On the Inverted Pyramid Story

by F.

Doubtless you’ve heard of the “inverted pyramid” story in which the important stuff comes at the “top” of the story (the beginning) and then the rest comes in order of decreasing importance.

The journalistic lore is that this style allowed editors to cut from the bottom to save space. (Others say the style started with telegrams in the United States Civil War in the 19th century. If the telegraph lines went down, then at least the first, most important part of the story would go through.)

The purpose of the inverted pyramid structure is a good one: first things first. Don’t expect a reader to continue reading. Give them the news up front, supporting material later.

Above, you’ll see my gloss on the inverted pyramid. Really, there need not be a pyramid (really a triangle) at all. Only the sloped line on the right side of the diagram is needed. The dotted lines file in what would be a triangle made using that line.

And how can we compare the importance of stories (that is, the relative importance of each point made in the story)? By graphing them and comparing. Movement to the right means the story is, overall, more informative. (Story 2 is, overall, more important than Story 1.)

What are the points on the line? They are the points of the story. The first point, the most important one, comes first—that’s the point in the upper right corner of the triangle. The last point, the least important one, comes last—that’s the point at the bottom of the triangle.

Think about a story that has the same level of importance from “top” to “bottom.” What would that look like? A vertical line. That story would, I think, be hard to read since the reader wouldn’t know what to focus on.

Think about a story that starts with something really important, then moves to irrelevancies. The slope of that story-line would be flatter, closer to horizontal.

Do sections, paragraphs and sentences have the same structure? Sections might, but paragraphs and sentences have another property: often the important stuff comes at the end. So that doesn’t really fit the diagram.