For the second Roundtable of July, our editors looked at “Watching the Murder of an Innocent Man” by Barry Bearak of the New York Times. Bearak has spent the last three years as co-bureau chief of the Times’ Johannesburg outpost, and his June 5 story investigates the death of a young man at the hands of a mob in the beleaguered settlement of Diepsloot.
Our editors didn’t read each other’s comments as they wrote or see the email conversation between Storyboard and Bearak about his narrative.
For full bios of the Roundtable editors, see our introductory post.
Narrative writing instructor, Nieman Foundation
On using the first person:
Journalists tend to have strong opinions about whether we should put ourselves in stories. Some support first-person reportage depending on the circumstances; others suggest they’d rather dine on dung than appear anywhere in a piece of work, despite the fact that first-person presence has a solid history and an important place within the craft. Whenever I give a little quiz asking students to match short first-person passages to the author, even practiced journalists are surprised to find the writers are Dickens, Orwell, Gellhorn, Didion…
In the right situation, readers connect powerfully to story via the personal pronoun “I.” A writer should deploy the “I” as carefully as a surgeon chooses a scalpel. The device itself lends nothing without legitimate intent. To me, first person works in Barry’s piece for three reasons:
It isn’t gratuitous. The narrative/personal quest depends upon use of the first person and especially upon the author’s relationship with Golden, a trusted source and keeper of the pivotal crime-scene video.
It allows for authoritative class contrast. By revealing details about his own lifestyle Bearak puts less fortunate residents’ economic circumstances – and the larger societal issues of law and order/mob justice – into a more intimate context than readers would’ve read in a depersonalized account.
He keeps the spotlight on others by remaining a minor character and keeping a respectful distance. While the author’s journalistic quest clearly drives the narrative, being present in the story allows him to bear witness in a quiet but powerful way and to authenticate what otherwise would have been a secondhand account of a horrific event.
Knight Chair professor, Missouri School of Journalism
Structure is one of the peskiest challenges facing writers. Once you move past the basic (and backwards) logic of the inverted pyramid, questions of order and placement plague rookie and veteran alike. What stays in? What comes out? What goes where? Constructing a complex story can be like building a jigsaw puzzle of multiple dimensions, with images on all sides, ill-fitting tabs, no edge pieces and no box cover picture to follow.
In “Watching the Murder of an Innocent Man,” Barry Bearak does the most sophisticated thing a writer can do when confronted with that complex puzzle: He gets simple. Not that his story is simple. Far from it. Bearak leads us through more than 7,500 words, takes us deep into several distinct and difficult subcultures, introduces us to more than a dozen characters, weaves between present and past, and includes both intimately detailed narrative and sweeping social context.
It would be instructive (and fun, in a word-nerdy way) to diagram Bearak’s entire piece. Lacking time and space for that, I’ll note these points:
Chronology is the core. That’s what I mean when I say Bearak gets simple. He starts in a searing moment that puts us in the scene and sets the stage for everything to come. After two paragraphs of narrative he pulls out into some establishing context. Then he quickly returns to the narrative through the first long scene, ending with a cliffhanger. But after that, the piece builds along a fairly straight chronology. We are pulled into the story in the same way Bearak was – through the video of the murder – and then follow him step by step as he tries to untangle the thicket of questions and characters he confronts. Pay attention to the places where Bearak uses a fairly direct time stamp to hold the story together: “… each day, widening the arc of our meander.“ “Within a week, Golden and I had become a marked pair.” “One recent Sunday afternoon…”
A quest drives the story forward. That’s true of any gripping narrative: The writer sets up a core question, then spends the rest of the story answering that question. (This is different than a story’s core meaning, or theme.) What makes Bearak’s story a bit different is that the quest is his. We are taken along on his search for answers. (A literary friend once told me there are only two storylines in all of human history: A stranger comes to town, and a man takes a journey. Bearak’s story encompasses both, and he is both the stranger and the man on the journey.)
Narrative is woven rather than broken. In complex pieces such as this, one successful approach can be a “broken narrative”– a structure that goes back and forth between narrative or action scenes and contextual or expository scenes. Bearak takes that foundation and makes it more elegant by weaving context directly into the narrative. He slips a line or two of geography or history into the running story. As I read, I imagined a French braid with strands constantly being worked over, under and through. If you re-read the piece just to see how characters and their backstories are introduced, you’ll see that braid. Bearak is able to pull off that intricate weave because the core chronology is straightfoward and strong.
