Malcolm Gladwell’s Tips for Structuring a Story Like “The Ketchup Conundrum”

Written by MasterClass

Oct 24, 2018 • 3 min read

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Malcolm Gladwell Teaches Writing

A prolific staff writer for The New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell’s books include The Tipping Point, Blink, Outliers, and What the Dog Saw—all of which have enjoyed lengthy runs on the New York Times bestseller list. Gladwell’s writing style features in-depth reporting that challenge current assumptions; a well-known example of this is in his New Yorker article “The Ketchup Conundrum.” According to Malcolm, the question that should drive your writing is always: What is interesting? What do you find interesting as a writer, and what do the people around you find interesting? Just because you set out to accomplish one thing with a story doesn’t mean that you necessarily have to make that thing happen. Diversions and problems that can’t be solved frequently come up. And sometimes their interesting qualities override the original idea.


Think of Writing as Like a Puzzle

Malcolm likes to do jigsaw puzzles. And he likens his writing process to working on a puzzle. He makes the pieces fit, which brings him satisfaction in the same way finishing a puzzle does.

But a story whose pieces fit together too neatly can fail to captivate a reader. The best kinds of arguments are the ones that are imperfect, because the perfect argument is too obvious. When you listen to people talk about things they like, it’s often objects of art that have been done well but not without flaws. Those flaws leave an aftertaste with the reader—and that’s what you want.

Start With One Question

When Malcolm set out to write “The Ketchup Conundrum” story for the New Yorker, he started with one question: Why hasn’t ketchup changed? American grocery stores all carry the standard ketchup in the classic plastic bottle. But over time, other condiments like mustard have changed, beginning with the brand French’s but now including so many varieties, like Grey Poupon, yellow mustard, and dijon mustard. Vinegar has changed. Spaghetti sauce has changed. So what’s going on with ketchup, which, despite dominating American markets, still has not changed? Are the singular options that sit on supermarket shelves really the world’s best ketchup, with no room for improvement?

The man Malcolm eventually focused his story on, Howard Moskowitz, had spent his career studying the way consumers respond to food and its marketing. It turned out that Moskowitz didn’t know anything about why Heinz remains the ketchup Goliath. But it didn’t matter: Here was the smartest guy in the grocery world and he can’t solve this problem. Now it’s a puzzle for the reader to solve.

Pay attention to how he interacts with the story’s central figures—through email, over lunch and coffee, in their places of work. What do you think are the reasons Malcolm chose to include them in this final version of the story? What questions doesn’t this piece answer? Also pay attention to the transitions in Malcolm’s story. How does he signal the end of one idea? How is a new section noted? Count the sections. How many are there?

Use Numbers to Structure

When you sit down to pull a long-form piece together, the challenge can be one of organization. Transitioning between disparate sections and topics can result in clumsy writing. Malcolm numbers each of his sections and lets them stand alone—the numbers will be deleted once the piece is published, and your reader will understand from the structure of your piece that a transitioned has occurred.

Tell a Compelling Story

Here are Malcolm’s top three tips to help structure a narrative and tell a compelling story:

  • Don’t Complete the Puzzle
  • Make Promises You Don’t Keep
  • Number Sections to Connect Disparate Pieces

Finding an interesting story is a little like standing before a blank canvas. A great writer can write on any topic. But how do you pick the right thing? One method is to make a list of things you’re interested in. This list can include questions like: What kinds of television shows do you watch? What are the news stories you find yourself reading? What kind of music do you listen to? What do you like to do on the weekends?

Once you have an interesting question, compile your research and interviews and, like Malcolm, start putting together the story like a big, imperfect puzzle.