Feature storytelling offers long-lasting value, grows traffic organically through search and digitally captures the best of your collections
My own early experiences of visiting museums are vivid. I was particularly fond of the Great North Museum: Hancock in Newcastle-upon-Tyne — built to house the Natural History Society of Northumbria’s collection of taxidermy, ornithology and osteology. I loved the Ancient Egyptian ethnographic collections and the Greek archaeology and during school holidays, I would often make the trip into the city with my cousin, which involved a series of many buses, to spend the morning absorbed.
Like with real-world exhibition spaces, the question of how objects and stories are presented virtually so they’re as immersive as their real-world counterparts is crucial, and as museums and galleries closed their doors during the pandemic, the question of how the public might engage with their stories and artefacts online became more urgent.
Although many museums have successfully used their blog as a vehicle for a variety of formats, these tend to be fairly short and often utilise more superficial structures (‘things you didn’t know about…’, ‘a profile of…’). Nick Faber of digital strategists Cuberis has argued that the word ‘blog’ is itself part of the problem: it’s a catch-all for long-form writing online, from its origins as a contraction of ‘weblog’, to the ubiquitous lifestyle blog post and marketing-driven material.
But for those institutions who leverage the power of feature storytelling as a key part of their content strategy, their blogs often become bona-fide creative platforms with high production values, editorial standards and curated content. The Smithsonian Institution has been at the forefront of innovation in this area for years, with the print-format magazine The Smithsonian having been established decades before online content became ubiquitous. As well as a range of niche blogs, the flagship, Smithsonian Voices, features stories by people from the institution and its affiliates.
Jim Richardson of Museum Next has extolled the work of the Walker Art Centre in Minneapolis, which has established an editorial team to create and publish content. ‘In doing so,’ says Jim, they transformed their website from being about marketing what is happening in their museum… into a place for anyone interested in art to find interesting stories, interviews and links.’ The content is media-rich and elegantly presented; it’s also updated regularly, well-written and often employs the best strategies of creative non-fiction.
If your organisation asks colleagues in-house to write about their areas of expertise — or if your organisation is planning to expand the scope of its online content — these steps will help you to think about how to get started with your content strategy – and how to tell those great stories.
1. Embrace the feature story as the benchmark of great written content
Even the most mundane story can — in the hands of a good storyteller — be compelling. We all have a friend or colleague who can transform a simple story about collecting dry-cleaning into an epic tale, complete with drama, comedy and beautifully-wrought characters. They’ll likely use some fundamental narrative thrusts that offer the reader some familiar conventions through which they can experience the story’s pay-off: making a journey of discovery, finding out ‘the truth’ or experiencing an ‘ordeal’.
Storytelling is the best way to get real engagement, elucidate memories and emotional responses from readers. In Stedelijk Studies (the peer-reviewed academic online journal of the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam) Dr. Emilie Sitzia has explored the role of narrative theory in the interpretation of historical artefacts and collections and makes a compelling argument for the importance of narrative in immersive exhibition.
‘Human beings think in narratives and through narratives by using and understanding specific patterns, structures, motifs,’ says Emilie Sitzia. ‘The museum narrative adopts forms from other genres and sources. It is these patterns and structures of the narrative that help human beings to understand.’ This is the case not just for real-world exhibition interpretive content but for online content too.
The feature story is one of the most effective ways to truly engage readers. It’s a form of creative non-fiction that uses stylistics usually associated with fiction, braiding together description, exposition and dialogue to offer the reader an in-depth exploration. The feature story is a mainstay of contemporary journalism: a set-piece at the core of a periodical amidst the recurring content and opinion columns. You can encounter good feature writing in the magazines and supplements of the weekend editions of the broadsheets, in journals and magazines, both in print and online. It’s worthwhile reading some examples of great feature stories from the world at large. Pulitzer awards a prize for feature writing each year. The New York Times publishes The Great Read, curated feature stories from across the different platforms that belong to the brand, and The Atlantic has collated lists of notable features.
In the media, the influence of the web and the convergent device has undoubtedly re-energised long-form content as a way to tell stories. Although the modus operandi of the ‘mojo’ — the mobile journalist — favours the immediacy of images, video and the flow of social media feeds, the two journalistic disciplines can be complementary: The New York Times, The Guardian and National Geographic have pioneered digital long-form, when written content is combined with a multimedia UX in a highly immersive experience for the reader.
Feature journalism is best understood as a family of genres that has traditionally shared a set of discourses: a literary discourse, a discourse of intimacy and a discourse of adventure.Steen Steensen, Professor of Journalism, Oslo Metropolitan University
All good feature stories are grounded in places and people. Broadly speaking, features tend to take one of several types. A feature might profile a noted person. It might take an investigative form that attempts to solve a mystery or to reveal something shocking. It might deal with the intriging, incongruous or surprising, or it might explore a new trend. But what these types of features have in common is that they’re all bringing people’s stories into play to lead us toward bigger truths and to illuminate aspects of our culture and society. Like all great stories, a great feature exploits the reader’s pleasure in delayed gratification, as they engage willingly in the pleasure of being the passive participant of the narrative.
