More from Joe Bob Briggs, The Hurricane Algorithm:
Okay, once you get your quotes, you’re gonna write one of two stories:
1. BIBLICAL PROPORTIONS.
2. SWATH OF DESTRUCTION.
At first I didn’t understand the difference between the two.
Biblical Proportions is body bags. You need a high death toll. The gold standard is Galveston 1900: so many bodies they couldn’t count them accurately, probably upwards of 10,000. You need a hurricane for that headline—no tornado is ever gonna get those numbers. You can also do a Biblical Proportions story with, say, an influenza epidemic, but it doesn’t have the same punch because people die too slowly. Hurricanes are news-cycle-friendly. Without quite saying it, you write the story to imply that God smote us. The Almighty visited Four Horsemen on Texas in the form of Death, Famine, Pestilence, and Destruction. You can actually make up new names for the Four Horsemen, like Grantland Rice did in the most famous sports lead of all time, because nobody remembers what it actually says in the Bible.
But usually you don’t get a pure Biblical Proportions story. I found this out the hard way when I covered a tornado that had zero dead bodies—it actually went through a highly populous area without killing anyone—and so at the end of the day the city editor threw a bunch of notes on my desk and wanted me to write the lead, and I attempted to write a forbidden headline:
DODGED A BULLET.
My amazingly inspirational Dodged a Bullet prose failed to find any support with my boss. God pulling us all into his protective bosom was poison at the newsstands. In fact the editor was fairly peeved that I would presume to “minimize the enormous property damage that occurred.” He insisted that the lead be changed to Swath of Destruction.
First of all, what is a swath?
Has there ever been a swath of anything except destruction? What if there was a swath of wonder? What if the lead said, “A swath of wonder descended on North Texas as hundred-mile-an-hour winds ripped the roof off of a really ugly church that we’ll be able to rebuild, with better imagination this time, thanks to the insurance money.”
He was having none of it. “Swath of destruction” was decreed and swath of destruction it remained, in 60-point Bodoni Bold.