The Red Pen of Doom

Conventional wisdom about writing is conventionally wrong.

How weird news teaches us great storytelling

Every day, there are real stories in the morning newspaper that make you snort coffee out your nose or choke on a blueberry muffin. Note: This is why journalists call such pieces “muffin chokers.”

Yet the daily weirdness is more than funny. If you dissect these stories, you can learn deep storytelling lessons from the shallow end of the journalism pool.

Here’s a real story that just happened in my state: Man steals RV from Wal-Mart parking lot, leads police on wild chase. Swerves into sleepy little town where he knocks cars into front yards and such, then blasts through a house and crashes. Runs out, strips down to his underwear and invades a home to steal girl clothes. Cops catch him and haul him off.

This is pretty typical of a weird news story, and not simply because it started in the parking lot of a Wal-Mart — and yeah, go ahead, google “Wal-Mart parking lot” and “weird news.”

While you’re at it, google “7-Eleven robbery” and “trailer park ninjas.” It’s a thing, especially in Florida, though in Colorado somebody robbed a 7-Eleven with some kind of Klingon sword, and yeah, the clerk who got robbed knew exactly what to call that sword when the cops took the police report.

Great storytelling comes from the gap between expectation and result. Audiences, like kittehs, love surprises.

Your normal day is not a great story because there’s no gap. It is what you expect, and what your neighbor expects. There’s nothing shocking.

So let’s dissect the RV thief story and the rash of 7-Eleven robberies involving trailer park ninjas, to see why those short little stories pack so much punch. The gaps between expectation and result are all over these stories.

First, it’s a surprise for a criminal to prowl the parking lot of a Wal-Mart, or steal an RV, because as a smart person, you think, “If I were unemployed and desperate, and forced into a life of crime, maybe I’d steal a new Mercedes convertible, something I could sell for real money and drive crazy fast if the police chased me.”

You would not think to yourself, “Let’s go to a Wal-Mart parking lot, full of witnesses, and steal a ginormous RV that (a) could be seen from space, much less a police helicopter, (b) would be crazy hard to sell or hide and (c) is slower and less maneuverable than anything short of a logging truck.”

So there are tremendous gaps there on multiple fronts. You’re surprised again and again.

The same thing is true for trailer park ninjas robbing 7-Elevens in Florida, because smart, normal people think the only time they could imagine dressing up like a ninja is if they were an actual trained ninja, you know, in Japan, knocking off something worthy of their skill and trouble. Say, stealing $30 million in diamonds from a jewelry store in downtown Tokyo, then retiring from a life of crime.

Nobody with working brain cells thinks sure, let’s dress all in black, grab a cheap sword-like object and risk insane amounts of prison time for $186 in the till and a carton of Marlboro Lights.

There are similar gaps in stories like “Two men wounded in gunfight over Wal-Mart parking spot.” True story.

It’s a question of risk vs. reward. Would you risk your life over a parking spot at a bargain store? No, because you’re smart. Who cares? Get a different parking spot. This is like challenging a man to a duel in the alley because he cut in front of you in the line for Taco Bell.

The Darwin Awards are staples of the weird news business for the same giant gap between expectation and result.

A classic example: man tries to get rid of a mouse at his house (yes, it rhymes!) and throws it onto a burning pile of leaves. Mouse, on fire, jumps off the pile and runs under his house … burning it down.

Now, this story may not be true. Doesn’t matter. It lives on, as a fable, because of the huge gap between expectation (mouse dies in fire) and result (even in death, mouse gets revenge on homeowner).

The bigger the gap, the better the story. This is true not only in weird news, but any sort of storytelling: a novel, a play, a movie, whatever.

Another lesson from weird news: The Darwin Awards almost always involve the same elements, just about every time, yet those ingredients get mixed up endless ways and still continue to surprise us. The ingredients for a Darwin Award story are: (a) men, usually in groups, (b) generous amounts of alcohol, (c) firearms, explosives or dangerous wild animals, (d) vehicles and (e) famous last words, quite often, “Watch this.”

