4 Theme

“There’s a resurgence of narrative in the last few years, […] and maybe that’s because we no longer in journalism have information as our primary currency […], so I think what we have to do is look more and more for ways to provide meaning.” 

– Jacqui Banaszynski

Learning Objectives

The learning objectives for this chapter are as follows:

  • To draw connections between the element of fiction, theme, and the strategies and techniques available in narrative journalism.
  • To understand the key concepts of ‘angle’ and ’scope’ as they relate to narrative journalism.

As discussed in the previous chapter, oftentimes for us to be interested in stories, we must be able to find meaning in them. This can happen in a variety of ways, and considering how diverse and varied readership is of any piece of fiction or nonfiction, much of the extracted meaning of a story is dependent on the individual reader. That is not to say the journalist doesn’t have a role in the “shape” of the meaning. On the contrary, everything the journalist includes in the story will be for some purpose, and that purpose, though it may shift at different points in the creation process or even the story itself, that initial purpose or meaning is what provides the foundation of meaning for the entire story. This is often referred to as the “theme” and/or “message.”

The difference between the two, theme and message, is an important one, however. Theme refers to general ideas about the human experience: love, jealousy, greed, beauty, vulnerability, etc. The message is what a writer wants to say about a particular theme through the vehicle of the story. In fiction, there are few rules in terms of theme and message and the author’s purpose and manner of conveying that purpose.

In narrative journalism, as has been discussed at length in Chapter 1: Ethics, we have more to consider than simply what we, the journalist, want to say and the meaning we want to impart. That being the case, I use the following two terms to discuss theme and message as they apply to narrative journalism: angle and scope.

Angle and Scope:


The angle is most simply defined as the journalist’s perspective on the subject/story subject, or what exactly the journalist wants to communicate. Now this can manifest in a variety of ways, but as Fernanda Santos explains to her story subjects, “your story will filter through me, and will be constructed with other reporting beyond what you tell me, it will be constructed with who I am, with everything that I have lived, because all of that also influences the way we approach storytelling, the way we ask people and how much we listen and how we listen and how we put things together.” This quote is completely tied into angle. We decide what information is important enough to put into a story, we choose the narrative structure, we find meaning in the stories we report on and in the people within those stories, and all of that put together influences our perspective, and that is what we put forth to our readers.


Scope refers to the narrative scope of the article. How much narrative will be woven into your article is an important consideration because our stories come to life through the narrative, but we cannot reconstruct entire lives on the page for our readers. We must choose how much narrative to include based on what interactions we have with the story subject(s). The narrative scope should involve the journalist, as that sort of hands-on reporting is essential in bringing scenes and characters to life. The scope may differ depending on the project type and length. A classic character profile might have a narrative scope of a single meeting. Narrative journalists working on book length manuscripts might report for years, and those years of reporting form the narrative scope. For example, Adrien Nicole LeBlanc spent ten years reporting on a Puerto Rican family in the Bronx and their struggles in a small but intricately woven community in her book, Random Family.

Let’s take a look at a couple of student examples and how they explore these concepts of angle and scope. In the first example, Shaza Maatouk presents us with a very compelling Humans of New York style character snapshot with a clear angle:

Example 1

Shaza Maatouk

“A talent is something you are born with. A skill is something you acquire over many years of training, practice, and hard work. I am not talented, I am skilled. From a very young age, I knew that I wasn’t very book smart. I always wanted to enhance the creativity within me and take it to a whole new level. After finding out that magic was my passion, I decided that I was going to become a magician. I didn’t know how I was going to do it or when that was going to happen but, before I knew it, I was a so-called “beginner magician.” It’s been 13 years since I performed my first show. Fortunately, this journey has taught me several things. Most importantly, it taught me how to believe in myself more than anyone else. So, hone your craft, do what you love, and don’t let anything stop you!”

The image and the quote worked perfectly together to articulate a very specific aspect of the story subject. Shaza wants to communicate the story subject’s passion for magic. The quote and the image capture this almost obsession for and devotion to this creative art form.

In the next example, Madelyn Vasbinder shares a character sketch of her mother:

Example 2

Madelyn Vasbinder

COMP 310

Professor Wielechowski

7 Feb 2021

Project 1B Revision

2007. The basement light was off over her head, just the lamp over her desk stayed on, lighting up her work space. It saved money in electricity, or so she thought. She yawned, moving around the piece of fabric to find the right positioning for it before she sewed it on. The clock behind her head read 1:24. It wasn’t the afternoon. She had work in the morning, a paper due after that. Dinner to make before that. But for right now, for this mid-October evening, she had to sew. Sew little pieces of clay onto tulle fabric, sew that tulle fabric onto the skirt she’d made two days before. She’d baked the pieces of clay yesterday, so they were cured now. On her break at work, between bussing tables, she had poked small holes into the tops of the clay pieces to make it easier to sew them on. Still, she hoped they looked like teeth. Who would the Tooth Fairy be without teeth?

