Water is one of the most powerful elements on earth. When it is out of control it is destructive. When it is harnessed and focused it is energy that can be used for many good things. It can clean, generate electricity and even create art. But without focus or purpose water is also wasted. If words are the flowing water and our power in the TV news writing game, then we can learn something from letting this power flow out of control. We can learn what not to do.
Every hour during newscasts around the country, cable news outlets and on tabloid shows, we hear words used like they are water rushing over the banks of a creek swallowing buildings and landscape. Words, such as, shock, disaster, terror, tragic, frightening, nightmare, heart breaking are rushing past us. Sometimes the words are washing by so quickly, in such great quantities, that the emotions they are supposed to touch can’t keep up. Learning to use fewer of these powerful words channeled or focused in a targeted way will help our viewers really get a sense of the emotion we are trying to convey.
Decide what one emotional aspect of your story is most important and most accurate. If it’s the story of a gang shooting in a neighborhood known for violence, chances are those in the neighborhood are not generally “shocked” or “surprised” by it. Of course it’s a tragedy, it is anytime someone dies, but what is it about this shooting that will illicit a true story-telling emotion or aspect. Violence in traditionally violent neighborhoods is always “heartbreaking” to those who live there and sometimes those who don’t. Many are working to stop the violence and more of it means frustration. Know your story, your viewers and decide what is the best way to tell it. So rather than “another tragic shooting” it is “a frustrating story of more violence in a neighborhood trying to save itself from more heartbreak”.
Don’t Flood the Story
There are some writers and reporters who believe the more “buzzwords” they can weave into a 30 second voice over or an anchor lead-in the more the viewer will feel the urgency and importance of the story. Just the opposite is generally true. One powerful and targeted word used to describe the emotional effect of the story will do more to grab the viewer. One powerful word along with good storytelling will allow the viewer to be drawn in. If we begin throwing several of these “buzzwords” into the copy, the viewer will be forced to duck instead of sliding to the edge of the chair and focusing in on your story.
The Inverted Emotional Pyramid
Grab the viewer’s heart and soul and their minds will follow. Good writers have always known this, but too many try too hard and sacrifice the story. Look for the emotional aspect of the story and exploit it. Every story has one, even the story of a new ordinance being considered by the city council. Will it change a historic neighborhood? If so, begin your story with the story of a woman who is facing saying goodbye to the memories of the place where she grew up. Look for universal emotional themes and put those at the beginning of your story. But pick only ONE and use the right word to describe that emotion. So turn on your newsroom computer and get ready to tune the nozzle on your water hose of powerful words. It should not be an emotional rushing river flooding the viewer and drowning them with emotion. Instead, it should be a focused stream of water pointed at the target.
Don’t create a flood. Don’t make the viewer hold their breath. One well-placed and focused word can do the job and you can save a few of those powerful words for the next story.