When most writers are asked what it takes to report and write a great story, they typically focus on elements easily studied and analyzed: plot, scene, character and story arc.
What’s missing is how to “find” a story. Unlike a news story built on a foundation of “news,” or an event, a narrative comes to life only when a writer feels something about a character’s life or situation. A storyteller notices something — an overheard comment in a coffee shop, or the way a person walks down the street. The writer has a feeling, not always fully formed, and uses it as a way to explore that character or that world. Only then does a writer turn to technique, and then simply as a way to let the reader feel that emotion.
When I look at every story of mine that “worked,” I realize that they all started with an emotion.
How did I feel when I walked to school with a boy whose face was so deformed that people assumed things about him? How did I feel when I stepped into a neo-natal unit and watched a nurse fight to save a child’s life? How did I feel when I toured a nursing home for children?
That “feeling” is the storyteller’s fuel. The best storytellers I know can break down a story and talk technique. But it’s the passion for the story that makes writers come to work each day. Narrative is not a “beat” or a series of techniques, but a unique way in which the storyteller uses emotion to see the world.
So what happens when the writer lacks emotion?
I’ve been thinking about that after reading replies to the September/October issue’s column about the veteran reporter — an award-winner writer — feeling discouraged because his editors no longer seemed interested in “stories.”
His work world made it difficult to find meaning in what he did. That lack of emotion led to a loss of story sense and a feeling that coming to the newsroom each day was just a job. His mission, the way he saw it, was to write news stories and find things to post to the paper’s website. He’s enough of a pro that he can do it, but he worried that readers were missing out on good stories. He also felt that he’d lost the passion for what was once almost a calling.
The column touched a nerve with Quill readers, who responded when I asked for advice on what to tell the reporter I called “Phil.”
“Your column about ‘Phil’ hit home with me because his editors sounded just like mine. Many times did I hear my editors say no one is interested in features or narrative writing. Soft news doesn’t sell. It’s boring. It’s filler. It should have been a brief.
“But most times, the only calls I received about my news stories were from readers who wanted to talk about my people stories.”
I called Phil a few days ago to see how he’s doing since we last talked. He told me he is at a career crossroads.
“Our paper is nothing but crime and government from front to back,” he told me. “It’s easy to fill the paper with those stories. The best stories are those that people read and remember weeks later, even months later. I read the stuff in my paper and I don’t think about it the next day.”
Phil said he’s come to the conclusion that his paper no longer cares about narrative, and if he wants to tell stories, he will have to focus on freelance magazine pieces and books, which is what another Quill reader suggested.
“Tell Phil he should do the work he’s paid for as quickly as possible, and do it well, then use the leftover time he earns for the real work he loves and does so well. It is publishable somewhere, and it will serve readers well. A book or quarterly are great ways to do that. I had a boss who told me as long as I did what he paid me to do, he didn’t care what else I did, so I wrote two novels and an anthology of short stories. If Phil’s employer is obsessed with doing mouth-to-mouth resuscitation on a fading format, Phil can spearhead the beast’s evolution. If people like what he does so much, he should gear up enough entrepreneurship to prove it can turn a profit. Phil might be as stuck as his employer … insisting on doing what always worked — or nothing — even after it has stopped working. Thinking of getting out of the business might be a sign he forgot what the business is. Readers and their needs define it, not his boss. The same needs still call.”
My advice — particularly to young writers — is this: Story matters. It’s easy to get discouraged, and difficult to think about finding a story when you’re worried about cutbacks and furloughs.
The reality is that there’s never a perfect moment for narrative. I started while a day cops reporter, turning out at least a story a day from the cop station on everything from car wrecks to fires. If I wanted to write narrative, I had to find time to do it.
Many writers dream of writing magazine pieces or books, but the cold truth is that to attract an editor or agent, you have to know story down cold. That comes with practice, and the best place is a newspaper. The paper needs to be filled seven days a week. Find a story that moves you. Understand it so well that you can explain it to your editor in a couple of sentences. Sure, editors get caught up in breaking news and the Web, but give editors a good story and most will find a way to get it in the paper.
The best piece of advice a reader sent me was this:
“Discouragement and lack of acknowledgement can surely sap one’s drive but must never darken one’s vision. Don’t quit. Advance.”
Cut it out and paste it above your terminal.
Tom Hallman Jr. is a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for The Oregonian. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org