Why the Inverted Pyramid must DIE

If you are a writer, you know all about the inverted pyramid. It’s one of the first blueprints we get taught: put the most important stuff on top and the least important on the bottom, like an upside-down pyramid.

As a reformed journalist, was I familiar with the inverted pyramid? Nah. I only wrote  5,931 bazillion stories using the damn thing. We were practically married.

Every day, millions of reporters use it to write stories for Papers of News and programs on the radios and the Glowing Tube, so if there was ever a sacred cow in writing and journalism, that cow would be named Inverted Pyramid, and the milk from its udders would contain perfect chocolate-flavored milk decorated with specks of gold.

The technique of journalism writing.

HOWEVER: I want you to know something. Come a little closer so I can whisper it in your ear: “The inverted pyramid MUST DIE.”

As a blueprint, it’s inherently flawed and bores readers. If you wrote novels, screenplays and TV shows using the inverted pyramid, they’d all fail, because all the good stuff would be in the beginning. The middle would be boring and the end would put the entire audience in a coma.

The inverted pyramid is useful for short news bulletins, and there were technical reasons why journalists use it. You want to get the maximum amount of information to the reader in a minimum amount of time, and if a story runs long, you can lop off the end without consequence. These days, however, the inverted pyramid is simply a flashing neon sign that says, “Reader, you can stop reading any time, because it only gets more boring from here on.”

Look at your local Sunday newspaper. I read The Seattle Times here, and they tend to do these big investigative stories that start on page one, jump to page 5, then jump to pages 7, 8, 9 and 12. I mean, these stories never end. Are they important? Sure. Can I finish them? No. Because they’re written using the inverted pyramid, and even a reformed journalist who loves papers — if you cut me, I still bleed newsprint — can’t get through that ocean of words.

However: a 10,000-word newspaper story is nothing compared to a 100,000-word novel, and I have no problem reading novels. Love ‘em.

It’s the structure, the blueprint. The inverted pyramid sucks.

Here, I’ll give you proof.

Years ago, as a cub reporter right out of college, I’d write at least 10 to 20 stories a week. Let’s say  500 a year. And I’d win journalism awards every year. But hey, if I wrote 500 stories, some of those better be good and a few of them better be brilliant, right?

A few years ago, I freelanced a newspaper story, not simply because I still love papers, but because this story happened to a friend of mine.

One story instead of 500. And that story won some journalism award. I went one for one instead of five for 500 or whatever. Hmm.

I wrote this story about 7 years ago. Looking back at this piece, I’m a much better writer today. Parts seem quite clunky. But this piece didn’t win an award because each sentence was poetry. It got an award because I abandoned the inverted pyramid entirely and wrote this piece as narrative non-fiction, which is a fancy way of saying “storytelling.”

If I’d written it using the stupid inverted pyramid, I’d give away the ending in the damn headline, and the last line of the piece — instead of being something you remember — would be something like “The dog was yellow.”

Read this sucker. Look at the structure, the setups and payoffs, instead of the words. And tell me if you think it would be one-tenth as compelling written using the inverted pyramid. Then make a vow to never, never use that obsolete blueprint ever again.

Lost and trapped at 4,500 feet

Special to The Vidette

by Guy Bergstrom

 

MONTESANO – From the top of Colonel Bob Mountain– nearly 4,500 feet high – Adam Pratt and family friend Amy Smith could see the Pacific Ocean to the west, Mount Rainier to the southeast and everything in between.

The one thing they couldn’t see was Lucas, Adam’s golden retriever.

“Luke had been up Colonel Bob four or five times before,” said Adam, a carpentry instructor at Grays Harbor College who lives in Montesano with his wife, Sara.

“He was just there beside me a second ago, and he always stays right next to me on the trail,” Adam said. “So I figured that maybe he went back down toward a stream that we crossed 30 minutes down the mountain.”

Adam and Amy called for Lucas; they whistled and clapped.

“I expected his happy face and wagging tail to come running back, as he always does,” Adam said.

They went back down the trail to the stream and thought maybe Lucas would head back to the car, at the trailhead.

Adam put his sweaty T-shirt and a bowl of water where they’d parked, hoping the familiar smells and fresh water would serve as a homing beacon for Lucas.

The beacon failed; Lucas never showed up.

The search

To prepare for a search of the wilderness, Adam drove back to Montesano for clothes, food and camping gear.

He dropped off Amy, jumped in his wife’s Subaru – which she’d already packed with supplies – and they raced the setting sun back to the trailhead at Pete’s Creek, about 20 miles into the wilderness.

“I strapped on my headlamp and went up the trail by myself about a mile and a half,” he said. “It’s not wise to hike alone in the dark, especially in black bear and cougar country. I was drained and emotional, making bad decisions.”

He returned to the car. He couldn’t eat. He and Sara tried to sleep, but they lay awake most of the night in the Subaru, thinking the worst.

Where was Lucas? Was he wandering the forests? Injured and unable to move? Or a late-night snack for a mountain lion?

