Image by Chez Mummy released under Creative Commons

Why a story plan is important

This module attempts to explain why discussing your story idea with a colleague, before you start filming or news-gathering, makes good editorial sense.

You might already have an idea about how your story could develop. You might have carried out some research and thought through who you should talk to.

However, before you go any further, it's worth drawing up a plan for your story and then checking it with a colleague.

Doing so could help turn a piece of ordinary journalism into something special. 

This short training module was written for The Mobile Community Zimbabwe. It follows an approach for some guidance in story construction, and is one of a number of modules written to help them improve their video journalism. I share it here in the hope that others might find some of the points helpful in their story creation.

Solid story construction

Piecing together a news item without a story plan is a bit like trying to build a construction kit without the instructions. You may have all the parts, but deciding what order to put them in can be difficult if you don’t have an outline showing where each part fits and what the model should look like when completed.

And it could be that some parts are missing. Knowing what parts you still require, where to find them, and where to fit them into the story, is a challenge all journalists face at some time in the news production process.

You might have a great story idea, and you might have one really good interview lined up around which you want to build the piece, but what parts do you still need to make the story complete? And what angles do you still need to explore to make it as powerful as it could be?

This is where talking to a colleague is helpful. It might be another journalist who you choose to bounce your ideas off, or it might be your editor or a news producer.

Building the framework for your story

Before you include others, sketch out a framework for your story so that you have something to discuss.

Start with a blank piece of paper. In the middle, jot down the main event or fact that has inspired your story idea. Draw a circle around it.

It might be a story about women making jam in Matopo in order to help their families and community survive the economic impact of the drought. This is one of the many videos produced by The Mobile Community Zimbabwe. Let's take a look at this as an example for how a story plan might help enrich and develop the excellent story they have produced.

This story includes some great pictures. We have video of the women growing fruit, harvesting it, preparing it, and making jam, and we see the process through until the jam is bottled and ready for market.

The journalist creating this video has also gathered some good interviews with three women, one whose husband is out of work, another whose husband doesn’t earn enough to support the family, and a grandmother who is using the jam-making initiative to pay for her grandchildren’s school fees.

But there are so many more facts that we could include if we had a story plan. Try jotting these down in circles around the main story idea on your piece of paper. Such ideas might include:

The jam

  • The cost of making the jam - where do they get the fruit? How long does it take to produce? What about the sugar, water, and the power required to cook the jam? What about the cost of the jars?
  • The profit margin - the price of a jar is $1, how much of this is clear profit? How is the money shared among the women?
  • Selling the jam - where is it sold? Do they have to take it to market? How do they get it there? Are they supplying shops or individuals?
  • The quality of the jam - how about filming some people tasting it? Perhaps the local children could be treated to jam sandwiches and then interviewed giving the jam marks out of 10?
  • What about the nutrition angle? Is the jam a better product for selling than, say, dried fruit? What alternatives are there? Is it worth talking to a nutritionalist?

The poverty and hunger angle

  • The piece talks about the jam making initiative being part of “a fight against poverty and hunger” in the community - so what impact has it had? Here we could do with some data.
  • What was the situation before and after the jam making initiative? How big an impact has it had on raising revenue? Are there any projections about how much it could help?
  • How big is the community? What is the poverty level? How does Matopo compare to neighbouring towns and villages? Is it worse off or better off, and why?
  • How does the situation in Matopo compare with the rest of Zimbabwe and regionally across Africa?
  • As always, a map would be good. Of course many local people know where Matopo is, but even those who are familiar with the location like to see a map of where they live.

Male income and unemployment

  • We hear from the piece that one husband is out of work, and that another doesn’t earn enough to feed the family (and has to be supported by the income from this community venture). Here we could try to find out more about the income of a working man from Matopo who travels to the city, his daily income and his daily costs. What is the average wage in the area?
  • We could hear more about the unemployment problem. What is the unemployment figure in the area?
  • We hear that one woman is widowed. What is the life expectancy for men in the area?

Setting an example

  • The interview with the local MP tells us that he is keen to support the initiative. We need to find out how.
  • Does he think this is a model that can be exported to other villages?
  • Will there be financial help for the women?
  • Will they become mentors for others who wish to follow their lead?
  • What government grants or help are available for those wanting to start their own community cottage industries such as the jam making initiative?
  • Are there any government quality control issues with the production of home-made jam?
  • Do they need a license to sell?

You now have a story plan

You probably won’t want to follow up all the angles mentioned above. You might have some angles of your own which you feel are more important. But the value of this exercise is that you think through the possibilities, discuss them with a colleague, and develop a story plan.

Having a plan will help you prioritise your effort and focus on the most important elements. It will bring all the angles of the story together in a way that makes sense and leads to a logical conclusion.

It will help you explain the issues related to the story better, it will help enrich your story, and it will help you in your task of informing the public debate with original, in-depth journalism about the issues that are affecting the community you cover.

What happens next?

With any story like this it’s worth having a follow up date. It might be that you simply jot down a day in, say, three or six months time, when you will revisit the story to see how the women are progressing. This will provide you with a valuable follow-up piece. This is known as forward planning.

When you come to follow up the story you will have the archive from the original story, the hopes and expectations of the women producing the jam, and any promises made by the MP.

In three to six months you can measure what has developed against what was expected.

Social media dissemination

You will obviously want to share your story on social media via YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and any other popular social media network used by your target audience group.

This is where you need to promote your story, not just share it. Tell people WHY they MUST watch your video.

Create ‘compelling calls to action’ such as “see fruit turn into dollars as woman tackle poverty with jam”.

And then monitor the social media responses to your story and, if possible, weave them back into any follow up stories you create.

Copyright: Image of construction kit by JChez Mummy released under Creative Commons BY-NC 2.0. Text by Media Helping Media released under Creative Commons BY-NC-SA 4.0.

David BrewerThe author of this piece, David Brewer, is a journalist and media strategy consultant who set up and runs Media Helping Media. He delivers journalism training and media consultancy services worldwide via Media Ideas. He also runs a media mentoring service.



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