During my 40 years in the business, I’ve learned to listen to anyone who tells me they have a story. Great stories come unannounced, like a soft tap on the door. You need to be alert to that sound. The series that turned out to be the story that won me the Pulitzer Prize for feature writing in 2001 came from a telephone call to me from a reader.
Even so, an idea is not a story.
Your job is to find the story. As a rule, the closer the story is to the news, or to an event, it becomes easy to see and write because you instantly understand the story. But those stories have less power with the reader. If you know instantly what the story is about, then so does the reader.
A story removed from the news or event is harder to write. You have to figure out what the story is about at a deeper level. Once you answer the question, the story has more power. The story will have unexpected twists and turns and surprises that engage the reader.
A few months ago I received a telephone call from a man frustrated he couldn’t reach anyone at the paper. He wanted to tell a reporter about a strange letter that had recently arrived at his house. He’d been randomly calling phone extensions, no one wanting to talk with him, until he eventually reached me at my desk.
He said a letter written more than 40 years earlier had arrived at his house. I went to meet him. On the way there, I figured it could be a funny story about a letter stuck in a mailbox for decades. When I read the letter, though, I realized it was about something bigger than a lost letter.
That’s the first step to being a storyteller. A story needs to evoke an emotion in the reader. Once we have the reader’s heart, the head follows. Writers new to narrative too often focus on the words, believing beautiful passages are what make a story great. The writing matters, but the real secret is structure, which allows a story to have a theme, which is what lingers with the reader.
And it all starts with the writer.
What emotion do you feel?
Why do you care?
Why do you want to write this story?
If you can’t answer those questions, you don’t know your story. And if you don’t know your story, you can’t find the structure because you don’t know where you are going and why.
When I am trying to answer those questions — and they are never easy — I allow myself to be open to the idea coming to me when I least expect it. I was walking around downtown Portland when a couple thoughts popped into my head. I used the notes function on my IPhone to write them down. They resonated with me, and I knew they’d guide me when it came time to structure the story.
It was supposed to be mailed. It wasn’t.
When it arrived three weeks ago, it could have been thrown out. It wasn’t.
Everything connected with this letter seems to be a mistake.
That took me all of 30 seconds to speak into notes.
Now look at my story’s opening:
The letter should have been mailed more than 40 years ago.
When it arrived three weeks ago, it could have been thrown out.
Everything connected with this letter seems a mistake.
On the way back to work during that walk following lunch, I had another thought:
Before she was a wife, mother and employee.
When she was simply.
Della Ipox, 16.
Those second series of thoughts provided me with the story’s theme, one that would guide me as I did more reporting, structuring and writing. They also allowed me to use voice, telling the reader why this story matters. There is no news here, nothing factual that matters. What’s left is heart.
The letter was written at a time in life when a kid’s idea of the future extends out just about a month or so. It was written at that moment before the reality of adulthood, with heartaches, disappointments and setbacks, intrudes the way it always does and always will.
I looked at the photo. I imagined this girl, staring back at me, near midnight, pen in hand, at a desk in her room in the very house I’d just visited.
Della Ipox was me.
She was the child we all once were.
When the story ran, readers responded to the heart of the story. This excerpt from one letter is a reminder why readers hunger for stories, and why it’s your responsibly to find the story.
I think it’s quite amazing how deeply human feelings can be evoked from such a simple series of events.
If you have questions about storytelling, contact Tom at firstname.lastname@example.org.