To the top again

Just before daybreak, Adam strapped on his backpack, kissed Sara goodbye and headed back up the mountain again.

He decided to reach the top of the Colonel and search. If he didn’t find Lucas, he’d continue down the trail on the other side of the mountain toward Lake Quinault.

Maybe the dog had headed toward the small town near the lake. Since it was Labor Day weekend, there’d be more people and activity.

Sara drove to Lake Quinault and started putting up lost dog posters. She asked people she met if they’d seen a yellow dog. She alerted the park ranger station, in case they’d heard any reports of a lost dog with a collar. No one had seen Lucas.

The cave

Adam clapped, whistled and called for Lucas as he reached the top of the mountain.

Near the top, he heard faint howling.

“I reached the lookout area and looked down,” Adam said. “About seventy-five feet below the summit, there he was, on this tiny ledge a hundred-twenty feet above the next flat spot.”

Lucas looked scared, but he didn’t seem hurt. But how could Adam reach him?

At the summit, Adam’s cell phone had some reception, so he called Sara and left the message that Lucas was alive, but stuck on a cliff.

He pushed through brush and trees on the steep sides of Colonel Bob, traveling through a twenty-foot cave he had to crouch and crawl through. Then he side-shuffled through open-topped crevice and popped out the other side of the mountain.

To reach the ledge, Adam climbed 60 feet up by hanging onto huckleberry roots and scrub brush.

After being alone on the cliff, Lucas was thrilled to see Adam, wagging his tail and licking his face. He checked Lucas for injuries and was amazed to find the dog didn’t have any broken bones from the fall.

Then the thrill of the reunion hit the Cold Wall of Reality.

“I hate heights,” Adam said, “and it was then and there I realized how stupid I had been. My emotions had got the best of me and now I was sitting on a six-foot by three-foot ledge with my buddy, wondering how we were getting of this mountain.”

No help

Adam offered Lucas a dog bone, but he wasn’t interested in eating. After letting Lucas lap some water out of his hands, he knew he had to go before they both were stuck up there another night.

“Without opposable thumbs, he wasn’t able to follow me off the ledge,” Adam said. “I King-Konged it down the cliff, using the shrubs and roots as handholds, like a monkey.”

After making it through the cave again and back to the summit, Adam went down the mountain yet again, his muscles shaking, his mind spinning. He heard voices coming up the trail but had to stop to rest and eat some trail bars.

At the same time, Sara was at the Forest Service headquarters, asking for help. They told her rescue teams were looking for a group of four lost teens, plus another couple of hikers about 150 miles away.

Stranded dogs? Not a priority.

Lost hope

Sara sobbed; they’d worked so hard to find Lucas, and now he’d starve or freeze to death on a cliff.

She left a voice mail with the only person she could think of back in Montesano: Leo Nixon, a 71-year-old retired dentist and they’d met at Friday wine tastings at Savory Faire, a man who shared their love of hiking local mountains.

Adam headed back down the trail toward the voices. He met a father and daughter hiking up Colonel Bob with their chocolate lab. He asked if they had any rope or a cell phone, since his battery was now dead.

“They helped calm me down,” said Adam, “and they actually landed some of their lunch on Luke’s ledge. To them, I must have seemed like a crazy person. It’s good they didn’t have a rope. I wasn’t qualified to use it to climb. Even if I had training, I was in no condition to do it.”

A daring plan

Heading down the trail, Adam saw another couple heading up the hill, and then a face he knew: Leo, who hadn’t gotten Sara’s message.

“He just happened to take that hike, that day,” Adam said.

Leo climbed to the summit to take a look. He said he had all the necessary climbing gear at home in Montesano and that they could rescue Lucas themselves.

They wouldn’t try it from the top of Colonel Bob, but from below, where Adam had reached the ledge in his earlier, impulsive attempt without equipment or backup.

Since it would soon be dark, they needed to wait until Saturday morning, meaning Lucas would spend his second night alone on the freezing ledge.

On the drive back to Montesano, Leo tried to calm the fears of Adam and Sara, to assure them that it wouldn’t rain, that Lucas wouldn’t try to jump, that no bears or cougars roamed the area.

“Lies, but comforting lies,” Adam said.

Leo stopped at Savory Faire, where Adam and Sara would have been that Friday night for wine tasting if they weren’t spending their time climbing and re-climbing the mountain.

Leo walked inside and casually asked the restaurant owner, Randi Bachtel, if he could borrow his climbing equipment. He refused offers of help, saying he’d called two friends of his who were mountaineers.

Randi, a veteran of Vietnam and local high school teacher, said Leo knew what he was doing. If he had to choose anybody to do a rescue, it’d be Leo, 71 years old or not.

The Silver Panther Rescue Team

At 4:30 Saturday morning, Adam and Sara arrived at Leo’s house, where two of his mountain-climbing friends joined them: Mike Riley of Olympia and Rich Irwin of Raymond.

This would be the third climb up to the summit in 36 hours for Adam, who was exhausted and questioning himself. Could he do it again?