It is exceedingly rare to see Darwin Award stories involved women. Maybe because they’re smarter, or because the IQ of a group of men goes down by half every time you add another bro bringing a six-pack of Molson to the “let’s make a flamethrower to roast this nest of yellowjackets nest” party.

So the next time you see a weird story in the news, don’t skip it, even if it’s only three sentences. There is gold to be mined, and lessons learned. It’s no accident that Elmore Leonard, Dave Barry and Carl Hiaasen made a living basically writing about weird news and dumb criminals in Florida.

It’s great storytelling, and always will be.

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###

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.

About Guy Bergstrom

Reformed journalist. Scribbler of speeches and whatnot.

62 comments on “How weird news teaches us great storytelling

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  4. CFB
    June 29, 2014

    Reblogged this on Liturgical Credo and commented:
    Excellent points —

    Like

  5. godtisx
    June 29, 2014

    Reblogged this on Archaic Sugar and commented:
    This guy is on to something…

    Like

  6. veldez40
    June 28, 2014

    Possible epilogue concerning said flamethrower:
    All you need is a lighter and a can of WD-40. Good as gold.

    Like

  7. rung2diotimasladder
    June 23, 2014

    I can think of one and only one way these stories make sense to normal minds. Suppose I’m undergoing an existential crisis in which I question the very nature of morality, a la Raskolnikov. But I decide instead of killing an innocent old woman, since that’s really mean, I decide to put a smile on my face by dressing up as a ninja to steal a cheap sword-like object from Wal-Mart in order to hold someone up in the parking lot for an RV. I take with me a flaming mouse as my side-kick. Together we become the Ubermensch, or female equivalent.
    There’s a story that’s famous out here in the desert. A man gets drunk (you were right about the six-pack of Molson) and decides to shoot up a saguaro. The saguaro breaks from all the bullet holes and falls on top of him, killing him. Revenge of the saguaro.

    Like

  8. larajeunesse
    June 23, 2014

    Reblogged this on Remnants and commented:
    I wonder how weirdness affects the world.

    Like

  9. funwithhimandher
    June 22, 2014

    Reblogged this on My Blog.

    Like

  10. Morgan Mussell
    June 19, 2014

    Reblogged this on The First Gates and commented:
    This post was a (literal) coffee-snorter. Be warned, if you have a cup, put it down, and if you’re eating a blueberry muffin, swallow before reading this epic tale of Walmart brigands, trailer park ninjas, the Darwin awards, and other tales of so-called real life as stranger than fiction.

    Like

  11. amvanier
    June 18, 2014

    Well I suppose this logic applies quite fittingly to my blog then, and would explain why in only one week some people are hooked. After a whole lifetime a writer’s block, I finally found a big enough gap! Great read – thanks!

    Like

  12. Link Nicoll
    June 16, 2014

    This is so true and you told it wonderfully.

    Like

  13. LillianC
    June 16, 2014

    Reblogged this on Hopes and Dreams: My Writing and My Sons and commented:
    I came across this while browsing Freshly Pressed. Good writing advice, some really funny/weird stories, plus links to more posts in this blog that will be helpful and entertaining. Enjoy!

    Like

  14. blogqueendiane
    June 16, 2014

    Reblogged on http://thoughtstipsandtales.wordpress.com/ so other people can have a good laugh, too! Thanks.

    Like

  15. Pingback: Follow-up to Why I Love Weird News Stories: How Weird News Teaches us Great Storytelling | The Red Pen of Doom | Thoughts, Tips and Tales

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  17. christineespeer
    June 13, 2014

    I love the term ‘ muffin choker’! Great post and helpful reminder to use and enjoy the unexpected.

    Like

  18. Chella
    June 13, 2014

    Brilliant. Found this on the day I blogged, advising people to check Fortean Times to find story inspiration. Thanks for making me smile.

    Like

  19. beyondluck
    June 12, 2014

    Reblogged this on Be Your Own Answer and commented:
    Your best stories are those where the results surprised you. Read this article by Guy Bergstrom to get some insight.

    Like

  20. lundberglynne
    June 12, 2014

    Reblogged this on drltherhetorician and commented:
    Writing students will enjoy this piece.

