This is part 3 of the Story Building series, based on Out on the Wire.
Part 1: Story ideas
Part 2: The Focus Sentence
Part 3: The XY Story Formula
Part 4: Chronology and suspense
Part 5: Framing and the Story Matrix
Have you written a focus sentence for your story? I hope you’ve tried—they’re incredibly useful. But sometimes even when you do write a focus sentence, it just falls flat. It doesn’t grab your attention, much less the audience’s attention.
When I tried to come up with one for my book, Out on the Wire, it was not so easy. I kept trying, but I just couldn’t sum up what was driving the book forward (and capture the audience’s attention at the same time).
So I went to Ira Glass with my lame attempts…
OK, here it is: “a band of talented radio producers make some of the most exciting and effective nonfiction narratives in our culture today because they have a crazy intense drive to tell the stories of the world around them and a powerful set of narrative tools. But the tools are not necessarily anything new under the sun, but these producers recombine them in such a way that the end product sounds absolutely new.”
I thought the sentence was going to be, “Artist starts to get interested in radio with the best of intentions, and a curiosity about the world, because she’s life-loving and embraces other art forms, but then finds she has to deal with a bunch of really eccentric people, each of whom has their own points of view.”
Yeah, my first version was something like: “Jessica is making a comic book about the new masters of narrative on the radio because they’re the best to telling great stories, and she wants to know why. But the subject is vast and she is a mere mortal. And she doesn’t know what the hell she’s doing.”
Oh, I like that one. That has more heart.
That would be a good story. But that is definitely not what the book is about. The problem for me in trying to use the focus sentence is that my book is not about me and my journey. It’s not even really about the producers. It’s about their ideas. And for nonfiction works that don’t directly tell the stories of individuals, you can come up with a focus sentence that can function as the arc of a story, but it’s not compelling. It won’t capture the audience’s attention.
Why not? Well, the core utility of the focus sentence is defining the central conflict. And in my case, the “but” of the focus sentence just isn’t much of a conflict. “These techniques are old, BUT they feel new?”
And when I figured that out, I got pretty worried, actually, that the book that I thought was really interesting, wasn’t. But even though Out on the Wire definitely doesn’t have a whole lot of suspense, I was deep in. I was pretty sure others would find it engrossing, too.
But how could I put my finger on the angle, the hook? Why is it interesting?
The XY Story Formula
The XY Story Formula is a statement of your story in two sentences.
It’s a way of looking at that character and conflict, or that character-free “topic”, and deciding how interesting it is—how much do we need this story to exist in the world? As a counterpart to the focus sentence, it helps clarify a very important piece: maybe you’ve got your narrative arc, you’ve conflict.
But is it interesting?
Here’s how you do it: You tell someone, out loud, (and the out loud part is important—you have to hear yourself talk)
I’m doing a story about X.
And what’s interesting about it is Y.
“A story about X.”
X is a topic, any basic subject area, a person, an event.
“and what’s interesting about it is Y.”
What is that special sauce that makes this particular person, event, or subject, worth our consideration? The key is, Y actually has to be interesting. It has to be something surprising and unexpected.
I was talking to David Kestenbaum at Planet Money about this idea, and here’s the gist of what he said: “There are so many important stories out there. You could do a story about world hunger every day. But we don’t. Instead, we have this awful human reaction of, “I know, I know. Don’t bother me with that.” We don’t want to feel pity. We have a very hard time feeling connected to that kind of suffering. It’s just overwhelming.”
So how do you get into that kind of story?
The underlying topic may be sad and relevant and illuminate real issues about community, which would be fine for top-of-the-hour “commodity” news, but for narrative journalism, it lacks a character we can connect to, someone who comes at the topic from the side in some way. It lacks an element of surprise.
What’s surprising? There’s nothing surprising about cheap houses, but there is something fun and surprising about a 12-year-old buying one.
That’s a reference to a famous story Chana Joffee-Walt did for Planet Money to explain what was going on in the housing market after the 2008 crash. She found a girl in Florida—who was actually 14 at the time—investing her babysitting money in foreclosed houses.
