A story, like a construct in nature, is a whole system. Its meaning arises from the interplay of its parts. In journalism, those parts are informational, drawn from the real world, accurate in the most literal sense. When a story is whole, it contains four informational elements:
Data, event, issue, and idea.
All information under the sun can be put into one of those four categories. Whole-story thinking means learning to focus in on the event that best tells the story; the data that best support and clarify that event; the backdrop issue that the event illustrates, and the universal idea it all adds up to.
The most gifted writers and storytellers do this instinctively, often not even knowing what it is they’re doing. They just know how information goes together to create meaning. Using the Whole Story is a way for the rest of us, from beginners to journeymen to veterans, to teach ourselves how to think this way.
For reasons best explained by neuroscience, the whole stories are the one that seem to connect with us most deeplyand stay with us the longest, no matter what their medium.
"Every organism—from the smallest bacterium through
the wide range of plants and animals to humans—is an integrated whole,
and thus, a living system."
-- Fritjof Capra, "The Turning Point"
(The story behind the Whole Story)
It started with a new swing set.
My husband and son were checking off the list of parts: corner fittings ... top bar… ladder leg… hex nuts…
They laid the pieces on the grass and were ready to assemble.
Soon the nuts and bars and legs gave way to something greater than the sum of the parts. In fact, the parts were now invisible. What was visible: My kid's flying feet licking the air in front of him.
That’s when it hit me: Writing is the only assembly-required activity that doesn't come with a list of required parts.
When we teach writing, we usually don't talk architecture. We talk style, polish, transitions, ledes, nut grafs, etc. Important, to be sure. But -- then what?
The story doesn’t soar.
The writer used all the hex nuts and decorative decals but didn't end up with a swing set.
One day I took the inventory-of-the-parts idea to a troublesome writing class.
"Don't write your stories today," I said. "Instead, just for fun, type up your notes in simple sentences. We're going to inventory the parts before assembling your stories. Sort of like building a swing set."
They thought I was nuts.
But what emerged was a way of thinking and talking about writing that allowed them to see beyond the tangle of information in their notebooks to the integral parts of that information; to how those parts could work together to form a dynamic whole.
I call it the Whole Story.
Whole storying turns on the premise that all information in the universe falls into one of four categories:
Data, event, issue, or idea.
What makes a good piece of writing good is the tension from the interplay (and interdependence) of those informational parts.
When one or more parts is missing (check your local paper to see how often) the story is, well, pedestrian. A nice little groaner with a zippy lede and few catchy phrases, but still a groaner.
When all the parts are there, when the writer understands how they interact with one another and work together (and then uses the writing to reflect that in a clear way), the piece has internal structural integrity.
Try it. Inventory the parts:
Data? That's the stuff that is: facts, statistics, immutable evidence that helps pin the story down, like the screws holding the bars of the swing set in place.
Events? Those are the things that happen: anecdotes, strains of narrative, the stuff that moves and gives the story life, like the swing and teeter-totter units that hang from the bars by the rope.
Issues? That's what is happening: currents running through events, giving them form and context—yes, like the side legs and cross bars of the swing set.
Idea? That's the larger thing the interplay of the parts adds up to – the driving force behind the story, the thing that connects with a reader.
The idea is the kid swinging, wind in the face, legs pumping higher, in a word (and most ideas can be expressed in one word)—fun.
At this point, someone usually furrows their brow and says, "What's the difference between an issue and an idea?
Instead of saying, "Well, night and day," I tell them about the time Margaret Mitchell ran into a fancy New York publisher when she was still writing Gone With The Wind.
"So, Little Lady, what's your Civil War book about?" the publisher said.
Mitchell looked him in the eye: "It's about people who have gumption and people who don't."
There you have it.
Nowhere in the book does Mitchell write, "This is a story about people who have gumption and people who don't. Scarlett O'Hara had it, Ashley Wilkes didn't. Mammy had it...."
The issues in the book are many — slavery, the cotton economy and the trials of post-war Reconstruction, for starters. But people keep reading Gone With The Wind not because they're jazzed about the burning issues of the Civil War period.
They continue because that fundamental idea — what it takes to survive, ie.e, gumption — speaks to them. It's what everything in the book adds up to. It's the beacon that guided the author throughout.
Issues come and go.
Fundamental ideas are timeless.
In the years I've been using the Whole Story, I've learned a lot about writing and writers. First, there are thousands of stories out there that are good, or even very good, but still missing that magical something. Chances are, what's missing is the idea.
At this point, the brow-furrowing types say, "All these years you've been telling me to use concretes and now you're telling me to use concepts."
The answer to that is no, no, no. The idea of the story isn't a concept. It's the focus, the magnet that helps the writer pull out the very best details, the ones that belong in the story, not the 10,000 that don’t.
The idea is the invisible force that lives in quotes, in detail, in language and image, the things that make a story soar.
The other thing I've learned is that most writers want desperately to create a thing of beauty, to write their stories onto A1. When they warm up to the idea of the idea, a whole new realm of storytelling opens before them. The writers themselves change. They have a chance to touch the sky.