2. Research, brainstorm, plan
In the heritage and arts sector, stories are abundant. They’re there in the buildings, in the people who work inside them and in the objects that form collections. It’s worthwhile, as part of your content strategy, to brainstorm the objects, people and stories connected with your organisation and collections. Using these suggested eight forms as themes, a productive brainstorming session could generate lots of ideas.
3. Structure the narrative
Scenes and sequences are the muscles and bones of a well-structured feature story. They’re of fundamental importance in moving the story forward. Like in film, a scene is a continuous piece of action in the same place at the same time, comprised in writing of dialogue, exposition and description.
A sequence is a collection of scenes related to each other by their place within the overall structure of the narrative. The old adage that stories need a beginning, a middle and an end is a helpful way to start thinking about sequences. But as the frameworks I suggest below remind us, there’s a little more to it.
In his 2012 book You Can’t Make This Stuff Up, Lee Gutkind makes the case for the importance of the scene in feature stories ‘to communicate ideas and information as compellingly as possible,’ to keep the reader engaged through powerful story-telling around which exposition can be arranged.
The following two frameworks are intended to help you structure your stories. They’re not intended as the last word, and the rules are anything but hard and fast. The narrative arc sequences framework works well when the story lends itself to chronology, such as investigations, experiences, travels and human interest stories. Using this framework, we can employ structure as as a form of narrative subterfuge to make our stories more compelling.
The related sequences framework works well for stories that are perhaps less strictly chronological, such as profiles, trends, intruiges and big pictures, but again, sometimes it’s really effective when we break the rules a little.
Narrative arc sequences
A broad rules of thumb is to think about each sequence as being comprised of three scenes: the set-up, main event and resolution.
The first sequence of the narrative arc establishes the principal setting.
The second sequence is a structural shift that deals with backstory, the bigger picture or the wider context.
The third sequence of the narrative arc offers a turning point, a trigger or inciting incident.
The fourth raises the stakes and increases tension.
The fifth sequence features a climax: the most dramatic part of the entire narrative arc.
The sixth offers resolution, ties up loose ends or reflects on lessons learned.
In his feature for Smithsonian, ‘Remembering the Spitfire’, David Kindy plays around with the classic narrative arc for effect. He opens in media res with the climax of his story, the moment Flight Lieutenant Robert Stanford Tuck narrowly avoided flying into electrical wires. He then shifts focus in the second sequence, exploring the backstory of Flight Lieutenant Tuck’s mission. He then shift focus to setting the scene, describing the aesthetics of the plane and explaining how production began only a year before the outbreak of war. He employs a ‘flash-forward’ and considers the legacy of the aircraft before returning to resolve Flight Lieutenant Tuck’s story and the lasting impact of the spitfire.
In this approach, the feature is comprised of multiple sequences – usually around three – each of which focuses on a different place, person or event, but which are related. Each sequence has its own loose narrative arc. The overall story is sometimes preceded by an introduction and followed a conclusion, although as often as not, the three sequences form a narrative triptych in themselves. By juxtaposing these different but related sequences, the writer is able to elucidate and exemplify a range of voices, places and ideas.
In ‘The Feel-Good Recliner That Cures What Ails You’ — again for Smithsonian — Debra Judge Silber uses the interconnected sequences approach to consider the history of the classic Adirondack chair. She bookends the sequences by opening with a descriptive, scene-setting introduction and by providing some context; she concludes by drawing together the stories she explored in the three central sequences. The first of these sequences investigates Marc Cook’s 1881 book The Wilderness Cure and its impact on sufferers of tuberculosis. The second documents the enterprising residents of Saranac Lake, who rented homes out as ‘cure cottages’ to tubercular city dwellers. The third sequence explores the work of Thomas Lee, who designed the Adirondack chair itself. Each of these three sequences is a separate story in its own right, but by juxtaposing them in sequence, Silber is able to tell the story of the chair in a wider context, and in doing so, she explores a particular historic moment in time and place.
4. Draft the content
Having decided what story you’re going to tell and how it’s going to be structured, the drafting process can be made much more effective by understanding the scope of the tools you’ve got at your disposal.
First-person or third-person
Before you start writing your feature story, it’s important to work out the extent to which the storyteller will be present in the narrative. The answer to this depends on the type of feature. The overt first-person style can work very well, especially if the story deals with personal experience — or uses personal experience as the narrative frame to encourage the reader to engage with something rather more prosaic, such as places or objects. Investigative pieces tend to work best in first-person, as do recounts of authentic, personal experiences or contrived experiences.
