Image: F Luis Mora's NYC subway riders reading inverted pyramid

Prefer narrative structure to the inverted pyramid

F Luis Mora's NYC subway riders reading inverted pyramid

Journalists began structuring news stories with the inverted pyramid around the middle of the 19th-century, when the telegraph rewarded brevity and newspaper style morphed from point-of-view asserting to factual reporting.


The inverted pyramid—lead comprising who-what-when-where-why first, less essential details next, least important facts last—made sense in a world of pasteup. Columns of text were printed, waxed and pasted onto a board. These columns were subject to editing with a knife prior to deadline. Portions of the column were cut away to make room for an advertisement or other content. The inverted pyramid made the cutting easy. The page composer knew to cut bottom up, thus preserving the more important parts of the story.

Outside of history classes and museums, that world is gone. Digital devices don’t require cutting articles from bottom up to fit all content into a prescribed height. Today’s tools of production and consumption open new options for structuring content.

Some argue that the inverted pyramid is still appropriate in news posts. Perhaps. But not best. Even for brief posts, prefer narrative structure.

We humans are inherently storytellers says Walter Fisher, emeritus professor at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism and pioneer of communication theory the Narrative Paradigm. We reason, value and act according to internal worlds formed and shaped by stories—by narratives rooted in the experiences stored in our brains.

For strategic communicators, this is good news, as every story has the same structure: setting, character, plot. I fail to see why we should rely on a content structure fashioned for the telegraph and perfectly suited to an extinct publishing world when we have such a powerful alternative at our disposal.

4 thoughts on “Prefer narrative structure to the inverted pyramid

  1. I wholeheartedly agree with you. Let me know when you tackle legal writing, which I hope is undergoing a small revolution. One nit that I must pick: Why (in the text under the photo) use the gerund asserting, instead of the noun, assertion? Don’t tell me that it’s parallel structure; reporting is both a gerund and a noun.

  2. I would prefer a combination. I would like to know the basic details first – and then the story. Some stories are worth my time, some aren’t. There is a lot of content out there, so it’s nice to know the gist of the thing before spending a lot of time with the narrative.

    • Margaret, understood. But narrative structure can be super short. Setting, characters, plot (moving from current state to end state) can happen in just a handful of sentences. My problem with the inverted pyramid is the important-to-less-important-to-least-important structure. I’m not sure one would choose that structure unless there were good reason to do so. There definitely was in an era of different tools. Now? Not so much, imho.

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