Beware of Storytelling!

Dramaturgical techniques in news stories.

This post is adapted from a longer piece by one of our founders on his personal Substack. Read the full article here (just click “no thanks” if you don’t want to subscribe). 

If we’re watching a movie or reading a novel, we want a good story that reaches us on an emotional level. We demand to be excited, moved, aroused, even outraged or scared witless.

People enjoy the emotions that stories provoke. Emotional responses are the reason we succumb to stories, and storytellers deliberately try to elicit the “visceral” effect that powerful feelings engender. In order to root for the heroine, she must be placed in danger; in order to empathise with the hero, the audience must be able to identify with him and care about his fate. Writers and storytellers do a lot to engage the audience and keep them reading or viewing. The best techniques to maintain the audience’ attention are the ones that grab the audience emotionally. Stir them! Excite them! Make them feel! Boredom sets in when there is no increased heart rate, no sweaty palms, no rapt attention.

“Our top story tonight: …”

Newspapers and other news media such as television or online news portals know as well as novelists and moviemakers that the promise of emotion is what gets the audience’ attention in the first place and the delivery of emotion is what maintains it. Hence news media employ some similar techniques to fiction authors and screenwriters. Not for nothing is a news show or paper divided into “stories”. 

Structurally, the big difference between a news item and a fiction story is that a fiction story will build up towards a big climax and resolution, whereas a news story will start strong and often gradually peter out. In print at least, this has a lot to do with the space that an editor can allocate to a journalist’s piece in a newspaper, where often shortening of the text will mainly cut later paragraphs. The beginning has to be strong and contain the most interesting information, but the tacit assumption is that readers jump off somewhere in the article, many not reaching the end. As a journalist, you might have a cute end line to a piece, but you don’t keep the best till last because you know that many readers won’t make it that far. Midpoint, symmetry and other structuring devices authors use to form their stories are not quite as vital for journalists.

But some techniques are common to both forms of storytelling, fiction and news. For instance, the attention-grabbing kick-off. The beginning of a book or news article must gain the audience’ attention quickly. (The same is true for YouTube or TikTok videos, etc.).

A good way for authors and filmmakers to achieve fast audience attention in novels or movies is by stirring a sense of unfairness or better yet, moral outrage. Will Storr pointed out this technique in The Science of Storytelling. Present a protagonist being treated unfairly or some obviously wrong or bad occurrence impacting an innocent character, like a crime or an act of cruelty or violence. What’s going on? What a terrible thing! Something needs to be done about this! The event constitutes a problem, a disturbance in the story world that will kickstart the narrative. The hero’s job will be to (re)act, to redress the balance, to re-establish order, to supply justice.

Moral outrage is also one of the journalist’s most effective tricks to gain readers’ attention. The headline will tease at the outrageousness of a problem. Random example – a recent front page headline in the UK’s Daily Mail read, “China is flooding Britain with fake stamps”. Leaving the factual veracity of this claim aside (“flooding”?): Fake Chinese stamps? Outrageous!  

The problem is: Headlines promising moral outrage manipulate you. It’s fine to have your emotions manipulated when you’re in the cinema or reading a good novel. But do you really want a media corporation manipulating your feelings, and through these agitated feelings your understanding of and reactions to the world?

Some forms of storytelling in news can be dangerous. Dramaturgical devices proper to fiction can cause factual information to be misrepresented. Techniques that heighten emotional impact may cause knee-jerk reactions rather than measured, considered, thought-through, researched, nuanced and balanced responses to complicated situations.

Furthermore, an agitated public may be manipulated into opinions that are actually counter to its own interests. “Tiger at large! Strong fence imperative!” And promptly you have folk, formerly free to roam with open horizons, hemmed in and under control within the high fence.


Ideally, we would all read several newspapers and check information against other sources. Once there was the tacit understanding that news should be “neutral”, though everyone knew that news was not neutral because it is impossible to be completely factual without some slant of opinion. Nonetheless, ideally the guiding principle of news should be to present the situation “from all sides”, without too much of an ideological bias. Neutrally.

Ideally, news should be boring. If news is entertaining, titillating, arousing, if news gets us excited, worked up, angry, outraged, then something is probably wrong.

If you feel yourself getting worked up while watching the news or reading a newspaper, beware!

If you notice yourself tutting and shaking your head in disbelief at the audacity, the unfairness, the outrageousness of a news item, take a deep breath and a step back. Have you just succumbed to a storytelling technique? Your emotions have just been manipulated. Is this the time and the place to have your feelings agitated? Are you in the cinema slurping a drink and munching popcorn? Are you cuddled up with the new novel by your favourite author?

No. You are consuming the news. If you feel morally outraged, chances are the news is skewed and you are not being given the chance for a measured, considered, thought-through, researched, nuanced, and balanced response to a complicated situation.


Header image by Nijwam Swargiary on Unsplash

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