A few months ago, a reporter in another state took me up on an offer to work together on a story. After a few emails, we settled on something. She called and told me about her story structure. I suggested she try something much different, an approach that would allow her to develop a theme.
I told her that I’d read the story she wanted to write. But buried within her draft was another story, one that I thought had real power. I explained what she could do and why. She “got it.” Excited, she set off again and told me she’d send me the story when it ran. A week later I got this message: I chickened out.
When I called, she told me she didn’t have the courage necessary to write the story I’d suggested. She pulled the plug and wrote one that — in her heart — she knew was fine, but not great.
When we talk about narrative/feature writing, we can analyze scenes and structure, but they mean nothing if we as writers don’t start a story with a certain confidence.
I recently turned in a story that required certain courage as I reported, structured and wrote the piece. I struggled with how to tell this story, one that — in many ways — was about nothing. At its core, it was brief. I thought about a more traditional feature approach and even wrote — and re-wrote — an opening to the story that was adequate.
And yet, I knew it was wrong.
So I decided to tell it my way. I didn’t talk over the structure with an editor or show him a working draft. I wrote it, edited it, turned it in and then I went to lunch. The story appeared in the Sunday paper, and each day — for the entire week — it had the most hits on The Oregonian’s website. (Read it here.) The story was shared on Facebook over 26,000 times. I received calls and emails from around the world, and it resulted in an interview with the subject on NPR’s “All Things Considered.”
I believe it was my courage to tell the story the way I felt it should be told, believing that the piece would resonate with readers. Without that courage, it’s a news story. With it, it becomes something more powerful.
I’m not talking about pulling a Hunter S. Thompson. But small touches let the reader know they’re reading something different and that a narrator is present.
Here’s the opening: “When he was 12 years old, the boy did something he only later realized probably hurt his seventh-grade teacher. It was minor — he was, after all, a kid — but in time, when he was older and wiser, he wanted to find this teacher and apologize.”
The phrase “he was, after all, a kid” is a small act of courage. Not only does it tell readers this is a story about something minor, but it reminds readers someone is going to narrate this piece.
In the second section, I go all in by framing this way:
A good feature story is about something universal. When it comes to apologies, no one gets a pass in this life. Everyone deserves one, and everyone needs to give one. When I mentioned this letter to people, I found a story more universal than any that I’d written in years. Everyone told me they had someone they wished they could apologize to. And they told me that by the time they realized that truth, it was too late.
In my case, it was something that has haunted me for decades.
At this point I write about an incident — nearly 50 years ago — as a school kid when I shunned and helped fuel the fire of teasing toward a poor, unpopular girl in my class.
Months later, the girl left school. I never saw her again. The school I attended has been torn down. I have forgotten the names of many of my old classmates. But not hers. For years I wanted to apologize. … I typed her name into an Internet search field. I found nothing. I realized then that my story — the one with no news — was about something more powerful than news.
It was about getting a second chance.
That section is why this story worked with readers. Little bits of courage make a story better.
I later called the reporter who had wanted to work with me to see how she was doing.
“I work at a smaller paper with a set of editors who are not really about helping people get better,” she said. “It’s about getting something in the paper and on the Web. I just finished a story that could have been good, but in the end wasn’t all that great. I did the job. But I lack the skills, and my editors lack the ability to help me grow and take risks.”
She sighed. “It’s nobody’s fault,” she said. “It just happens.”
It doesn’t have to be that way. I am building a community of writers who want to learn via my own website, tomhallman.com. I will be posting my story — called The Apology — and discussing the structure. I also post stories from writers and take questions and comments. Come visit.