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Monday, February 19, 2007

Poor Metaphors

Today, I’m discussing the pyramid writing method and the inverse pyramid writing method. These, as you probably know, are metaphors for how to construct a written story. From the day they were first described, they’ve helped to guide people in organizing their material logically so that it is best-understood by the reader.

But I’ve come to the decision that it’s time to either stop using these metaphors, or figure out a better one. When you studied English Comp 101 in college, which metaphor did your instructor use to describe the writing method? What about journalism courses? Pyramid, or inverse pyramid?

The pyramid method purports that any good journalism story makes its point (the top of the pyramid) at the very beginning. As the story continues, the facts become increasingly less important. No, I didn’t say “unimportant.” I’m saying that information at the end of the story isn’t as crucial for the reader to know as anything that came before. Stories written this way are, in theory, much easier to edit for space because all an editor supposedly has to do is start removing paragraphs from the bottom, up. Thus, you may have a smaller “pyramid” story, but still a pyramid, nonetheless.

On the other hand, novelists and storywriters, as opposed to journalists, think in reverse. A good novel—while certainly having important-enough information in the first chapter to pull a reader into the story—will gradually build on everything that came before until a climax is reached at or near the end of the novel.

The flaw in the design of these two writing methods is that they can be completely swapped and still make perfect sense. It all depends on whether you consider the top of the pyramid as “the point,” or if you consider the larger base of the pyramid as “the meat” or the most important part. If you correlate the facts in the story with the tapering size of the pyramid, it stands to reason that the tip is no longer “the main point” of the story, but rather the smallest and least-important part of the story. Likewise for novelists, in reverse.

What am I getting at? The other day, someone was explaining to me how the pyramid method must be used in journalism. I told her I completely agreed with her meaning that the most important facts go first. But, in school, she had been taught nothing but the standard pyramid method and was quite stunned that I would contradict her professor over what to call it—even more so when I revealed that, in my journalism courses, my professor referenced the inverse pyramid method.

Frankly, I don’t use either metaphor any more. Whenever it’s much more understandable to simply tell what the metaphor is trying to explain than to use the metaphor, it’s time to dump the metaphor.

And that is the point—or the foundation—of today’s musing.

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