On Jan. 24, a gunman walked along a downtown Portland, Ore., street and opened fire. He shot into a crowd of high school girls ready to enter an underage nightclub, killing two and wounding seven others before taking his own life by sticking the handgun under his chin and pulling the trigger.
I want to share the process of how I got the story — reported and written in a matter of hours — because it serves as a vivid reminder of the first lesson when it comes to narrative: Good writing depends on good reporting.
By reporting I mean using shoe leather and ingenuity, getting people to talk with you, listening — not simply for quotes, but for clues that let you into the soul of the story. Reporting means thinking on your feet, asking questions that grow out of your curiosity and ability to read your character and the moment.
My job was to see if I could get an interview with a nightclub employee. A witness had reported that this young man had performed CPR on a girl who died. I wandered down to the nightclub.
The place was closed, so I stopped in at a nearby store and talked to the kid behind the counter. He told me that the corporation that owned the club had an office in a building six blocks away. When I arrived, I found the doors were closed. But I noticed a number to call in case of an emergency. I reached a secretary who promised to pass the message on to her boss.
When he called, he was reluctant to contact his employees. He said they were healing. But he mentioned that they’d be meeting at the nightclub that evening. Of course I went.
I started talking, taking notes but building a relationship. I asked Cole McCarrel about his background. I asked him to put me there with him that night.
Over the thumping music, disc jockey Cole McCarrel recognized the sound. Pop, pop, pop.
“I live in the country,” he said. “I know gunfire.”
There’s nothing fancy there, nothing over-written. Get to the point, but don’t tell it as if you are writing a run-of-the mill news story.
I learned the employees had come to the club because a Portland cop who also worked as a police bureau counselor was coming to talk.
That gave me my opening: Tell me about it.
They hugged one another, talked, sighed and hugged some more. Sometimes, they stopped in mid-sentence to gather their thoughts.
That’s not telling, that’s showing, letting readers be there with me.
Now I had a story structure. I began looking for the moment that would end the story. I needed a moment that revealed something about McCarrel and that night. The ending had to have the power of the opening. Here’s the last third of the story.
“All around me, people were screaming,” he said. “All I focused on was breathing for her.”
McCarrel worked for several minutes.
“I heard this dying breath,” he said. “I told her to hang on. Just hang on …”
He caught himself.
“I was holding her chin,” he said. “Then it was over. Just like that.”
The paramedics arrived and tried to revive her, he said. It was not to be. On Monday night, McCarrel and his buddies walked back into The Zone. Clayton, the officer, was ready to start the meeting.
But McCarrel had one more thing to say. He walked back to the front door and stared outside through the door’s window.
“I was holding her chin,” he said. “I had one hand under her head.”
He stumbled over his words.
“The image will stay with me forever,” he said. “I couldn’t sleep the first two days. I kept seeing her. I won’t be the same after this. I’ll get back to normal, but it will be a different kind of normal. This isn’t something you forget.”
He looked out the door’s window again.
“I was holding her head,” he said. “I was telling her to hold on. I was looking into her eyes just telling her to hold on.”
He turned away with a sigh.
Upstairs, Clayton was waiting.
Did it work?
Well, 30 minutes after the story was posted online, I received this e-mail from a reader: “man i am in tears as i write this. you wrote it well.”
I’d like to think it was reported well.
To read the full version, go to tinyurl.com/d2p268.