From the moment a student walks into a journalism class in college, he’s told to worship at the altar of the quote. The quote, it seems, is all that matters.
The indoctrination continues after graduation, at the first paper where the quality of a story is too often judged on whether the reporter returned to the newsroom with a notebook full of what the assistant city editor likes to call “good quotes.”
Over time, the reporter starts to build his stories around the quote.
The interviews, the way the reporter listens and asks questions, even the way he structures a story are all devised with one purpose — get a good quote.
That’s the wrong approach, and it leads to problems when the news writer decides to branch into feature writing or narrative nonfiction. Quotes then become landmines that can stop readers in their tracks, or muck up a story in the same way an errant note destroys a guitar solo.
When it comes to features, the quote is not only misunderstood, but frequently misused. And when it comes to helping shape narratives and feature stories, the quote is under-utilized as a way to help tell a story scenically — the building block of a true story, not a news story. That would seem to make no sense. I’m saying we use too many quotes, and yet, I seem to be saying we don’t use enough of them. That’s right.
In too many of our stories we see flat quotes that repeat the obvious.
This, for example, ran in a nice feature story about walking. One paragraph mentions that walking in the dark and on ice can be dangerous.
Then we get a quote: “It’s too dark that early in the morning to see black ice.”
Or we get quotes that almost seem like the writer wasn’t sure what to do next, so he thumbed through the notebook and looked for the life preserver — the reliable quote.
What is the purpose of a quote? A quote can convey factual information, give the reader a sense of the character’s voice and, in some cases, provide meaning in a way more powerful than can the writer.
To tap into the power of the quote, however, you must begin to interview differently and ask questions that probe below the surface.
The best stories are about something, not just a compilation of facts.
When a story has meaning, it resonates with readers. The best quotes, then, reveal meaning, rather than convey simple facts.
To illustrate this, imagine a homicide scene. The street cop takes the call and shows up at the house. He gets the pertinent information, the facts: The victim’s name and age, and the names of any witness. It’s the Joe Friday approach.
Then he turns the case over to a detective, who approaches the scene much differently. The street cop deals with the who, what, where and when. Much like a straight news reporter.
The detective deals with the “why,” asking different kinds of questions and making different observations.
If you want to write narrative, you must approach your interviews like a detective. You need to learn to listen for the quotes that serve a deeper meaning.
When you write what I call a pure narrative, it’s unlikely you’ll use any quotes. Dialogue, yes. But quotes interfere with that dream state we like to create for a reader, allowing them to enter the character’s story world and lose themselves there. A quote, no matter how terrific, interrupts the story flow and is only jarring.
But in feature stories that are built structurally and use narrative techniques, the right quote can work as a transition between scenes. But it must be the right quote, used at the right place in the story.
I recently wrote a story about a mother who gave birth to quintuplets.
Two of the babies died, and after months in the hospital the mother was taking her three surviving babies back home to start a new life.
While interviewing her, I asked all the obvious questions: How was she feeling? What had the last few months been like? What was it like to go back home?
During the interview I was doing two things: Getting the facts and listening carefully for the quote that revealed what was going on below the surface.
I don’t use flat quotes, statements that I, as a writer can summarize. I’m looking for something powerful, like a detective studying a crime scene. If you’re not looking, you won’t find it.
At one point, one of the babies cried, and the mother went to the next room to check on her children. As she stood, she said something to me that was a perfect quote. As soon as she said it, I wrote it down and then circled it in my notebook because I knew it would be a perfect way to end a scene in the story.
This is how it appeared in the story.
She stood and went to check on her children.
“In Grants Pass,” she said. “I’ll be a mom.”
That’s the end of the scene. There’s a break, and the story picks up when she returns to the living room.
The story is more of a traditional feature than a narrative, but the power of that quote, and others sprinkled through the story, resonate with readers to give the story the emotional heft of a narrative.
“I’ll be a mom” is what the story is about, and the character says it better than I ever could as a writer.
I end the story with a quote I jotted down while standing with the mother while she watched her sleeping children. As soon as she said it, I knew it was where I wanted to end the story when I got back to the newsroom and began writing.
“These little guys have had to deal with a lot,” she whispered. “They’re little survivors.”
Tom Hallman is a Pulitzer Prize-winning senior reporter for The Oregonian. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.