When we talk about good writing, it’s easy to get distracted by focusing on the tools we use. Scenes, transitions and narrative arcs, for example, are important. But if you don’t have a story to tell, they’re worthless.
We’ve all had the experience of starting a story and being impressed with the opening scene. And then, after a certain length, wondering what it’s about. Puzzlement gives way to annoyance, and we finally quit reading.
I think that’s why so many editors insist on a “nut graph.” It forces the writer to tell readers what the story is about. But real narrative doesn’t have a nut graph. The entire story is the nut graph, and the meaning comes at the end. Tools are there only to serve the story and are never more important than the story.
What separates the storyteller from the technician is the ability to think. A technician reads every book on writing and can diagram a scene already written to perfection. But in the real world, where stories exist in the fog of life, these writers are often helpless because they don’t see story. And when they don’t get the story, all they have to fall back on is technique.
I recently wrapped up the last of this year’s SPJ Narrative Writing Workshops. One of the things I talk about is story thinking and how it applies in the world where we work. If you approach your job by thinking differently about story, then you’ll discover the story.
One of the students in the Santa Clara program was Daniel Thigpen, 28, in the business for six years and now covering the Stockton, Calif., city hall for the Lodi News-Sentinel. During the daylong workshop, I discussed scene, character and structure, but in the context of story thinking.
When Thigpen returned to the paper the next week, he vowed to start looking for stories he could turn around quickly. His editors, he said, support narrative and will do what it takes to shepherd good work into the paper.
One day this press release crossed Thigpen’s desk:
Congressman Jerry McNerney (CA-11) today announced that, in advance of Memorial Day, a recording session for the Veterans History Project will take place on Friday, May 21st from 4:00 p.m. to 7:00 p.m. at Lodi’s American Legion Hall, located at 320 North Washington Street.
The goal of the Veterans History Project is to collect and preserve the firsthand accounts of American war veterans by archiving video and audio recordings of their remembrances at the Library of Congress.
“I saw that high school students would be doing the recording,” he said. “I thought it would make a good story to watch. My editor said to go for it.”
When he arrived at the event, he thought about the workshop and what makes a story. He decided to look for what he called a “moment.” Thigpen settled in, interviewing one man when he happened to turn around and noticed a girl who was crying. Thigpen had a choice. He could stay with the story he thought he’d write, or he could get up and go find out why the girl was crying.
Thigpen started his story by thinking about technique — capturing a moment — but abandoned it when he was intrigued by something else. He got up and went to meet the girl.
“I walked into my story,” he explained. “What made me get up was that I knew I was witnessing a story, even though I didn’t know what it was. What I learned by doing this was to be flexible and open.”
By trusting his instincts, Thigpen moved from a news piece about an event to a feature story about a moment and, finally, to a story with meaning, one about relationships across generations. Since he knew what the story was about, he was able write scenes that served the story.
Look at his ending, at the “nut graph” and how it is implied so powerfully.
Michael Flowers, 64, said his session might have been the most he’d ever talked about his service. The former Marine did not romanticize his two tours in Vietnam for 18-year-old interviewer Brandy Love.
The carnage he witnessed drove him to drugs and alcohol and cost him three marriages. He was forced to come back to the United States in the middle of the night in civilian clothes to avoid the wrath of war protesters. He described arriving at the remnants of a North Vietnamese attack on civilians and carting away headless bodies.
“Don’t cry,” he told Love. Her eyes were bloodshot as she wiped tears with her sleeves.
Love looked to her classmate who was operating the camera and asked if they were done yet. She had 15 minutes to go.
Love stumbled through a few more questions. Nine more minutes. Flowers cut it short, apologizing several times for upsetting her.
“I’m sorry I made you cry,” he said. “My generation should have cried a little bit for us.”
When it was over, Love was still shaken. Out in the lobby, she said Flowers’ testimony gave her a new appreciation for the sacrifices soldiers make. She was crying again.
“My grandpa was in the Vietnam War, and he won’t talk about it,” she said. “So this gives you some insight.”
Love’s teacher arrived to console her. The teen said she might sit out the rest of the day’s interviews.
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