Many editors and reporters think only of big projects and multipart series when they consider narrative possibilities. While those are obvious vehicles, they miss opportunities that come in the form of routine assignments. For reporters and editors new to narrative, these mundane assignments are fertile ground. Most of these will be short pieces, usually 1,500 words or less and won’t require more than a day to report and write. And because they fall below the newsroom radar, there’s not as much pressure to perform as you learn new skills.
As we previously said, you need to be reading and starting to think like a storyteller. When you get an assignment, always look for the opportunity to tell a story. Sometimes, a straight news approach is warranted. But there are times when incorporating narrative techniques can make a story sparkle. But it all starts with being alert to possible stories.
A few years ago, for example, Tom was working the Sunday shift. He knew his assignment would be to cover the graduation ceremony at one of the local colleges. It’s an annual story, one played out in cities across the country. The story that typically starts out something like this: “Nearly 1,000 students graduated Sunday during a ceremony … .”
Who reads those reports? No one. Again, the key is to look for a story. Two days before the ceremony, Tom called the school’s public relations department to ask about graduates. He knew he could do the routine story, but wanted to see if there was a possibility for something better. The PR person mentioned there was an older student in the graduating class. Tom asked for the telephone number and called the student. He sensed a nugget of a story and said he’d come to the student’s home on Sunday, interview him and then go cover the ceremony.
The reporting began when he drove to the home. In his opening, you see his reporting, which gives the story its structure. And remember, narrative grows directly from good reporting.
The house is just outside of Portland, the last one on the right side of the street, not too far from the freeway and just across from a self-service carwash. Patches of moss cover part of the roof, some of the siding is missing and the grass hasn’t been mowed in weeks. With each knock, the front-door glass rattles and threatens to fall out of the frame.
The man who answers the door has hands that are tough and calloused. The hands of a man who uses them to work. On this Sunday morning, he wears a suit he bought a day earlier at a used-clothing store for $8. He borrowed a blue tie with red stripes from a friend. The white shirt and the black wingtips are his. He bought them at what he calls a real store, a good store. He pulls them from his closet only when he goes to church. Or for special occasions.
“This is where I study,” says Juan Morales as he leads the way to the kitchen, which has cracked counter tops and a sagging floor. Next to the microwave is a stack of World Books published in the 1960s. He bought the set at a used bookstore. When he eats, Morales randomly selects a volume and reads. He does not care what he reads. Any subject will do.
“I wasted too many years,” he says. “Too many years dreaming, wandering, not doing anything.”
He shakes his head.
“Let me show you something,” he says.
He walks into the living room and points to a dirty wall that needs paint. Earlier this morning, he pounded a nail into the wall.
“That,” he says, “is where the diploma will hang.”
He nods firmly.
“That wall,” he says. “That nail.”
We have a character and details – an $8 suit, a borrowed tie and World Books from the 1960s – that reveal something about that character. And it’s all based on reporting. Tom asked specific questions about the suit and tie. He opened one of the World Books to see when it was published. The opening is told scenically. There is movement as the reader embarks on a journey, into this house and world, and it ends with a very specific detail – a nail – that builds on the story’s emerging theme.
The body of the story is structured chronologically. The reader learns about Morales background as he prepares to get ready to leave his house for the ceremony. The reporting is transparent:
“I wanted my mother there to watch,” he says. “In March, she went to the U.S. Embassy for a visa. My family and I all chipped in for an airline ticket for her. Tonight, I plan on taking her to dinner.
“The money?” he asks.
He smiles and rolls up his right shirt-sleeve. He points to a dark spot on his skin.
“I am very familiar with the plasma clinic,” he says. “I got $25 yesterday. We will use the money for dinner.”
As he reported, Tom had a clear theme in mind – a theme revealed by Morales. That allowed Tom to report in a different way, looking for details that build on the theme and allowed the story to end on an emotional note that resonated with readers. As you read this ending, look at what the details reveal about the man and this day.
As he pulls into the campus, a Latino security guard spots Morales and gives him a thumbs up. He stops Morales, shakes his hand and then pounds on the roof of his car. The guard can’t stop smiling. Morales parks his Datsun 210 next to a Volvo and joins the hundreds of young graduates making their way to the student center.
“I know every single office on this campus,” he says. “I cleaned every one of them.”
In the student center, he goes to the restroom to wash his hands. He looks at himself in the mirror, in his cap and gown.
“I cleaned this bathroom,” he says. “Me, Juan Morales.”
He adjusts his cap and joins the other graduates. He receives his material and learns that he will be student No. 247 out of 404 to receive a degree this Sunday. He clutches his number close to his chest and walks away, quickly swallowed up by a roiling sea of black.”
That story took less than two hours to report and write. It began as a routine assignment but became something better not because of the writing, but because the reporter was alert to the possibility of a story. And that mundane assignment turned out to be part of a package that won the Scripps-Howard Ernie Pyle Award in 2000 for Human Interest Writing.
Tom Hallman Jr. is a Pulitzer Prize-winning senior reporter for The Oregonian. Kathleen Gorman is an assistant team leader in one of The Oregonian’s suburban bureaus.