Story Structures: Spiral & Shortcuts

Stories are written in a variety of lengths for different media and audiences, but are often built upon the same outline. Consider that a typical television news segment is around 200-400 words long, an average newspaper article is 600-800 words, while a magazine feature ranges upwards of 1200 words. All of these formats try to hit the main points in a story, but differ on the level of detail and verbosity.

The spiral and shortcut story structure is based on the idea that these writings could be layered on top of one another using a common outline. The overall effect would be to allow readers to jump to more or less thorough storylines depending on their level of interest.

Using the metaphor of a storyteller, this structure allows the speaker to modify a story based on the particular interests of the audience as well as the time alloted. This is one of the more difficult writing structures to reproduce, but could result in a much more fluid experience for a reader.

Works best with:

  • Long-format feature stories, like magazine cover stories.
  • Convergence sites that have articles from broadcast, newspaper, and/or magazines.
  • Breaking stories which are slowly expanded on.

Technology: I haven't seen this sort of structure used in production. The actual display of this content to a reader is not terribly difficult. The example below was created with simple javascript and css. However, the heavy lifting for this structure happens on the editing side, which would be greatly helped if a system was used that already grafted a story onto a shared outline.

Design: As with all of the story structures I have been experimenting with, the story should initially be displayed in the length and format that the editor believes is best. Past that, a reader should be able to simply click on a paragraph or heading in order to cycle through the lengths. I would recommend keeping the interface as simple as possible, by using a single mouseclick to increase the length, looping back to the shortest length once the maximum has been reached.

Example:

During a much-anticipated meeting this week, the Fed raised the target for a key short-term interest rate to 1.25 percent.

Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan and his Federal Open Market Committee colleagues the group that sets interest rate policy in the United States increased the federal funds rate to 1.25 percent. The funds rate, the Fed's primary tool for influencing economic activity, had been at 1 percent, a 46-year low, for a year.

Fed officials, including chairman Alan Greenspan, raised short-term rates by 0.25 percent at the end of its two-day policy meetings after having hinted in past weeks that the central bank is willing to move to control price growth.

The Federal Reserve's Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) meets regularly to decide on the interest policies and hence the cost on borrowings. The committee meets under the aegis of the chairman, Alan Greenspan, who has spearheaded the quest of the longest expansion of the US economy ever while keeping tabs on inflation by judicious usage of the interest rates to prevent overheating of the economy. The committee comprises of seven Fed governors and five of 12 regional federal bank presidents at a time. The responsibility of the committee is to work towards sustaining growth while minimizing the effects of inflation on the economy.

In an effort to combat inflation, the Fed raised the federal funds rate 0.25 percent from the historically low 1 percent that it has been at since last June. The board cited evidence that the economy is continuing to expand at a solid pace.

The last time the Fed raised this key short-term rate was in March 2000, at the tail end of the Internet boom. Responding to the economic slump that began in late 2000, the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and a painful series of corporate governance scandals, the Fed cut rates 13 times between January 2001 and May 2003, hoping to prevent the economy from skidding into deflation.

The depth and duration of the Fed's rate-cutting regime -- unprecedented in modern times -- encouraged Americans to borrow to buy homes, cars, six-burner ranges, second homes and plasma TVs. Their free-spending ways offset a nasty downturn in business investment and helped the nation skirt a serious recession.

The Fed is starting from a low base, in which short-term interest rates are below the rate of inflation. Even if the Fed increases rates at the anticipated pace, they would still be quite low by historical standards and roughly equal to the expected inflation rate, implying a real interest rate of zero.

"It's not a gimme putt." That's how Alan Greenspan, an admitted duffer on the golf course, described to a Senate committee what should be his final mission as chairman of the Federal Reserve Board: a carefully calibrated series of interest rate hikes over the next year or two intended to cool the economy just enough to stave off inflation.

It's a delicate balancing act but one many think Greenspan can pull off. Along with predecessor Paul Volcker, the chairman, whose fifth and final term will come to a close in January 2006, is likely to go down as one of the two most important Fed chiefs. Greenspan got a helping hand late last week with news that job growth in June had slowed significantly from its torrid pace earlier in the year. Some 112,000 new jobs were created, less than half the number economists had expected, leaving the unemployment rate steady at 5.6 percent. While bad news for the unemployed, it's good news for Greenspan & Co. if it gives them the flexibility to raise interest rates at their desired "measured" pace. If he pulls off his latest ploy, Greenspan, having already piloted the economy through three wars, two recessions, two stock market crashes, and an Asian financial crisis, "will be declared a man who walks on water unfrozen," says Paul McCulley, a Fed expert at bond fund giant Pimco.

Most economists and investors are optimistic that the Federal Reserve and its larger-than-life chairman are up to the task, but there are no guarantees. In fact, more than a few notable economists say the central bank may already be playing catch-up with rising prices. "Their analysis of inflation has been too optimistic for some time now," says Roger Kubarych, an inflation hawk and senior economic adviser at HVB America, a subsidiary of German bank HVB Group. He points to the personal consumption expenditures deflator, the Fed's preferred inflation barometer, which rose in May at an annual rate of 6 percent, as well as the median price for existing homes, which is 10.3 percent higher than a year ago.

And the Fed will keep a watchful eye on the progress of the economy, saying it will respond to changes in economic prospects as needed to fulfill its obligation to maintain price stability.

Wisely, Fed members left themselves some wiggle room, declaring that new data may cause them to change tack. "They have a framework, a thought process, and a forecast, and they're constantly refining those on the basis of incoming information," says former Federal Reserve economist Josh Feinman, now chief economist at Deutsche Asset Management Americas.

The central bankers signaled that they would raise rates at a slow but steady rate, probably a quarter point hike at each meeting, economists said. "With underlying inflation still expected to be relatively low, the committee believes that policy accommodation can be removed at a pace that is likely to be measured," the committee said, repeating language from May. Read the full statement.

However, the committee vowed that it would "respond to changes in economic prospects as needed to fulfill its obligation to maintain price stability."

"This is the first step on a long journey," said Stu Hoffman, chief economist for PNC Bank, who sees the federal funds rate at about 4 percent by the end of 2005.

The Fed expressed no sense of urgency over higher prices. "Although incoming inflation data are somewhat elevated, a portion of the increase in recent months appears to have been due to transitory factors," the committee said.

Nearly 1 million jobs have been added to payrolls over the past three months, a strong signal that the economy is gaining at a steady pace. Consumer confidence is also at its highest since 2002, at 101.9.

The latest assessment of the state of the economy is upbeat. The Fed said the economy is expanding at a solid pace and that labor markets are improving.

Consumer confidence increased sharply in June, according to the New York-based Conference Board and the percentage of Americans who say jobs are hard to get has fallen from 32 percent a year ago to 26.5 percent now. Additionally, those who think jobs are plentiful rose from 11.2 percent in June 2003 to 18 percent.

Consumer confidence jumped to its highest level in two years in June, buoyed by an improved job outlook, the New York-based Conference Board reported Tuesday.

The Conference Board's consumer confidence index rose strongly in June, far outstripping the market's expectations. Strong consumer confidence is seen as a key factor in the economic recovery, as it means people are more likely to spend. These numbers reflect a belief that the economy would continue to grow and add more jobs.

"The nice thing about this number is that you get all the good news, but it doesn't necessarily correlate to inflation," said Michael Palazzi, managing director of equity trading at SG Cowen Securities. "Yes, inflation will follow and rates will go up, but we have a strong base for the economy, rates are still low, and now we have a lot of confidence."