Winning over readers with a compelling story

Like many others, when I first began working as a newspaper journalist, I was told to construct my articles using the classic “inverted pyramid” model. The inverted pyramid sorts the article content by importance, with the need-to-know info coming first. At newspapers, as news rolls into the editorial department throughout the production cycle, what was originally a 1000-character article, for example, may need trimming to make way for other stories. Using the inverted pyramid, the bottom of an article can be cut without losing vital information.

But there’s a limit to this model’s effectiveness. While it may be convenient for conveying information to readers, it doesn’t spark much in the way of sympathy. But the purpose of investigative journalism is not just to reveal hidden information: It aims to inspire readers to want to change society for the better.

Giving your articles a story or narrative can be an effective way of arousing sympathy in readers. Feature writing and literary reportage often employ these techniques, and so can investigative journalism. The following are three storytelling techniques that can help your articles connect with readers. 

1. Have a protagonist 

Protagonists are ubiquitous in novels and film, and it is empathy with them that gets audiences hooked on a story. As an investigative journalist, you can achieve the same effect by giving your articles a protagonist.

In Waseda Chronicle’s “Forced Sterilization” series, we centered our story on the experiences of a woman named Junko (an alias) who had been sterilized without her consent. Thanks to Junko sharing her story with us, we were able to depict her experiences through her perspective: her childhood leading up to her sterilization at age 16, the aftereffects she suffered following the surgery, and her difficult relationship with her father. For example, here’s how our article described her surgery.

“‘When I awoke, I was lying on top of a bed. I must have been put under anesthesia, because I barely remember anything after entering the clinic. I was so thirsty. There was a sink in the room, and I tried to get some tap water to drink, but a female nurse told me it wasn’t allowed.’ Soon after returning home, Junko was struck by a stabbing pain. She couldn’t stand, she couldn’t sleep. She tossed and turned, unable to find relief.”

Of course, investigative journalism still needs “scoops” that bring to light wrongdoing, the workings of systems of power, or other previously unknown information. Among the various revelations in “Forced Sterilization,” we reported that media executives, including NHK (Japan’s public broadcaster) management and the chair of regional paper Kahoku Shimpo, rather than speak out against these atrocities, had helped manage organizations that promoted forced sterilization surgeries. 

But remember: These scoops can be presented as elements of your story.

2. Cliffhangers keep readers coming back for more

Although, under the inverted pyramid model, ordinary news articles drop their secrets right away, narrative-style articles don’t have to. Instead, readers join the journalist as they unravel the story. You can draw readers in by gradually laying out clues, keeping them wondering where the next development will lead. When you write, try imagining that each sentence is building on the previous one.

Waseda Chronicle’s series “The Missing Nuclear Scientist” is structured this way. Our articles tell the shocking, mysterious story of a nuclear scientist named Tatsuya Takemura, who worked for Japan’s former Power Reactor and Nuclear Fuel Development Corporation (PNC). He is suspected of having been abducted by North Korea in 1972.

As the one leading the investigation and writing the articles, naturally I know all our findings. But I’m not going to give them away in the first installment. Instead, I let readers experience the investigation with me by sharing my suspicions and doubts at each successive development. They want to know where the trail will lead, just as I did, and they can share in the excitement of finding each new clue. My sister was among those reading the series; I knew I had done my job as a writer when she asked me to “just tell your big sis what happens next.”

For example, here’s how the first article of “The Missing Nuclear Scientist” ends. 

“Disappearances aren’t strange in and of themselves. People with significant debts, for example, regularly go missing. But the group of PNC scientists had a reason for suspecting that their colleague had been abducted by North Korea. … To be continued.”

3. Spark readers’ imagination with vivid descriptions 

Vivid descriptions are another important element that will keep readers engaged. 

If your “protagonist” is was happy, for example, describe their happiness with concrete details. Were they humming a tune? Did they call a friend to share good news? In order to recreate a scene with enough detail that it plays like a film reel in readers’ heads, you will need to gather these details through interviews and site visits. 

The following passage, from an article on solitary deaths in Japan’s public housing complexes that Waseda Chronicle produced together with the Guardian, describes an apartment in which an elderly man had died. 

“The apartment was on the complex’s third floor, out of five. There was no elevator. A nameplate was affixed to the apartment’s metal door: Ichiro Otsuka. The letterbox had been taped over.”

Detail-oriented interviews can also increase your chances of landing a scoop. Asking concrete questions of your subjects can expose inconsistencies in their stories and catch them in a lie. It’s a “two birds, one stone” investigative journalism technique.