Narrative Writing Toolbox
A few columns ago I told readers that I was willing to work with a reporter on a story, coaching him through the process from idea, reporting, structuring, writing and polishing. Daniel Jackson, who attends Bryan College in Dayton, Tenn., contacted me.
I’m writing this in the middle of the World Series, which got me thinking about what makes one hitter good and the other great. I can’t speak from experience. I was a lousy player as a kid. But listening to commentators talk about the players on the St.
After three hours of writing and re-writing a section of a long narrative, I printed a copy and took it to another room to read. Within 15 paragraphs I was bored with my own work. The facts were there. So, too, the details.
During the dog days of my eighth summer, I wrote two mystery novels. To me, they were “novels” because each occupied six pages of my Big Chief tablet and represented a herculean effort. I even remember their titles. One was “Mark Her Off the List, John,” and the other was “Incident at Hidden Cave.”
A few minutes before writing this column, I got off the phone with a man who is dying. This is a side of narrative journalism that many reporters don’t see. If you want to tell real stories, you’re going to have to dig deeply into a character’s life.
A few weeks ago I had to sub for the paper’s court reporter, who needed time to finish writing her long-term project that was scheduled for the front page. How I covered a sentencing is an example of what you should be doing as you tackle daily stories that are either assignments or part of your beat.
So, with no idea I was triggering a discussion thread of 85 comments, I posted this note on my Facebook profile: “Here’s a word that I’m thoroughly sick of: TOTALLY. Here’s another word I’m thoroughly sick of: AWESOME. Here are two words I’m thoroughly sick of: TOTALLY AWESOME.”
Not a week goes by that I don’t hear from newspaper friends who wonder whether the skills they’ve spent years honing in a business so rapidly changing are worth anything in what we like to call the “real world.” Yes, the business has changed in the past few years.
This is the time of year when we get serious. Gyms are crowded and we poke around the basement looking for that weight set gathering dust. When we hit the grocery store, we head straight to the produce department and never linger over the cakes, cookies and doughnuts.
When most writers are asked what it takes to report and write a great story, they typically focus on elements easily studied and analyzed: plot, scene, character and story arc. What’s missing is how to “find” a story. Unlike a news story built on a foundation of “news,” or an event, a narrative comes to life only when a writer feels something about a character’s life or situation.
A few weeks ago I checked my e-mail, and among the responses to a recent column I found a letter that stopped me cold. It’s worth reprinting here because it raises issues and questions that get to the heart of what’s happening in an industry that is changing dramatically.
When we talk about good writing, it’s easy to get distracted by focusing on the tools we use. Scenes, transitions and narrative arcs, for example, are important. But if you don’t have a story to tell, they’re worthless. We’ve all had the experience of starting a story and being impressed with the opening scene.
I’m often approached by writers new to the narrative game who want to know how to make the leap from news to features, and then from features to narrative. As I’ve said before: story matters. If you want to write magazine pieces or books, you have to know story down cold.
A narrative skill that separates gifted media writers from the less gifted is the ability to stay out of the story. Obviously, some writers have the latitude to write first-person and are thus often front and center — columnists and critics, for example, and opinion, analysis and travel writers.
From my table in front of the class, I frequently look into the audience and wonder who is going to leave the narrative seminars I lead for SPJ and find a real story when they return to their newsrooms. It’s always fun to get e-mail from reporters who made the leap.
I recently watched one of my favorite movies, and a scene near the end struck home, saying something to me about what it means to be a newspaper writer at a time when our industry is changing so dramatically. The movie, “Goodfellas,” is considered one of the all-time great films.
Two months ago I bought a motorcycle. It’s 28 years old and banged up with more than a few rust spots. At 54, I had to take it slow. I registered for a daylong safety class. Two weeks later I got my license and hit the road on two wheels for the first time in nearly 30 years.
When two or more journalists get together these days, the talk inevitably turns to the state of our business. We’re too busy with cuts and a shrinking news hole to muster the enthusiasm needed to discuss what’s required for a narrative.
One of the best things about writing this column is engaging in e-mail conversations with readers. Please, keep them coming my way. Some I answer directly; others, because they deal with such general storytelling techniques, deserve an answer in this forum.
The mailman dropped a large box at my home last month, a sign that the journalism contest season was well under way. I ripped off the duct tape and found the box jammed with feature stories from a state across the country.
A few weeks ago, I received a telephone call from a woman I’d never met, inviting me to an interview with two strangers. How she selected me — and what happened during the 90-minute meeting — is a lesson in what narrative writing is all about.
On Jan. 24, a gunman walked along a downtown Portland, Ore., street and opened fire. He shot into a crowd of high school girls ready to enter an underage nightclub, killing two and wounding seven others before taking his own life by sticking the handgun under his chin and pulling the trigger.
A couple of months ago, I was told to come up with the Thanksgiving Day story, one of those feel-good pieces that are a staple in the business. My editor’s idea was to write about a man who weeks earlier had been run off the road by a drunk driver and lost his leg.
All Andy Chapman needed was a nudge from an old-timer like me — I’m 31 years older than the kid — to try something different. So a few weeks ago, he wrote the first narrative of his career. “I’ve gotten positive feedback almost across the board, based on story rankings and people telling me they enjoyed it,” he wrote me in an e-mail.
A couple months ago, someone tipped me off to what I knew would be a great story. I figured I had a nice Sunday feature, a narrative that might run about 50 inches or so. As I began reporting, however, the piece morphed into a tale that spanned more than 20 years, mingling the past and the present.
Are there moments in your day when you turn in yet another story about the recent city council meeting and fantasize about one day writing a novel? Every newsroom has more than a few dreamers. I count myself as part of that group.
When writers hear the word “narrative,” they typically think in terms of the end product — a type of story that stands out from the rest of the news. But thinking of narrative concepts in the early stages of reporting allows a writer to breathe life into nearly any piece of writing.
I recently had a reason to re-read a story from my past. What I came away with was a realization of just how much the narrative landscape has changed in the past few years. Those of us who want to write narratives in newspapers are going to have to adapt if we want to keep this powerful storytelling form alive.
This column is written with one target in mind: the young journalist out of school now starting a first job. A lot different than the classroom? You bet. And, if you’re at all like I was long ago (age 53, here), you’re filled with moments of self-doubt.
A common complaint from reporters who cover beats is that they find they have almost no opportunity to attempt narrative writing. How much personality and emotion can you put into a zoning story? They have a point. I covered hundreds of city council meetings and small-town school board meetings.
I showed up in a church basement a few weeks ago to report a narrative story about a group of writers. I spent a few hours with them, listening as they discussed their stories with their teacher. I came away with a powerful story that you can read online.
January 24th, 2008 • Narrative Writing Toolbox
Dream big, but be realistic when writing a narrative
When I meet with young reporters who want to make the move from news to narratives, I tell them to dream big, but be realistic. Forget about launching a multipart series. Writing a well-structured narrative is difficult, and when a reporter plunges in without a handle on the techniques, the failure rate is high.