Characters are clearly identified. It’s tough for readers to follow this many characters in a piece. Yet we never lose track here because Bearak remembers to provide some brief reminder of who each person is. That’s just one of the ways Bearak answers the readers’ question when the reader needs the answer.
The story comes full circle. The chronology drives relentlessly forward, following Bearak’s quest. It ties together – is made whole – by ending where it began, with the boy who fingered the murder victim. This is also a tried-and-true structural device. But what makes Bearak’s use of it so stunning is that he comes back to Siphiwe not where the story started, but where the story took Sipihwe – to a place of defiant and inevitable despair. As such, Siphiwe was able to speak for the much larger defiance and despair of a country and a culture.
Sunday and enterprise editor, The Dallas Morning News
On a sense of place:
Barry Bearak knows that evoking a sense of place isn’t just a matter of presenting a background landscape. He uses carefully selected sensory details – sights, sounds, smells – and movement to transport readers to South Africa.
“Put me there,” is a simple way an editor can encourage writers to think about the sense of place. The writer can provide context to the story by showing, rather than telling. She can also create a mood that permeates the story – anger, joy, sadness.
Bearak does this sparingly in his murder story. That’s important, because, at least in this story, we don’t want the plotto slow down and linger too long. Let’s pay attention to Bearak’s sketch of the South African township. We hear music; we watch women pinning laundry and storekeepers brushing away flies; we smell garbage and sewage; we learn that some of these areas have bureaucratic names like Extension 1 and Extension 2.
The road abounded with township life: good music playing over bad radios, women pinning laundry to droopy clotheslines, storekeepers brushing aside plump flies in the butchery. People were curious about the mob’s intentions, and some followed along as if dutifully joining a militia. In a few blocks, the pavement of Thubelihle gave way to hard-packed dirt and stones. A busted pipe had gone unrepaired for months, and the escaping water cut a trough in the ground that now carried a stream of garbage and sewage. The odor was bracing, but there was open air ahead, a large, marshy field that separated Extension 1 from the squatter camp in Extension 2…
What we see is that life goes on under some outrageous conditions. And we get a hint about why these conditions are a factor in the violence. People are curious. They don’t see things getting any better. They start to follow a mob. Who knows how ordinary people will act as the mob grows violent?
Bearak uses a second sketch to show the economic disparity in South Africa, the wide gap between the townships and the gated communities with beautiful names.
I live in much different circumstances, renting a house in the Dainfern Golf and Residential Estate, one of dozens of gated communities built in a city overwrought about crime. The perimeter is fortified with high walls topped by electrified wire; guards patrol the landscaped roadways and roundabouts. Houses are large, and many front entranceways are ornamented with waterfalls and fish ponds…
He’s also showing us this place because he wants to be honest about his comparatively (and understandably) sheltered life in South Africa. He may not be able to fully understand what life is like in the townships, and he’s being straight with us about that. He uses a sense of place not just to set a scene but to help define and explain the dynamics of his story.
Founding editor, www.storysurgeons.com
On keeping the reader engaged in a depressing story:
Everything about the subject of this piece – a mob in a crime-ridden squatter’s village randomly settling on an innocent man to vent their rage – screamed “Don’t go there,” and yet, go I did. Why?
Or to rephrase the question: When a writer wants to explore unremittingly depressing material, how can he keep the reader’s attention and deliver something that feels like enlightenment rather than a fist to the face?
Bearak accomplishes that here, through what I would call “elevation.”
I mean this almost literally. The reader is raised to a great, almost godlike height and allowed to view these hideous events as if from a mountaintop. Every piece can be seen in its relation to other pieces. What seems nasty and brutish on ground level is still nasty and brutish, but from the mountaintop it plays out on a scale so grand that the meaningless becomes meaningful, and the horrific becomes tragic. It’s the difference between watching a slasher film and Macbeth.
A word of caution for those of you who may want to try this at home: It is impossible to make a reader feel as if she is getting the Big Picture unless the writer has gotten there first, with full focus and resolution. It requires a mastery of the subject so complete that every detail, every factoid and quote, snaps into place.
