Telling a story? Focus on the characters

A very wise editor I once had advised me to focus on people before programs. That is, if the charity is collecting toys for poor kids, the story is not about the charity or even the toys. It’s about the kids, probably, and if you have no other choice, then it’s about the staff or volunteers at the charity. If it has a beating heart, it’s a better heart for your story. 

In addition to my regular gig as a college professor, I also volunteer with the media at the largest intercollegiate programming contest – the ACM-ICPC, which is sponsored by IBM.  It’s a challenging job, because it is international, multilingual, decentralized, and takes place over about a 10-month period of regionals and a very intensive final that lasts almost a week. Traditional news values suggest that the new events such as when a team advances should be front and center.

But the work we do that endures tends to focus on the people, not the planning or the events. What did people do to prepare. Why do the people stay involved with the regionals for 15 or 20 years? Why are the members of the teams excellent coders and problem solvers?

If you want your story to have legs – to have people remember it after the newsworthy moment has passed, first find the heart of the story. Who has an interesting relationship to the information that has the personal touch? People before programs.

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