I recently had a reason to re-read a story from my past. What I came away with was a realization of just how much the narrative landscape has changed in the past few years. Those of us who want to write narratives in newspapers are going to have to adapt if we want to keep this powerful storytelling form alive.
The story was one of my best. It ended up being a Pulitzer Prize finalist for feature writing in 1999. And it was what I’d call pure narrative. There were no quotes. The piece was told scenically. There was no nut graf.
And it was long — more than 7,000 words.
As good as that story was, I doubt it would — even could — run that way today. The world has changed. In 1999, I had three open pages for photographs and text to tell Gary Wall’s story. That kind of available space reminds me of the good ol’ days when gas was $1.25 a gallon.
Aside from space, I also had the luxury of time. Even though I juggled other stories while reporting the piece, I was still able to be a fly on the wall, dropping in and out of Wall’s life, letting the story guide me.
The editor’s note that ran with the story put it this way: Hallman examined police files, medical records and family documents. He talked with neighbors, friends, family and co-workers. For the next 18 months, he entered Wall’s world as Wall struggled to find and build a new life.
Think of that, 18 months.
Narrative story telling, in the best and broadest meaning, will always require time and space. A narrative with a powerful story arc demands a level of commitment that’s precious in this new age.
I went, for example, to Wall’s athletic club and to his doctor’s appointments. I was there when he ate his breakfast and dinner, and when he cleaned the apartment. I tagged along at singles functions at Wall’s church and sat in on interviews with counselors and job coaches. Then I put it all together in a piece titled “A life lost … and found.”
As I looked at the piece recently, I challenged myself to see how I could tell that story in today’s world. I came away with several lessons that you can apply to your work, even if you’re not about to tackle a 7,000-word project.
The first lesson is focus.
If I have 1,500 or 2,000 or 3,000 words to tell a story, you’re going to have to tell a different kind of story.
That’s going to force yourself to ask what’s the essence of the story? That’s your first order of business, the question you need to be asking yourself as you report. How can you tell this story in the tightest way possible without sacrificing the story?
Put bluntly, what parts of the story — while good and interesting — can you eliminate? I’m not talking about a few paragraphs here and there, the kind of cutting we do when polishing a story. I’m talking about using rigor on the front end, being ruthless from the start.
What I discovered while doing an autopsy on the Gary Wall piece was that I had several small stories, each one full of narrative possibilities that could be told in a length that could get them in today’s paper.
The basic story is this: Wall, a former executive at an insurance company, had been severely injured in a car crash. In addition to broken bones, he suffered a traumatic brain injury that left him with a loss of short-term memory. After a long recovery, he’d gone back to work at the insurance company, but as a janitor who cleaned the lunch room.
By the time I heard about him, he’d just been fired from the job because of his short-term memory problems. That’s when I started the reporting. I discovered he lived in a barren apartment covered with post-it notes reminding him to do the most basic things: Turn off the lights, make sure the stove is off, and turn on the dishwasher.
That’s a story, a haunting tale that doesn’t have the resolution of the larger piece, but it still has the heart of a story. If I took that approach, I’d eliminate a long section about the accident and his recovery and aftermath. I’d use my narrator’s voice, sum it up and then get back to the story I wanted to tell.
I also discovered a wonderful smaller story that details the relationship between Wall and his doctor. It’s a story that could be told scenically and explore the themes of hope and the human side of medicine.
A third story dealt with Wall and his efforts to find a new job. He spent time with his counselor and a support group made up of men and women who’d been disabled on the job and were rebuilding their lives. Again, all of it could be told scenically.
This type of narrative storytelling requires discipline up front, not just during the writing stage. A story can no longer just be “interesting” or a possible “project.” Every word in the piece must move the story forward.
In future columns, I want to explore smaller pieces and how to make them come alive through reporting, structuring and writing.
As an exercise, find a long story that you like. Now, go through it and see what smaller stories exist within the larger body of work.