Within most newsrooms, it’s easier to get someone to sit down with a young reporter and explain how to look at a city budget than it is to have someone explain how to construct a scene. You can find 10 reporters who can tell you how to fill out a FOIA request, but you’re out of luck when it comes to locating just anyone who can help you with the muddled middle section of your narrative.
At some papers, you’ll be lucky and stumble upon an editor who has taken time to learn the narrative language so you can work and grow together. But don’t count on that. For the most part, narrative writing is a lonely journey.
In past columns, I’ve stressed how there is no secret to becoming a better writer. The bookshelves are lined with reading material that claim to have the secret. But they often remind me of those infomercials about real estate investing with no money down. You’ve seen them late at night: Some guy was in debt but now owns $1.5 million in real estate because of the “system” he bought.
Reporters who are making the leap from features to narrative often gravitate toward templates, systems or exercises at the back of a book. Understandably, they believe it’s a safety net in the same way that a budding blues guitarist hones the pentatonic scales so he can jam even if he isn’t sure what note he’s playing.
By it’s very nature, narrative writing is confusing. There is no clear-cut story structure in the way there is in a news story about a two-car fatality. There are hundreds of ways to open a narrative, each of them potentially great. That’s freedom, but that’s also scary because no writer wants to make the wrong choice.
But the best and most powerful stories emerge by combining what the writer reports and what the writer feels. That’s what gives authenticity to the narrator’s voice and power to the story. The best stories don’t follow a schematic diagram. They follow a road map forged in the heart and soul.
What influences those parts of yourself is what you read. Too many reporters read their own newspaper — and nothing else. If you want to be a narrative writer, you better start reading fiction, nonfiction, magazines, song lyrics and even poetry. I left poetry to the end because that’s the last thing I typically read.
But recently I was thinking about how much poetry and good narrative writing have in common. They must be precise. Each word matters. To people who don’t practice the craft, a poem or narrative looks easy. And, most importantly, poems and narratives should make an emotional connection with the reader and unlock what is already in the reader’s heart. That connection — not the beauty of the words on the page — is what gives narrative writing its power.
About 10 years ago, I was at a writers conference and ended up talking with a poet, a man named Peter Davison. I told him I didn’t read much poetry because I didn’t understand it. Even so, I bought one of his books. He signed it, “Congratulations on losing your virginity.”
That night I read one of his poems. The power and mystery of “The Passing of Thistle” has stuck with me ever since. From time to time I pull the book out of the shelf and read the poem, first as reader, then as a writer who wants to learn.
The poem is about the death of the family dog, but Davison writes about something much more than that. Screenwriters like to talk about something being “on the nose,” which means that the scene as written does not leave any room for art to emerge -– we’re telling the viewer too much, not letting the viewer enjoy the discovery.
Look what Davison does in this poem — what he says and what he doesn’t say — and see how that sense of mystery allows you to enter his poem and bring your own life’s experiences to the poem. He touches on growing old, children, divorce, loneliness and friendship without ever using those words. Readers sense those thoughts and understand them in their hearts. That connection is what makes the poem powerful. It gives the reader the gift of discovery. That’s what makes a narrative story in the newspaper powerful — not the words on the page, but the feelings behind the words.
So read this section of the poem and ask yourself why it works and how you can apply some of the poet’s techniques to your next feature. He is never on the nose.
The children who had grown up while she watched
were patient, watching her as age declined
from sleepiness to blindness, deafness and
incontinence. Before her last collapse
she lived her life entirely through the nose
and sense of touch. And as they watched her sleep,
they saw their childhoods disappearing with her,
and by so much ceased a little to be children.
I who had shared, in my two-legged way,
in what I could grasp of her doggy memories,
knew we had lived through all the same affections,
felt the same losses, searched through an empty house
for someone who would never be returning,
brooded on sights and voices that had vanished.
Tom Hallman is a Pulitzer Prize-winning senior reporter for The Oregonian. He can be reached at email@example.com
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