The great secret about narrative writing, and one that will keep you out of trouble when it comes to ethical issues, is to think of it as narrative reporting. It’s an old message that needs to be repeated — narrative writing is based on a foundation of strong reporting. If you can’t report, if you don’t love reporting, you can’t make it in this business as a narrative writer.
Reporters eager to take the plunge into narrative mistakenly believe that it’s their chance to be a “writer.” That’s when it’s tempting for a novice — with the weight of expectations on his shoulder — to cut corners.
Narrative lives and dies — and finds a home — in a reader’s heart because of the details and structure of the story, not necessarily because of the beauty of the words. Those details should come from the reporter’s notebook, not from his imagination.
To help guide your reporting, ask yourself what the story is about. Not factually what it’s about, but what is the emotional center of the story? Discovering that center is what will allow you to fine-tune your reporting in the field, and to start looking for details that will resonate with your readers.
That seems like an obvious goal. But over the years I’ve enjoyed judging numerous journalism contests, and I frequently discover a better story buried within the one I’m reading. I’ve not been able to talk it over with any of those reporters, but I have a hunch that they didn’t stop and critically analyze the story.
Old-timers — and at 50, I’ll count myself part of that crowd — have a tendency to focus strictly on the facts, almost as if they were writing a police-beat story, and they are oblivious to the emotion surrounding the story. Younger reporters fail to realize that narrative stories require a different kind of reporting.
The writing isn’t bad in these stories I’ve judged. In most of these stories, there are beautiful words and sentences. What’s lacking is an overall narrative structure that makes the piece have an emotional theme.
Getting in the habit of thinking about every story as you report will train your mind to see the heart of the story immediately. That helps when you have to write narrative on the fly for the daily paper.
I’ll give you an example from my own work. In January, one of my editors asked me to go to Pendleton, a town in Eastern Oregon, to see how the townspeople were coping with the deaths of soldiers in the war. During a three-month span, three Pendleton boys had died overseas, including one about a week before I had been assigned the story.
On the flight up to Pendleton, I thought about what the story could be about: A sketch of the town, or maybe vignettes of each boy and his family. My point is that I was thinking about the story, getting my senses ready for when I landed and began reporting.
I met two of the fathers, asked a few questions and then sat back and took a tour of Pendleton with them. I listened and watched, waiting for the heart of the story to emerge. When it did, it guided my reporting and allowed me to think of the structure before I’d written a word on the computer.
When it came time to write, I finished the story quickly because I knew what the story was about.
The story opens with a father waiting for a telephone call from the military. His son’s body is coming home from overseas. He can’t stand sitting at home alone, so he calls another father of a dead boy, and they have lunch together. The second graf sets that scene, the third is the nut graf, the news.
But the four grafs that follow are the heart of the story, and everything that follows in the rest of the piece builds and expands on those four grafs. Every detail is rooted in reality — I saw it or heard it — and linked back to the heart of the story. That’s what gives the story resonance. The details matter.
While death is no less profound or painful in a big city, sheer size dilutes the impact. To strangers, a dead soldier is an unfamiliar name on a newspaper page that will be recycled, a portrait flashed across the television screen before the screen fades to a commercial.
But here, where about 16,000 people live, nearly everyone knows the dead or someone in the extended family. The soldier was “Ray’s grandson” or “Bob’s boy.” The people here refer to the dead as “boys” because the young men were, in a real sense, part of a family connected not through blood, but through place.
The fallen soldier was the second basemen on the Little League team, a classmate in eighth grade, the Eagle Scout in the local troop. He was the kid who worked as an usher at the annual rodeo Round-Up, the tyke who squirmed when the barber trimmed his hair. Each death reverberates along a web that links the young to the old, the wheat ranchers to the cowboys, the men who work with their hands to the men in ties.
Look at the specific details in those four grafs. As you re-read them, ask yourself what images and feelings they stirred within you.
The details — all of which came from reporting — are what moved you. Not the beautiful sentences.
Tom Hallman is a Pulitzer Prize-winning senior reporter for The Oregonian. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org