When I studied martial arts, I spent hours practicing technique. In a controlled environment, it was magic. But each student wondered if it would work on the street.
And so it is with narrative storytelling. At writing conferences, we study handouts and discuss stories that have been reported, written and published — what happens back in the newsroom. In my next two columns, I want to deal with the “real-world” by looking at the storytelling process used by two writers who’ve heard me speak.
Erin McIntyre, a reporter with the Daily Sentinel in Grand Junction, Colorado, offered to take me to the Denver airport after my recent seminar for the Colorado Press Association. The airport was about 45 miles from the hotel, and I was certain I’d miss the flight.
On the way, we talked about a story she was working on, one featuring a birth mother, a foster mother and a baby. I asked McIntyre to tell me how she was planning to write the story. I’d interrupt to ask questions I hoped
would make her see the story differently.
“I learned a lot from you at 80 mph,” she told me later. “It’s important to have a focal point to build a story around. The story can take different directions depending on who becomes the central character.”
During a recent phone call, McIntyre told me she had begun thinking differently about the story while we were on the freeway. No wonder we nearly missed the airport exit.
“I looked at it like choose your own adventure novel,” she said. “If I take this path, there’s no way to get back to something else. Where I start determines the course of the story.
Talking with you, helped me decide to build the
story around the child. That was the center of the story.”
I knew what she meant, but I wanted her to explain.
“I’d thought the main character would be the biological mother,” McIntyre said. “I’d open the story with her in jail, where she found out she was pregnant. But that forced me into a chronological storyline. Also, the reader would need background for that opening to make sense.
Why was she in jail, what was her history? Your questions made me realize the best way would be to build the story around the baby.”
She decided with my help that the baby tied the mother and the foster mother together.
Here’s how McIntyre opened her piece:
Jonah has no idea that the past seven months have been unusual at all. He’s an observant, active little guy who just learned that shaking his head “no” is the best thing in the world and he’s been hinting at his urge to walk by pulling himself up using furniture around the house.
His big, brown eyes take in everything and to him, everything is normal.
And that’s exactly how everyone wants it to be.
“The central theme of the story, I realized, was love,” McIntyre told me.
She said thinking about the story before writing is “not something journalists are trained to do.”
“The inverted pyramid is beat into us,” she said. “In many stories, that’s perfect. But I’ve learned to take a moment to think about the story. Previously, I’d start a story and get stuck in the middle because I used up all my good quotes. The way a story is structured supports the quotes and scenes. I want to plan my choices for each section of the story.”
She used that same thinking in a recent story, one of those simple stories that doesn’t need to be written but changes the way people think and feel because a writer found something with meaning.
McIntyre said she’d heard that a man who shined shoes at a stand in the bank had died. She went to the bank and found a memorial set up around his chair. She thought about writing a tribute to the man, having customers tell stories about him.
“But when I was there, I decided I should focus on the chair,” she said. “I wouldn’t have done that before. I would have written a straight news opening. But I thought about what you’ve talked about.”
Here’s how she opened that one:
This chair held the most important people. It didn’t matter if they were famous actors or janitors, bank presidents or bank robbers, anyone who sat in this chair felt valued by the man who owned it and treated them each with care and respect.
This chair held Sammy Hudson’s customers.
Anyone who needed a little sprucing up and an expert’s touch, and maybe a sympathetic ear, some lighthearted conversation and a laugh or wise advice to go along with a shoeshine would find it here.
Now, this chair holds dozens of bouquets of flowers, notes and mementos in tribute to the man who spent decades making people look and feel just a little bit better.
Last week, this chair held Sammy himself, who appeared to be taking a nap but had in fact died at his favorite place — at work — on Friday morning. As the lobby of the Alpine Bank building around him buzzed with people heading to the gym downstairs, to the teller line or offices upstairs, Sammy passed away doing what he loved most, being at his shoeshine station.
Those who loved him say they’ll miss having a bright spot in their day, a friend and an all-around classy guy.
This side of the lobby feels a little bit emptier now without his smile.
“The reaction to the story was tremendous,” McIntyre said. “I got a call that someone wanted to see me in the newspaper lobby. I was a little nervous. It was Rita Hudson, his widow.”
McIntyre said Hudson cried, hugged her and told her how much she appreciated the story.
“Then she handed me a plate,” McIntyre said. “It was Sammy’s favorite dessert. I kept thinking that her husband had just died and she made me a pie.”
And then she gave McIntyre the highest tribute a journalist can receive.
“She told me that when she missed her husband she was going to read my story again.”
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