About a year ago I began playing a card game that offers lessons for reporters and writers. How we approach and structure a story reminds me of how I decide what to bid while playing Pitch.
The simple game is similar to poker. You look at the cards, and figure out how many tricks you can take. Think of that just like you do your reporting. When you return to your desk and look at your notes, what do you have? Was it a good interview or great? How about quotes? Do you have not just information, but details that reveal character?
Too often, we set out to write a narrative or feature without examining what we have to work with. That’s like trying to win a trick, or a poker pot with a weak hand of cards.
Let me show you something from the real world, the opening to a narrative I wrote last month. My piece focused on the Kappes, parents who live in Gresham, a city about 20 miles from Portland. They lost triplets at birth in 2004, noted in a small obituary.
This is how I started my story:
For the past 14 years, I’ve been haunted by a paid obituary appearing annually in The Oregonian. Perhaps you’ve seen it, too. This year it ran Sunday, July 8, on page D10.
Reading an obituary, immersing ourselves in the details of a stranger’s life, allows us to measure our own.
Not so the obituary on D10.
Just five spare lines, it offers only the names of triplets whose lives spanned one day, July 5, 2004. About two weeks after they died, their small obit appeared in the newspaper.
Since then, someone has paid to run it every July.
I’ve meant to find the answer for more than a decade. But always, within days after I see the obit, some other story has come up, the cycle repeating itself.
During my 40-year career, I’ve learned to respect the mystery surrounding some stories. It’s as if they have a soul, quietly making it known they must be told.
Perhaps that’s why I received the email.
“I’m honestly not sure why I am writing you.”
There’s no news in this piece. That allows the reader the joy of discovery. By not using a nut graf, I reveal to the reader that something powerful at work, something thematic and far different than why they might expect to find on Page 1 of the Sunday paper.
But can I pull it off?
Do I have strong cards?
I had a story arc and theme. I had the material from the parents, grandparents and a woman whose job requires that she read obituaries. Take away a couple, and the story wobbles, with readers wondering why I wrote it. My best card was my voice. You have it, too. Use it. Not for every story, of course, but when you find a story that evokes emotion and meaning, feel bold enough to us that narrator’s voice to guide readers.
Here is how I did so, how I played my cards:
Every journalist deals with death. I’ve covered car accidents, fires and homicides, watched bodies carried out of homes and apartments. The nature of the job means I ask intrusive questions, typically right after an event. Then I vanish and let people get on with their lives.
This was different. There was no news to cover. Would I want a stranger to come ask me about one of the most painful moments in my life, one so long ago?
What was my purpose that day I drove to Kappes’ Gresham home? I had no answer but trusted the story to show me the way.
What I discovered that day in Gresham is that while an obituary honors the dead, it’s also there for those left behind. Those babies live on in the hearts of all in this home.
Tom Hallman Jr. is a Pulitzer Prize -winning journalist and author. His journalism and non-fiction narrative stories explore the significance of big moments and small and their impact on a life. You can reach him at: firstname.lastname@example.org.