writing can’t happen without good reporting and interviewing. Improve your human interest stories by doing more reporting. That’s the secret.

reporter notebookWhile reporting and interviewing, you can’t rely on your memory for all the information you are gathering. You must write it down in a notebook as you gather it. You must put quote marks around verbatim quotations in your notes. You must put description of the people and places you have visited that are important characters and settings of the story. Use the Story Questionnaire Form to help you plan your questions.

Editors will tell you that if they are sued, your notes are their only defense in a court of law. Be thorough and accurate in gathering and checking your facts. What is a fact? It is anything concrete; you can see, hear, taste, touch or smell it.

Once collected and written down, the writer chooses the relevant, significant and meaningful anecdotes, description and quotations to focus. Don’t be intimidated because you’re documenting history. Focus is the key to writing, and readers prefer narrative writing — and remember it better than any other kind of presentation.

Your next big challenge is to identify the single best character on which to focus the lens of your story. Use the Story Navigator to help you identify the main character of your story. (Focus in the field, the saying goes, and it will save you a lot of time and trouble.) This is the only character who has set a big, interesting personal goal, faces an obstacle, and has undertaken a journey that will result in a dramatic resolution. A good story can be large or small. An intimate story should be just as surprising and interesting as a story about the football team’s quest for a state championship. Find the best point of view from which to tell the story – the one with a character who wants something that she cannot have and what she is willing to do to achieve it – and the right place to start the story, and you’re on your way. Use the Story Problem solver to help you zero in on the central character of the story.

Help yourself by getting to know the people at your school in a way you never have before. And remember: Your goal is to tell a great story. You don’t have to tell it all by yourself, because you’ll have a team of people working on it. When every person on your staff is working in a team on a spread and has the same amount of time to do his or her job – write and design the headline, plan the page, gather information, write the story, take the photos and write the captions, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. Use the Photo Checklist to plan a photo shooting strategy that will tell a story. The writer should check his or her story against the Story Evaluation criteria, while the editor should use the Rate This Narrative to evaluate whether the story is ready to publish.

As the entire team works together on the plan, each of them knows what they need to do to bring the page to life in a fresh, interesting approach, and you can each adjust as you go along to create the peerfect story. Rudyard Kipling once wrote a poem that sums up the job of gathering information:

serving-men“I Keep Six Honest Serving Men …”
I keep six honest serving-men
(They taught me all I knew);
Their names are What and Why and When
And How and Where and Who.

I send them over land and sea,
I send them east and west;
But after they have worked for me,
I give them all a rest.

I let them rest from nine till five,
For I am busy then,
As well as breakfast, lunch, and tea,
For they are hungry men.

But different folk have different views;
I know a person small.
She keeps ten million serving-men,
Who get no rest at all!

She sends ’em abroad on her own affairs,
From the second she opens her eyes
One million Hows, two million Wheres,
And seven million Whys!

—Rudyard Kipling
The Elephant’s Child


1. Students examine several feature stories. Using different pen colors, student highlight:

•quotations (interviewing)

•description (reporting sight, sound, taste, touch, smell)

2. Look at one of the stories. Is it a good feature story? How much does the story depend on reporting compared to interviewing? Does it vary from story to story?

3. Think about how the writer went about documenting the facts used from reporting ccompared to interviewing. What was the writer looking for in the field? What kind of descriptive details does the writer use? How did the writer weave together the interviewing and reporting to create a story?