When writers hear the word “narrative,” they typically think in terms of the end product — a type of story that stands out from the rest of the news. But thinking of narrative concepts in the early stages of reporting allows a writer to breathe life into nearly any piece of writing.
And getting in the habit of always considering narrative from the outset allows you to see stories quickly and find new angles to make what could be a boring story interesting, fun and compelling.
A few weeks ago, my editor and two other reporters on my team gathered to talk about upcoming stories to fill the weekly tab that specializes in Portland’s neighborhoods. The section runs one cover story and then smaller pieces and briefs.
Looking ahead, the editor realized we didn’t have a cover story for an issue three weeks out. A cover story has to have enough heft to be worth 55 inches. So we kicked around ideas. What was affecting the lives of our readers?
These days, it’s gas. I offered to do something on gas. “Something” is a deadly word. You can’t build a story around “something.” Plus, the story had to be narrowly-focused. Fifty-five inches sounds like a lot of space, but not when I’m going to be writing about something so amorphous.
My mind always thinks narrative first. That’s my road map. What did I need for a narrative story? Well, character, place and story world. And some kind of story arc that would show change. I thought about gas and how people related to it, thinking of it in terms of a story.
Here’s what I came up with:
Gas stations once represented freedom. It was the place that people went to fill up the family car so they could go on Sunday drives to nowhere. The destination wasn’t important; it was about being in the car, usually a big old V-8 station wagon.
Right away, you can see how I’ve narrowed the story. It’s not about gas, it’s about gas stations.
So that got me thinking again:
In Portland, gas stations are the one public place where we rub shoulders. A guy can pull into the island with a $50,000 Porsche and be next to a woman in an old beater. Very different lives, but for the moment they’re linked because they’re irritated that they have to pay more than $4 a gallon.
Gas stations represent uncertainty. We want to blame someone for the prices. But who? Take your pick: the White House, environmentalists, cartels, greedy oil companies. But they’re just figureheads. In Portland, where we have to have someone fill our tank, the attendant becomes the face of gas.
So what about a story as seen through the eyes of the attendants?
Now I have a setting and story world: the gas station. I have a nut graf: gas stations represent uncertainty, etc. I have characters: the attendants. And I have action: people coming into the station. Now I know what I want to write about and how to report it.
Narrative thinking also makes my job easier. When I go pitch the story to the guys at a local gas station, I can tell them what I want to write about and why. I make it easy for the station owner to “get” the story and give me permission to hang out at the station. Because I know exactly what I’m looking for, I can focus on reporting scenes that allow readers to see this story world through the eyes of the men who work there. One man, Austin Egland, is the first guide.
“I’ve had people crumple money up and throw it at me when it’s time to pay,” Egland says. “We get people complaining all the time.”
When he started three years ago, gas was $1.63 a gallon. Today — a Tuesday morning in early June — the sign reads $4.07.
“I hear all the stories,” Egland says. “When people pay me, they tell me that years ago they could fill their car for $20.”
He rubs a hand over his close-cropped red hair.
“Tell me about it,” he says with a sigh. “I drive a 1994 Ford Explorer. If I fill it, it costs me $80.”
After a series of raises, Egland makes $9 an hour. After rent, utilities, food, baby sitter — he’s raising a son alone — diapers, phone and gas to drive to work, he figures he ends up with about $7 a week in his pocket. There’s no employee discount. He can’t remember the last time he had enough cash to fill his own tank.
By thinking of this piece as a story, I was also looking for an ending while reporting. I needed a scene that drew the curtain closed on the story world and came back to the theme. Because I was looking for something specific, I was able to capture it when the owner, Scott Peck, went out to raise prices.
Peck walks to the corner of the lot and uses the pole to change the price. Just like that, regular is $4.13 a gallon — up 6 cents in one day.
That night, Damian Thomas, 29, is working one of the islands when a woman in an old van drives in. Her tank is empty. She tells him she has only $1.50.
Thomas pulls a dollar from his own pocket so she can get half a gallon.
She thanks him, cries a bit and then disappears into traffic.
Tom Hallman, Jr., a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter with The Oregonian, is considered one of the nation’s premier narrative writers. During his career, he has won every major feature-writing award, some for stories that took months to report, others less than a couple of hours. The stories range from the drama of life and death in a neo-natal unit, to the quiet pride of a man graduating from college. You can reach him at Tbhbook@aol.com.