An Insider's Guide to The Narratively Story Structure
Want to write for Narratively? Or just interested in how our articles come to life? Here's the breakdown of how a good idea becomes a great story.
Hey, readers! Narratively co-founder and editorial director Brendan Spiegel here. Over the past 10 years, I’ve edited more than 2,000 stories for Narratively. 🤯 Whoa, I think that’s like 27 percent of my life to date spent editing stories (no actual calculations done for that statistic — please don’t tell our fact-checker). Recently, I was speaking to a group of Danish journalists who visited Narratively HQ in New York and wanted to chat about how we edit longform stories. One of them asked a great question: Do we follow any specific story structure, such as the classic “inverted pyramid” used by many newspapers? In this structure, the most essential newsworthy info comes at the top, followed by other important details in the middle, trickling down to less essential background at the end. While we don’t follow any of those specific models, over the course of those 2,000 stories, we have developed our own format of sorts, and their question inspired me to finally get it out of my head and down on paper.
So, if you have an assignment to write a story for us — or hope to in the future — this is the now-official, actually-written-down guide to the Narratively Story Structure.
1. Open With Your Most Exciting Scene
Every Narratively story is made up primarily of active, colorful scenes that paint a cinematic picture and put the reader right there in the moment, as if they are watching the story unfold in real life. The very first section of your story has to be one of the most exciting moments in your piece. Why? Well, I’d argue that’s the best way to open any story in any medium, but it’s more important in online journalism and storytelling than anywhere else.
Readers constantly have a million other things they could switch over to at any moment — learning a new dance on TikTok, desperately trying to reach “Queen Bee” status in the New York Times Spelling Bee game, finally reading one of those 456 other tabs you’ve left open in your web browser for the past six months. That means we have to grab their attention from the very first moment. Digital publishers like us don’t have a captive audience the way some other mediums do. If you’re starting a new book, you’ll give it at least a chapter or two to see if it gets interesting, right? With a movie that starts slow, you’re probably not going to give up on it for 20 minutes or so. Even with a New Yorker article in print, if you start reading, you’ll prob give it a full page to see if you get into it. Online journalism has no such luxury. Hook people with your first paragraph or they’re gone.
I’ll revise myself slightly and say you should open with “one of” your most exciting scenes, only because in some cases you’re going to want to save the truly climactic moment for the end. If you’re writing a murder mystery, don’t open with the detective cracking the case and telling us whodunit. (But you probably do want to open with the murder scene itself).
Speaking of, “A Gilded Age Tale of Murder and Madness” is a story that follows the Narratively Story Structure nicely, opening with a riveting and attention-grabbing scene. But of course, no one necessarily needs to get killed to get our attention. Your opening scene could be a gutsy undercover cop sweating his a$$ off while coming this close to getting busted, or a nervous scholarship student arriving for her first day at America’s most elite girls boarding school. Just make sure you pick something that demands attention and leaves the reader wanting to learn a lot more.