January 13, 2012

Headlines as Story Beats

Hamlet's Hit Points identifies three basic story beats relating to the presentation of information. The pipe beat hides info for later, and as such is strictly a creature of fiction. The other two beats, the question and the reveal, are central to any narrative communication that seeks to attract and hold audience interest. Questions cause emotional friction or longing; reveals relieve these feelings. The first is a down beat, the second an up beat.

New stories can be broken down with beat analysis, too. The shoehorning of information into a storyline with emotional ups and downs becomes most apparent on television news. However, it’s present in print reporting as well.

However arranged, a newspaper or magazine headline poses a question. As much as it may seem to lay out the basics of a story, it’s really working to excite your imagination and formulate questions about its further details. The body of the story then proposes to answer that question, along with the core journalistic five Ws: what? Who? Where? When? Why? (And the red-headed stepchild, How?)

If you’re using social media to spread awareness, you can garner more clicks by hooking into the beat structure of headline and story. When you write a blurb on Twitter, Facebook, G+ or whatever to a post you want people to read, compose it so that it poses a question, in the reader’s mind if not directly. Reference to one of the 5Ws never hurts.

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Of the 5Ws, the most clickable is the H. People want to know how to do things.

Other classic headline tricks attract clicks. Citing a number poses an implicit question. If your headline reads “Ten Mistakes GMs Make”, I’m immediately wondering which items you’ve chosen.