Her notes from sociology class were stacked on either side of the old sewing machine she’d gotten from her grandmother, her mémé. The most recent notes were opened in front of her, just next to the sewing machine. She read them as she sewed. She’d gotten home from class just after 10, cleaned up the mess from the dinner she hadn’t been home to eat, and then began sewing. MercyMe’s I Can Only Imagine played in the background as she worked. She hadn’t even noticed the time and probably wouldn’t until she was done with this part of the project. That was okay, though. It wasn’t for her anyways. Her daughter wanted to be the Tooth Fairy for Halloween. And homemade costumes were better.

        _                _                _

2013. 10:45 at night. I’m in bed and I hear the front door close downstairs. I know who it is because I know her schedule, so I rush down to the kitchen. Her back is turned from me, she’s wearing a cardigan with her black, curly hair up in a bun to keep it out of her face. She probably put it up around noon. She’s wearing my winter boots, we’ve been the same size now for years even though I stand 3 inches taller than her at 5 foot 5. Her bags- filled with books, papers, her work laptop and her school laptop- are sitting on the kitchen island. She’s sorting through the bags of food and I can smell the grease from across the room.

“How was class?” I ask her.

“It was good. Busy, I’ll tell you in a minute. What’d you ask for, again?” She responds.

I make my way over and grab the fries and milkshake I’d ordered. She picked it all up on her way home. My brothers are already sitting at the island eating. I sit down next to them, picking up fries as I turn to face her. Like usual, we all sit at the island on one side while she stands on the other side. We eat as she tells us about her day. Getting our youngest brother- who is asleep upstairs- ready this morning, then work, stopping at her internship on her lunch break, and finally class in the evening. We respond with similar summaries of our days. And we chat like this for about thirty minutes before each of us slowly makes our way back up to bed. Starting, of course, with me and my brother who are both in our low teens. She tells me- years later- that she never slept right after these conversations, which were a verycommon occurrence, but instead would clean, do homework, or do regular work. She was always working overtime, at work, at home, at school.

        _                _                _

2021. My mother was a single mother from the time I was 4. She always worked full time and yet she always made the time to care for her kids. She was always there to cook dinner and when she wasn’t, she’d prepare food and leave it in the fridge for my older siblings to reheat. I never went without, none of my siblings ever went without. And she always thanked God.

Even now, sitting down to interview her for this project, she reminds me to thank God. Her diplomas, one from her Bachelor’s degree- which she got when I was still young enough to trick or treat- and the other from her Master’s degree, which she got when I was old enough to stay up past 10, sit on the shelves above her desk. We sit at her desk while we speak, as I ask my questions and as she gives her answers. We’ve just finished dinner. She made pasta and made the separate meal of gluten free pasta for her and I to split (I inherited Celiac from her, and she will always feel bad for this. Gluten free cookies that she bought me sit next to me as I write this, I did not ask for them. I got home one day and she’d set them on my bed as a small surprise, though she does this at least once a month.). She cooks, even now, every single night. Or… most nights. I’ve convinced her over the years that she doesn’t have to cook for her children every night, that as adults (or teenagers) we won’t starve. She still isn’t fully convinced, and really will only skip cooking if there are leftovers from something she’d made the night before still sitting in the fridge. Though there usually aren’t.

And she still sews. She altered some pants for me just earlier this month. I bought them because they were on sale, couldn’t try them on because the dressing rooms were closed, and when I got home, she asked to see them on. She revels in everything her children do, even to the point of still asking to see all the clothes I buy myself. So, I tried them on and they were slightly loose. She had me give them to her and she took in the waist. She also sews as a hobby, she spends most weekends in her sewing room (which is our former formal dining room). For Christmas each year, most everyone gets a homemade present (homemade is better). This year it was blankets. Last year it was stockings- custom made with our names embroidered on the cuff- to hang over the fireplace.

She also still works. Full time. But most of us, her children, are grown up now. My youngest brother, who is almost a decade younger than I am, is now almost a teenager. And she has remarried since, to my step father.

She’s not quite as busy as she once was, and she’s no longer in school. But she still is every last bit the hardworking mother she has always been, perhaps too much, for her own sake. She still loves everything her children do. And her children still love everything that she does.

Madelyn communicates a very clear angle about her story subject, which is captured in the final paragraph: her mother is a remarkably hardworking, devoted mother. What is particularly effective in this example is Madelyn’s use of scope. While most character profiles revolve around a single encounter with the story subject, Madelyn has years to draw from. Yet in order to fully “show” her mother (we’ll get into showing versus telling in the next chapter), Madelyn doesn’t tell her mother’s life story, but instead, she focuses on a couple of rich and vivid scenes that fully immerse us in narrative and bring her mother to life on the page. This is the power and beauty of well-crafted narrative scope.

In the next chapter, we’ll go into more detail about the interconnectedness of angle and scope with showing versus telling. Angle and scope, with the help of showing (and telling when necessary), are instrumental in the craft of narrative journalism.

Media Attributions



Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License

Introduction to Narrative Journalism Copyright © 2021 by Benjamin Wielechowski is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Share This Book