In Smithsonian Magazine’s ‘At an Old Juke Joint in Mississippi, the Blues Are Alive’, Jim Beaugez writes: ‘A couple of weeks after my first visit to the Blue Front Cafe, I drive up Highway 49 again from Jackson, this time with my guitar, prepared to learn some of the secrets of the Bentonia style from the last bluesman who watched Stuckey play it. Inside, a fire in the wood-burning furnace has taken the chill out of the room.’ There is a powerful sense of the writer’s place in the narrative. Sometimes, however, keeping the author firmly behind the scenes works best, especially when the focus for the reader is on the experiences of other people and places.
Past or present tense
The default setting of a feature story is past tense. This is largely because the scope of the story – which will likely take in a range of place, times and people – is best served by the fixed point of narrative hindsight. However, present tense brings a sense of immediacy to a story. It works best in first-person narratives when the author is fully present as narrator, perhaps in features where experience is central to the thrust of the story.
‘Flight Lieutenant Robert Stanford Tuck of the Royal Air Force was closing in on his quarry. He had just shot down one Messerschmitt Bf 110 and then narrowly avoided a collision with another of the twin-engine fighters over the coast of Dunkirk in the spring of 1940,’ writes David Kindy in the opening paragraph of ‘Remembering The Spitfire.’ ‘That aircraft dived toward the ground, then leveled off at treetop level. Tuck, flying a Supermarine Spitfire, gave chase, trying to stay close to the evasive enemy plane. As he lined up the target in his sights, alarm bells went off in his head. Something didn’t look right.’ Here, David Kindy expertly draws the reader into the feature story with the immediacy of the opening of an action movie. It works well as a narrative hook, before he explores the story of the Spitfire itself.
Every feature story needs description. It creates images for the reader and it evokes places and people. Good description has been at the heart of the feature story ever since its emergence. Literary in style and lyrically crafted, Florence Craig Albrecht began ‘Channel Ports – And Some Others’ in 1915 by describing a maritime voyage: ‘The sturdy old vessel is coming into port after an eventless voyage. Seven days of ceaseless plowing through a shimmering sea, under a great round dome, now radiant light, now dusky velvet, star-sprinkled. The Scillys have floated by, foam-washed, mist wrapped, fairly islands in a magic world all cloud and water.’ The imagery is lucid but never stilted, as the description sits on top of active verbs that keep the narrative moving.
‘It had already become fashionable for people of means to escape the stifling urbanization by fleeing northward to the mountains, where they could reconnect with nature through hunting, fishing and hiking,’ explains Debra Judge Silber in ‘The Feel-Good Recliner That Cures What Ails You’. Exposition is the part of the paragraph that clarifies, accounts for and explicates. The past perfect (‘had’ followed by the past participle of the main verb at the start of the sentence) allows the writer to create concise backstory.
The inclusion of dialogue allows the writer to do a number of useful things: include overheard conversations; incorporate interview into a profile or include expert witnesses or commentary.
Use simple dialogue tags consistently. Elaborate dialogue tags such as ‘he exclaimed’, ‘she murmured’ and ‘they muttered’ can draw too much attention to the narrative construct and can be jarring for a reader. It’s best to stick to ‘he said’, ‘she said’ and ‘they said’.
Dialogue as part of a past-tense narrative sequence should use past-tense dialogue tags, for instance, when the exchange happens as part of the sequence. Present tense dialogue tags, however, should be used for expert voices or commentary that’s not part of the immediate present of the narrative.
5. Edit, redraft and proofread
Make sure paragraph breaks demarcate each new shift in topic, place or time, and of course, each time a new person speaks. Demarcate sequences with a line break, dropped cap or structural ellipsis. Employ adverbs sparely, as they can sometimes lead to redundancy in writing. It’s usually better to choose a stronger verb in the first place.
Story-telling is an essential and profoundly important way to share objects and ideas. It offers depth and breadth; it offers more than a fleeting glimpse. It can create an emotional impact. The story is the most affecting way to share experiences, to make connections to our own lives and to ask people to engage emotionally with the lived experiences of others, of those that have gone before us. Looking ahead to a post-Covid world, the argument for capturing objects and stories digitally, and effectively futureproofing them, has never been more compelling.
Faber, Nick (2018) ‘Blogs Need a New Name’, Cuberis.
Gutkind, Lee (2012) You Can’t Make This Stuff Up, Boston: Da Capo Press.
Richardson, Jim (2020) ‘Long-Form Digital Content? Here are three museums doing it well’, MuseumNext.
Sitzia, Emilie (2018) ‘Narrative Theories and Learning in Contemporary Art Museums: A Theoretical Exploration’, Stedelijk Studies, Issue #4.
Steensen, Steen (2011) ‘The Featurization of Journalism’, Nordicom Review.
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