After more than 18 months of reporting, the top of my desk was crowded with files containing notes, observations and transcripts of multiple interviews. Now it was time to stop reporting and begin writing.
My hands hovered over the keyboard. Hmm, better get some coffee. I returned to my desk. Wait, better check out that website about guitars.
If so, I want to lead you through the steps needed to tackle a sprawling narrative story that, at the outset, seems overwhelming.
Too often we plunge into such stories the way we do with a breaking news story, or even a small feature. A narrative, though, requires a different strategy. You’re not making a quick drive to the store up the street but setting out on a journey that will take you through four states with confusing interchanges and exits.
Instead of writing, I realized my brain needed to process the story. I sat at my desk, read through all the notes and asked myself three questions:
• What is the story about?
• What characters need to be in the story?
• What structure best allows me to tell this story?
This is the shorthand version of the story: A man who’d been playing piano most of his life was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s. He struggled to play the piano and to remember the songs he’d composed. None had been recorded or written down.
The story featured five characters: the man, Steve; his wife, Joni, their two daughters, Melissa and Kristen; and a fellow piano player, Naomi.
What would you do? There’s no correct answer. But by forcing an answer, it requires you, the storyteller, to decide what story you want to tell.
So, what’s it about?
The obvious answer is that it’s about Steve. I had some wonderful interviews with him. I’d watched him as he sat at the piano and grew frustrated when he could no longer make his fingers do what he heard in his head. That would make a powerful opening.
But was that the best story? Would it resonate the most with readers?
Not really. There were too many structural flaws. While the story was about Steve, he was a weak protagonist. Given the nature of what was happening to him, he was a passive character.
Given all I knew about the family and what they were dealing with, who would be the best protagonist?
I decided on Melissa, his youngest daughter. Here’s why: Melissa realizes the music of her childhood, the soundtrack to her life, will be lost. Can she save it when the disease is quickly making it impossible for her father to remember what he created?
Melissa is the one who must act. Something is at stake. Can she succeed?
By making Melissa the protagonist, other people became minor characters, or wouldn’t appear in my story. That makes the story less confusing. A narrative can’t work with five equal characters. By focusing on one, I let readers know logically and emotionally who to follow — and why.
For example, the oldest daughter lived in California and reacted — not acted — to the family situation. She never appeared in the story. Even Steve’s wife, Joni, became a minor character.
Naomi, though, was also major character, but one who wouldn’t appear until halfway into a story that ran nearly 4,000 words.
But of course Steve had to be in the story.
I decided to have Steve speak directly to the readers, using his words in italics to set them apart. This allowed me to tell his story, but from within his heart and soul, letting readers know how he was feeling and reacting. These sections turned out to be the most vulnerable parts of the story.
It also served a structural purpose. Melissa and Naomi were the leadoff and anchor on a track team. Steve served as the person who took the baton from one and handed it to the other. In a sense, Melissa and Naomi then became “main” characters. No reader takes the effort to break down a story the way a writer does. Readers intuitively understand, or like, the story when they can’t quit reading. Your job is to make it impossible for them to turn away.
Here’s how I opened it:
“All his life, Steve Goodwin had been a private man. No matter the circumstances, he’d say he was doing just fine. But as he sat in his Wilsonville home that Monday morning, he wasn’t fine.
“Over the weekend, he’d argued with his youngest daughter, Melissa. The blowup ended when his daughter, her voice shaking and tears in her eyes, opened the front door to her home and told him to leave.
“As is the case in all families, they’d had minor disagreements before. But Saturday’s battle had been raw. Steve knew he needed to set things straight. It was time to reveal his secret.
“With paper and pen, he retreated to a quiet place in his home. He struggled to find the right words, to explain why he’d been so different these past months. When finished, he told his wife, Joni, he was ready.
“She called Melissa, who lived three blocks away. After she arrived, they gathered in the living room and made small talk. Then, from a shirt pocket, Steve pulled out his handwritten notes.
Mom and I saw a neurologist. I have a spot in my brain. I am being honest. If this progresses into Alzheimer’s, I know what it is like. I saw my mom. I experienced the pain of her personality changing, her being unkind to me and saying hurtful things.
If I ever do or say anything hurtful, I want you to know that I am sorry.
No matter what I do and say, you are my little girl and I love you.”
This is an example of what I call a Steve section, using his words from a letter to illustrate communication with his family, and therefore to readers:
My music is my soul.
At first, I could play fluently.
Then I struggled to play the song.
Then I struggled to remember that I used to play the song.
Then I struggled to remember I was the person who wrote the song.
Before you ever begin writing, pause and reflect: How and who is the best way to tell this story? ***
Tom Hallman Jr. is a Pulitzer Prize -winning journalist and author. He’s been on staff at The Oregonian for more than 35 years and has published several books. His journalism and non-fiction narrative stories explore the significance of big moments and small and their impact on a life. On Twitter: @thallmanjr