A few weeks ago I had to sub for the paper’s court reporter, who needed time to finish writing her long-term project that was scheduled for the front page. How I covered a sentencing is an example of what you should be doing as you tackle daily stories that are either assignments or part of your beat.
When I get a chance to talk with writers, I say the best approach is to always look for ways to practice narrative techniques in each story, no matter how minor it may seem. That means:
1. Being alert to the scene in front of you. What can you describe that shows meaning?
2. Instead of relying on quotes, is there a way to use dialogue that reveals not only character but propels the story forward?
3. Can you find a structure that allows you to tell a story, something with a beginning, middle and end?
4. Are you looking for a powerful ending?
Working on those four steps will allow you to understand how narrative techniques work in a story, and not in theory.
Here was my assignment: Go to the courtroom and cover the sentencing of a man who had worked out a plea deal. It was a story that could be wrapped up in a brief — just the facts — that would run on an inside page. But it’s impossible for me to turn off my storytelling antenna.
STEP 1: I got to the courtroom and found a seat. Instead of fiddling with my smartphone, I looked around the courtroom. This was my story world. What was going on?
I noticed all these people sitting together. I paid attention.
I realized the victim’s family and the defendant’s family were sharing a bench.
STEP 2: When the mother spoke to the judge, I realized I could use what she was saying in a way that worked as if it were dialogue.
STEP 3: The sentencing wasn’t the important matter. Yes, that was the “news,” and of course I would cover it. But what happened in the courtroom, who was there, what was said and what I observed, pointing it out to readers to make a larger point, had to do with the meaning of the news.
STEP 4: The ending on most of these types of stories typically fades out because the story is front loaded with the “news.” Here, though, the ending was there for the taking. But only if a storyteller was ready to see it and have the confidence to write what he saw.
When you look at portions of this story, you will see that there is nothing in here that you can’t do.
Opening: While waiting for proceedings to start Thursday in a case that the prosecutor later said was the most horrific she’d seen in 14 years, the two families — the victim’s and the defendant’s — quietly shared a single courtroom bench. No one spoke, although when they thought no one was looking, they glanced at each other.
Then the door opened.
And when the defendant stepped inside the room, the victim’s father jumped from his seat, shouted and vowed to kill the man who had impregnated his daughter.
She was 10.
Multnomah County sheriff’s deputies quickly grabbed the father’s arm, escorted him from the courtroom and warned those who remained seated that they’d tolerate no outbursts.
And yet, the anger and pain in the room was palpable.
Look how I take the “facts” of the case, blend observation of what I saw and what took place, and then structure all that into a powerful opening that compelled readers to keep reading to see what happens.
Middle: Yet the girl’s mother, no longer involved with Martinez-Rodriguez, asked to speak to the court. Since coming into the courtroom earlier in the morning, she’d been glancing at her cell phone. There, in the screen, was a picture of her little girl. In the small, color photo, the girl was smiling. The mother snapped the phone closed, stood and walked to a microphone.
“You took her innocence from her,” she said. “I feel helpless I can’t give it back to her. She never hurt anybody — ever.”
Martinez-Rodriguez sat like a rock.
In the back of the room two girls, about 10, who’d been brought into the courtroom with the defendant’s family and supporters cried.
I noticed the mother kept looking at her phone. When the sentencing was over, I asked her what she was looking at. That’s the power of observation and the guts to ask a question.
Also look at how I blend other characters in the courtroom to make a larger point, and how I used short sentences to add to the pace and drama.
Closing: When it was time to take Martinez-Rodriguez out of the courtroom, the deputies huddled. They told everyone to remain seated in the courtroom while they whisked him away through the judge’s chambers. As they turned Martinez-Rodriguez around, they spotted his new girlfriend and 3-year-old daughter sitting at the far end of the bench.
“I love you,” he whispered to them.
Deputies grabbed him and led him away.
“I hope you burn in hell,” the victim’s mother screamed. Martinez-Rodriguez did not react. And then the door to the chamber closed.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org, on Twitter @thallmanjr or his website tomhallman.com later in 2011.