    Like

  21. pajcaigaius
    June 12, 2014

    Reblogged this on pajcaigaius and commented:
    I love writing, words, and the art of storytelling. this is fun and sublime, and funny

    Like

  22. speakingwins
    June 11, 2014

    I hate to see women excluded from anything – equal opportunity and all that. What about the woman in who dropped her cellphone on the train tracks and decided she HAD to retrieve it?

    Like

  23. EmotionLess
    June 11, 2014

    Your blog is awsum…m totally into it
    i just started blogging…i hope u ll pay a visit …it will boost my writing zeal 🙂
    http://myfreshhopes.wordpress.com/

    Like

  24. Lewis Brooks
    June 11, 2014

    The story about the mouse gets me every time, the Darwin awards too. Very funny post, but lots of truth in it.

    Like

  25. rikkilynn
    June 11, 2014

    Great post! I’ve read so many “weird news,” stories, that I now my blood pressure rising instead of my laughter… yet people never fail to amaze me with their cleverness ….or uh, intelligence…

    Liked by 1 person

  26. jeffblackrock
    June 11, 2014

    Reblogged this on Penbanger and commented:
    Sometimes the truth is stranger than fiction.

    Like

  27. More2Explore
    June 10, 2014

    I thought a lot about your post, it flows well and provides good tips. Now I feel “Freshly Pressured”…

    Like

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  29. appslotus
    June 10, 2014

    Reblogged this on Apps Lotus's Blog.

    Like

  30. misssamanthajill
    June 10, 2014

    I love reading about weird news, it’s always fun to hear about, and it makes my day more amusing!

    Like

  31. TJ Coleman
    June 10, 2014

    Ha! You’ve given me a new appreciation for weird stories on the news.

    Like

  32. Rii the Wordsmith
    June 10, 2014

    Ha, weird news. I think my favorite part is that when applied to writing, you can have comedy and rising tension simultaneously with the weird news story type of event.
    Actually, one of the best stories I’ve read was basically one long weird news story.
    Anyway I know the technique of the reversal of expectations, but I hadn’t thought to draw inspiration specifically from news stories. Thanks for your post!

    Liked by 1 person

  33. blogqueendiane
    June 10, 2014

    Oh my gosh, I loved your post! Am still laughing. I just wrote a blog post about how I love weird stories about bizarre things people do (http://thoughtstipsandtales.wordpress.com/2014/06/07/truth-is-stranger-than-fiction-people-do-the-weirdest-things/). Weird stories are the source of my most fun conversations, but I’ve never stopped to analyze why the stories are so hilarious. I can see you’ve really thought this through!

    Liked by 1 person

  34. and being able to tell these tales of the absurd sans judgment is the greatest test of narrative honesty and journalistic integrity. I feel we’ve lost a bit of that – pure-hearted whimsy as devolved into snarky cynicism

    Like

  35. tenderlytina
    June 10, 2014

    Odd stories like that keep the news from being boring.

    Like

  36. mfbedenli
    June 10, 2014

    Reblogged this on mfatihbedenli.

    Like

  37. jari65
    June 10, 2014

    Reblogged this on Jari65 Blog.

    Like

  38. Therese Lu
    June 10, 2014

    Thanks for this post!

    Like

  39. Fariya
    June 10, 2014
  40. One Blue Sky
    June 10, 2014

    Brilliant lesson in storytelling. I like the mouse and house fable or fact. It reminds me of Tales of the Unexpected by Roald Dahl =)

    Liked by 1 person

  41. jgiambrone
    June 9, 2014

    Reblogged this on J. GIAMBRONE.

    Like

  42. armaghanmasood
    June 9, 2014

    🙂

    Like

  43. Laura Beth Ward
    June 9, 2014

    “Great storytelling comes from the gap between expectation and result. ” !!!!!!!!!!!! SO TRUE!!!!!!!!! I think you might like these: sweet words and sexy poems…
    http://www.elephantjournal.com/2014/06/lighten-up-this-life-is-a-game-wanting-to-be-played-laura-ward/
    http://www.elephantjournal.com/2014/06/why-laura-ward-poem/

    Like

  44. Lucy
    June 9, 2014

    That was amazing. The best post Ive read so far, including my own. I about p***** my pants at points I laughed so hard and at the same time it was inspirational. It was exactly what I needed to hear to get me out of the writers block on my novel, I need surprise! Very refreshing and funny as hell!