On the way to the mountain, they picked up Amy and her husband, Nate, who’d agreed to make the climb with what they’d nicknamed “The Silver Panthers Rescue Team.”

Adam and Sara couldn’t stop thinking about whether Lucas had survived the night, about the cold, the bears, the cougars.

Driving through the rain and the dark, a dark shape – a cougar – leapt in front of the Subaru and Adam jammed both feet on the brakes.

“It was the first time that any of us had ever seen a mountain lion,” Adam said. “Truly an amazing creature. Truly terrible timing. We said nothing to each other, but we all entertained the same thoughts.”

The cougar spun around and sprinted the opposite direction.

They kept driving.

All seven climbed the trail to Colonel Bob’s summit while it was still dark. The Silver Panthers didn’t lose one step to the younger hikers.

As they reached the top, the sun showed up.

Leo led the way as they bushwhacked through the brush and trees on the side of the mountain. On a semi-flat spot, they gathered their gear and prepared for the rescue attempt.

Leo, Mike, Rich and Adam put on climbing harnesses and helmets.

They walked a narrow ledge to the start of the route Leo had picked out.

And then they started climbing.

Do or die

There’s no half-way in mountain climbing. You make it safely or fail spectacularly.

Rich and Leo set a bottom anchor in the cliff to belay Mike as he climbed toward Lucas.

Mike set a second anchor at twenty feet up, then another at forty feet before making the final climb to the tiny ledge and Lucas.

After taking a minute to calm the dog, Mike set up a rope to top-belay Adam up sixty feet to the ledge.

“I have very little climbing experience,” Adam said, “but I had the best chance to calm down Lucas and bring him down.”

Adam made it up. They attached a harness to Lucas, then hooked that harness to Adam, who pulled the dog tight against his chest.

They would make it down – the slow way or a much speedier one – together.

Home

“I stepped off the cliff,” Adam said, “and the guys lowered us down. Then Mike rappelled down and we all made our way to flat ground and safety.”

After giving Lucas some water and food, the seven-member team celebrated and decompressed. They still had four miles to hike out, downhill, but Adam barely felt it.

“We couldn’t feel anything,” he said, “but relief.”

Leo, Rich and Mike peeled away to climb a nearby peak.

Lucas rode home with his friends. And his family.

Epilogue

Sunday afternoon: Lucas is sprinting around the playground at Crait Field, playing with a three-year-old boy who can’t stop laughing. Lucas leaps off the retaining walls as if he’s weightless and happily picks up his leash to get Adam to play tug-of-war with him.

Adam and Sara talk about their ordeal being unreal, a waking nightmare with a fairy tale ending.

“Retired dentist extracts canine from Colonel Bob,” Adam jokes.

Behind the kidding around, there’s a deep sense of gratitude and community. The couple moved here from Michigan and have only lived in Montesano since last November, so they’re amazed and grateful at how people stepped forward to offer their help.

“We couldn’t have possibly rescued him without the help of our friends,” Adam said, “and the kindness of strangers.”

But there’s also an undercurrent of resolve. Of loyalty.

“We couldn’t just leave our little buddy,” said Adam, “on a mountain cliff to die.”

###

This is Guy Bergstrom the writer, not the Guy Bergstrom in Stockholm or the guy in Minnesota who sells real estate or whatever. Separate guys. Kthxbai.

Guy Bergstrom. Photo by Suhyoon Cho.

Reformed journalist. Scribbler of speeches and whatnot. Wrote a thriller that won some award (PNWA 2013). Represented by Jill Marr of the Sandra Dijkstra Literary Agency.

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6 Comments

Filed under 7 Media Strategy Saturday, Journalism, publicity and scandals, Old Media, which is still Big and Strong

6 responses to “Why the Inverted Pyramid must DIE

  1. Pingback: Top 10 Myths of Journalism School | The Red Pen of Doom

  2. Pingback: Writing secret: all you need is CURIOSITY and SURPRISE | The Red Pen of Doom

  3. dianewordsmith

    I’ve always fancied myself as more of a storyteller than a journalist. That’s probably why I leaned toward feature writing. Of course, in many respects, the original need for the pyramid is now obsolete. Designed to make it easy for composing rooms to cut stories to fit, it’s a design that’s not needed with the Web. Space here is infinite. Death to the pyramid? I think I killed it a long time ago. I love those pithy nuggets at the end of a story. Don’t dare cut that out.

    Like

  4. Nicely done!
    I wrote for years for a city paper, and was clueless about the inverted pyramid since I’d never taken journalism in college – just Lit and creative writing. I wrote every article like it was a short story and they bought everything I wrote. I get why the standard, but agree it’s time for it to ride off into the sunset.

    Like

    • Guy

      Ah, a fellow former journalist. We will take over the world.

      You were smart never to touch the stupid boring inverted pyramid, which I believe was somehow involved in TRANSFORMERS 2: LAST CHANCE TO GAWK AT MEGAN FOX.

      Like

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