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.

62 thoughts on “How weird news teaches us great storytelling

  1. 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.

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  2. 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.

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  3. 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!

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  4. 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?

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  5. 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

  6. 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

  7. 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

  8. 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!

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    1. 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

    1. 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.

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  9. 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.

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  10. 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.

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  11. 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.

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      1. 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.

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  12. 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. 😉

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    1. 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.

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  13. 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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