    Like

    • Guy Bergstrom
      June 9, 2014

      Aww. Thanks for reading it, and commenting.

      If you’re a novelist, you should check out some of the other stuff, like when I take a red pen to the first page of FIFTY SHADES OF GREY. Good times. 🙂

      -Guy

      Liked by 1 person

  45. kjamesp
    June 9, 2014

    I absolutely love this post. It’s also good fun to take two somewhat normal headlines and combine them into a single story.

    Like

    • Guy Bergstrom
      June 9, 2014

      Thanks for reading it, and commenting. I like those stories, too, and the mix-ups in the newsroom like “INSERT HEADLINE HERE.”

      My favorite headline of all time: PSYCHO KILLER RACCOONS TERRORIZE OLYMPIA.

      It doesn’t get any better than that.

      Like

  46. recentcoinz
    June 9, 2014

    I have a section of my blog devoted for the criminal element who insist keeping their foam helmets cinched down a bit too tight. My favorite was the duo who stole an entire safe. They had it chained to their truck when these scofflaws suddenly decided to stop for a red light. Needless to say, inertia took over and the police arrested them while they were trying to get the truck off the top of the safe.

    Like

  47. wakingofthebear
    June 9, 2014

    Congratulations on being Freshly Pressed, I hate you.

    Like

  48. kathryndean2013
    June 9, 2014

    Love this! My favorite part: “and yeah, the clerk who got robbed knew exactly what to call that sword when the cops took the police report.”
    People are characters and true life is often stranger than fiction.

    Like

    • Guy Bergstrom
      June 9, 2014

      Somebody on Twitter or Facebook told me the actual Klingon word for that sword. Need to find that.

      Like

  49. awax1217
    June 9, 2014

    I work at Legoland and just when I thought I saw it all, something happens and I am amazed. I had a kid stand up on a moving roller coast and almost fall to his death. I blogged on it. It still bothers me that it happened.

    Like

    • Guy Bergstrom
      June 9, 2014

      Wow. That’s crazy. We went to Legoland in Germany and did the rollercoaster thing.

      Like

      • awax1217
        June 10, 2014

        The incident occurred when I worked at Cypress Gardens but the ride is now at Legoland but with different restraints and you can not stand up.

        Like

  50. Ron Herron
    June 6, 2014

    I love it! Especially the ‘right-on’ comment about group IQ going down with each additional yellowjacket flamethrower designer (actually, it’s probably the extra Molson). Truth is, indeed, stranger than fiction. 😉

    Like

    • rung2diotimasladder
      June 23, 2014

      Sometimes truth really is stranger than fiction, and readers really don’t believe it. Anytime I make up some ridiculous story and think no one will buy into it, they do. But if it actually happened to me and I stick close to the story, no one believes it. Go figure.

      Like

  51. Will Overby
    June 6, 2014

    This has to be the most epic blog entry ever!

    Like

  52. jamiebmusings
    June 5, 2014

    Reblogged this on Florida Writers Conference Blog and commented:
    I know today’s post is a bit early, but I am up late tonight and came across this while checking my WordPress feed. How could I resist sharing?

    How many times have you seen something completely insane in the news or even in real life and thought, “this is too weird, no one would ever believe it”? How often have you really looked to your muse to try and explain these strange happenings? To figure out why people do such completely insane things for no good reason? These are great ways to get ideas, sharpen your character creation skills, and try to gain a better understanding of people all at one.

    Okay, that last one might be a tall order, but you get the idea! It’s all about learning to see things in a different way. To look at layers, explain the explainable. You just might get a story out of it.

    So, what is the strangest idea you ever had? Have you ever had an experience yourself that you thought was so strange, there was no way anyone would believe it? Where do you usually go when in search of ideas? I’d love to hear your thoughts. See you next time!

    Liked by 2 people

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