Looking forward to the future of journalism

How to spark readers’ interest and tell a hell of a story they won’t forget

Writing tips

The first thing you need to do today is read this story by New York Times reporter C.J. Chivers. It’s about a boy in Afghanistan who was bitten by a viper and faced certain death if he didn’t receive medical treatment from U.S. troops.

Go ahead, read the whole thing. Chances are, you won’t be able to stop.

All done? Did you notice how Chivers piqued your curiosity?

He didn’t give away the ending.

Chivers began the tale by telling us about the boy and the snake bite, and the father who knew his son could die.

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But then Chivers left us hanging. He didn’t immediately tell us if the boy lived. And that suspense is a good thing.

Not all news articles can be told in a simple but compelling chronology. But many stories that could be, aren’t. Imagine how the story about the viper bite would have been handled by most writers. The first two sentences are Chivers’; the last one is mine:

KHAN NESHIN, Afghanistan — Five-year-old Sadiq was not a casualty of war. He was simply unlucky. The boy had opened a sack of grain at his home early on Wednesday morning, and a pit viper coiled inside lashed up and bit him above the lip.

His father, Kashmir, knew his son was sure to die. With no hospital anywhere nearby, he rushed the boy to an American outpost to plead for help. By midafternoon, Sadiq’s breathing was labored. Respiratory failure was not long off.

But after a harrowing night, U.S. troops saved the boy, who is alive and well today.

Most readers would have scanned the beginning of that story and said, “That’s nice.” Then they’d turn the page to scan the top paragraphs of the next inverted-pyramid-style news article.

Chivers took a different approach. The engine of his story, the thing that drives readers all the way through it, is the question: What happens to the boy?

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To find out, you have to sit down and invest yourself in the whole the story. And along the way, you get lost in the article and forget you need to pack lunch for the kids before they go to school. You’re half a world away in Afghanistan, hoping the snake-bitten boy survives.

(Photo credit: Nic’s events on Flickr)