But even that’s not enough. The writer has to find the right voice, the voice that communicates a buffering distance without sacrificing any of the intense reality. This is what Bearak does superbly here.
From the very start, he speaks in sweeping statements that never stray into overgeneralization. The central antagonist is “a bad boy wanting to become a worse boy,” and “an unlikely guide to lead [the growing mob] into their dark work.” These sentences are simultaneously simple and mythic, like those in a fable.
That same calm certainty continues throughout the piece, making the tale unfolding seem like the most natural course of events in the world, instead of a living nightmare. That works because, seen from the mountaintop, evil IS a natural part of our world; it has prime causes and immediate causes, and it flows downhill like a creek becoming a river. Consider this introducing paragraph that stays focused on the flow, even as it elevates to get the longer view:
A few men lifted him onto their shoulders so that the crowd, already in the hundreds, could see him better. Then an older man, wiser about these things, said to put the boy down. More than likely, they were about to kill someone. No one in the mob ought to be too conspicuous.
Elevation is again expressed by the impressionist dabs of paint with which the context is painted:
The road abounded with township life: good music playing over bad radios, women pinning laundry to droopy clotheslines, storekeepers brushing aside plump flies in the butchery. People were curious about the mob’s intentions, and some followed along as if dutifully joining a militia.
“Good music playing over bad radios” is classic, an observation wrapped in a description, and like any precise yet poetic observation, it becomes a metaphor for the larger reality. The elevated distance in the perspective is expressed time and again in word choice. When the mob emerges into a field with a busted sewer pipe, the odor is described as “bracing,” an obvious understatement that communicates the idea that living with filth is simply something to be endured.
Bearak is constantly choosing precise understatement over hyperbole. Notice the low temperature of the language when he places the immediate in the context of the general:
Mob justice is not uncommon in Diepsloot, and most often it involves the swift capture of a supposed criminal, the villain there to beat up, to stone, perhaps even to wrap in a petrol-soaked shroud. But this undertaking was something entirely different. The vigilantes had walked a long distance on a hot day in the uncertain pursuit of unspecified thugs — all on the word of this talkative boy.
The elevated view allows us to watch these horrors unfold and see for ourselves how a quest for vengeance and some kind of justice so effortlessly turns into simple thuggery. Note how Bearak refrains from labeling this transition point, but lets our Olympian ability to see inside the perspective of the participants do the work. Pay attention especially to his use of the word “despicable” in the following:
Siphiwe led the way, back along the dusty paths between the shacks to the edge of the marshy field. The spaza shop was locked, and though empty of people, it was actually well supplied with soft drinks, biscuits, beer, toiletries and paraffin. The mob nevertheless busted through the walls, and Siphiwe rooted around in a back room, collecting for himself two pairs of sneakers, a Nike track suit and a nylon jacket. The shop was set ablaze, again to the noisy approval of the crowd, though this, too, seemed scant retaliation against murderous thugs. Where were those despicable people?
“Elevation” does not mean glossing anything over. To the contrary, it means being able to look at things with the unflinching, unblinking acuity of an eagle’s eye. Note the calm tone, the accumulation of simple words and sentences that seduce us into watching, instead of turning away, as a very uncomfortable truth about the nature of human beings plays out before our eyes:
The video shows Farai already on the ground, using his left leg to try to block the blows of a man swinging a heavy piece of wood. Others are pelting him with rocks from behind and hitting him with sticks. At this point, it is still possible to imagine the young man’s escape. He can speak; his movements are spry; there is barely a smudge on the lilac of the shirt. But by the next scene, he is sapped of strength and badly injured. His frantic efforts to get away have failed, and he has landed in a filthy, water-filled ditch. As he crawls out, his hands groping at the dirt, a man in blue pants kicks him in the chest, and Farai flops backward with a splash. Some in the crowd, including children, scoot around to get a better look.
The video then jumps ahead. Farai is again on dry ground, lying on his back, seemingly near death but still breathing. Blood is leaking from his head. He barely raises his left hand, and this trivial movement somehow becomes a cue for the beating to resume. A man wearing a white cap wallops him seven times in the face and neck with a plank, the assailant’s arms reaching high to amplify the force of his swing.
Is there a story you’d like the Roundtable to tackle? If so, you can send a link to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.