My name is Willow Tifano, and I own a macbook air, a paddle board, a longboard, four ferrets, and I own a house.
That’s definitely interesting. But sometimes it’s really hard to tell what constitutes “interesting.”
Interesting to whom?
Remember my story about Dana the foodie in the Focus Sentence article? When you start trying to come up with an XY story formula, the most common thing to want to do is to put the theme in the Y, like…
I’m doing a story about Dana, who has food issues. It’s interesting because her attitude about food reflects the breakdown in the world food system.
…but that isn’t really interesting. Or rather, it might become interesting once the reader is fully engaged in Dana’s tale. I do my job right, and this thematic underpinning might hit the reader like a ton of bricks, like, Wow, I never thought about the world food system this way! My mind, it’s cracking open to a whole set of new ideas!
That may be my intention as the writer. It may be why I’m choosing to tell this story, why it’s interesting to ME. But it’s still not the XY Story Formula.
The Y in the XY Story Formula is what’s interesting to the audience.
…and basically no one sits down saying to themselves, “You know what I feel like? Today I want to read about a character whose attitude reflects the breakdown in the world food system.”
You’re not reading this article because my logo is so dang cute up there on the top left, you just can’t get over it. You’re here to learn a thing that you’ll be able to utilize in your own work, and make it better (which it will).
Your audience is always thinking, “What’s in it for me?” You, as a member of my audience, are thinking this right now. That’s OK, it’s normal!
Sometimes I think of the Y as the “Get this!” As in,
I’m telling a story about Dana, who has food issues, and, get this! She’s so obsessive about non-processed food that she poisons herself with the wild mushrooms she gathers rather than consume the copious quantities of Hot Pockets her grandparents bring along to nourish the clan on a mountain getaway.
Oh my god, this is getting good. Now, I’m totally starting to want to tell poor Dana’s story!
Can you see the difference? The Y in the XY should be the unusual transformation or decision, or twist, that makes this story a specific iteration on the theme of “the breakdown of the world food system.” An iteration with enough specificity, particular (and peculiar) characters, maybe humor, certainly surprise, that we, the audience can really get our imaginative hooks into it.
In order to get your audience’s attention, you want to surprise your audience with a new understanding of the underlying theme that they did not know they were going to get. No one wants to go to school when they’re reading a comic book or listening to a show, to be harangued with big world problems that they really should care about. They don’t mind if they end up caring, in fact, they may really enjoy it. But they want to do so via caring about what happens in a specific case to “real” people (even if those people are fictional). That’s how you pique your audience’s attention.
All of this means you need to define one important piece of information:
Who is your audience?
I’ll tell you a secret: your audience is not “everyone.” Your audience might be three people, if the story you’re telling is about how the new initiative you’re developing will benefit your department at work, and you just need to convince your boss and her two bosses.
Getting your audience’s attention ≠ getting everyone’s attention
Your audience might be a lot of people, if you want to tell a rip-roaring tale of rollerderby action on Mars. But there are plenty of people who will never give Trish Trash the time of day, and if I bend myself out of shape to develop a Y for Trish that addresses those haters, I’m going to fail to reach those who will love the book. They won’t get what’s so great about it.
So before you even dig into the XY Story Formula, think about who you’re trying to talk to, and imagine yourself into their place:
What will make your audience unable to resist diving into your story?
This article is adapted from and expands on Episode 2 of the Out on the Wire podcast, “Focus.”
Last time, I gave you another major story-building tool, the Focus Sentence. That and the XY Story Formula work in somewhat similar ways, but they can also be used to in conjunction with one another.
So I want you to take your story idea and craft a focus sentence for it, or an XY Story Formula, or, even better, both. Post them in the Working Group (get your invite by signing up below!) and jump into the discussions.
Your first try, like mine, might be kind of enh. But just because your Focus Sentence isn’t any good doesn’t necessarily mean that your story is no good. Dive in again and make it better.
This is part 3 of the Story Building series, based on Out on the Wire.
Part 1: Story ideas.
Part 2: The Focus Sentence.
Part 3: The XY Story Formula.
Part 4: Chronology and suspense.
Part 5: Framing and the Story Madlib.