I’d like to offer you a challenge — or a bit of advice, if you want to take it that way: Get out of your office during the next two weeks and look at your city or your beat with new eyes.
Your goal should be to find a story that will allow you to put into practice some of the narrative techniques I’ve been discussing in past columns.
By forcing yourself to get out of the newsroom, you’ll start to see real stories — not just news events or the latest inside baseball nonsense that can bog down your beat coverage and fool you into thinking that you’re turning in stories readers want to read.
I wrote this story — “A stop sign with the personal touch” — in July. It’s nothing fancy, no big series. The reporting and writing took just a couple of hours. It’s the perfect example of what you should be attempting.
Find those little gems of stories that would be nothing without narrative. The narrative structure, and way of thinking as you approach the story, is why it works. Discovering the power of structure will allow you to find the so-called “quiet stories” that can pack a punch.
The idea for the piece came to me because I’m open to finding stories that have nothing to do with the news. Each day, I drive home at the end of the day across a bridge that crosses the river that cuts through Portland. The city had embarked on a major construction project on the road below the bridge, and a man with a stop sign was in charge of directing traffic up above.
Each afternoon I noticed the same man at the same place. I got used to seeing him and sensed there was a story there.
Fine, but what kind of story?
Certainly not a news story, unless it was wrapped up into a larger piece about ongoing construction.
How about a traditional feature? Maybe, but not what I would consider a very good story. At best, it would have some kind of scenic opening, but then where would it go? When I told my editor that I wanted to do a story about a man holding a stop sign on the bridge, even he was skeptical.
But by looking at the situation as a potential narrative, I was able to find the story and structure it in a way that made a much larger point for readers.
My thought process: Here is this guy who directs traffic each evening during the week. About 5,000 motorists pass by him each day, making him — as I ultimately wrote in the story — “the metropolitan area’s most recognized anonymous man.” He waves at drivers, and they wave back. I noticed pedestrians stopped to talk to him, so, too, people on their bicycles. Something was going on at the bridge that really had nothing to do with construction work. That “something” became the point of the story. And the person who was best able to say all that was the writer, the narrator.
Here is how I opened the story. Look how the structure and point of view quickly make the story universal.
He showed up about two months ago, just appeared on the street one afternoon and eased his way into the city. No one knew his name or anything about him. But he stuck it out, day after day, shift after shift. Before too long, people got used to seeing his face.
That’s the way it always is with these characters. They slip unannounced into your life and — in a strange way — you start counting on them to always be there. The barista at the coffee shop, the familiar face behind the checkout counter, the security guard at the front desk. Not one of them is doing anything special. They’re just, well, they’re just there.
Our lives intersect for only the briefest of moments. A few words, a nod, a wave. Yet in time they’re subtly woven into the fabric of our daily routines. They offer that elusive sense of community. When they vanish — and most of them do — we miss them.
So, yes, Tom Potter and Rosie Sizer and Nate McMillan are big shots, important and newsmakers in every sense of the word.
What about Arvin Bradley?
Not familiar? He’s the man who holds the stop sign each afternoon at the west end of the Hawthorne Bridge, directing traffic as it heads east.
Ah, that guy.
Let’s analyze that opening.
The first paragraph gives a sense of mystery — someone showing up, an anonymous guy — that I hoped would intrigue the readers.
The second and third paragraphs are the heart of this story — they tell the readers what this story is about in grand, sweeping statements that only the narrator could make. Sometimes the meaning is subtle and unfolds through the story. Sometimes it’s important to hit readers over the head right away. Notice that I have not yet named the subject of the story. That’s because he’s not as important as what he represents. A traditional feature would lead off with Bradley on the job. But that’s not the story. The story is about something much bigger than Bradley and those two paragraphs tell readers that.
The fourth paragraph names people who are well known in Portland: the mayor, the police chief and the coach of the professional basketball team. I play off of that when we finally let the character take center stage. Everything that precedes Bradley’s entrance is the context that readers need to make emotional sense of the story.
Now go find your story.