You could argue that a writer has no business critiquing the work of one of his closest friends. Knowing the person behind the words influences the reading experience, making it impossible to approach the writing with fresh eyes. Yet proximity also offers advantages when it comes to thinking about craft.
Knowing Joshua Davis, I can tell you that one of the keys to his success with stories like “The Untold Story of the World’s Biggest Diamond Heist” is that the man thinks in scenes. This isn’t necessarily a prerequisite for good narrative nonfiction; certain writers can sculpt compelling stories out of nothing more than their cognitive firepower. But more often than not, writing is enhanced by scenes: those sequences of action that, when enriched with the right detail, enable readers to do more than merely digest information about what took place. It lets them feel as if they’re there.
To pull this off with events you never witnessed, thorough back-reporting is a must. It’s the writer’s ticket to material about prior action and dialogue – to resurrecting the past on the page so that you’re sharing a yarn, not delivering a bunch of facts.
Davis is tireless when it comes to this aspect of the job. He knows that without ample material to work with, those recreated scenes will be thin and leave conspicuous gaps in his story. For the heist project, he flew back and forth between California and Europe half a dozen times. Although that may sound glamorous to some, I happen to know that for Davis it was a sleep-obliterating nerve-pretzeling ultra-marathon that pushed him to the edge.
It paid off, though. Early in the piece, the protagonist – a smooth-talking Italian thief named Nortarbartalo – is about to burn some potentially incriminating bags of garbage when he learns that his sidekick, a guy nicknamed Speedy, has lost his cool. See that? I just transmitted the details in a way that wasn’t a whole lot more engaging than a Wikipedia entry. Here’s Davis’ version:
[Nortarbartalo] passed a rusty, dilapidated gate that looked like it hadn’t been touched since the Second World War. It was hard to see in the dark, but the spot seemed abandoned. He decided to burn the stuff near a shed beside a small pond and headed back to the car.
When he got there, he couldn’t believe what he was seeing. Speedy had lost it. The contents of the garbage bag were strewn amongst the trees. Speedy was stomping through the mud, hurling paper into the underbrush. Spools of videotape clung to the branches like streamers on a Christmas tree. Israeli and Indian currency skittered past a half-eaten salami sandwich…
Sometimes I hear people discuss a piece of nonfiction writing that they like, or even love, but then qualify their praise by adding that the piece was a little “Hollywood.” The subtext seems to be that the work is somehow lesser – that action-packed, entertaining writing can’t also be … literary.
Yet if the action-centric constraints of screenplay writing exist to propel storyline and keep audiences attentive, why wouldn’t today’s practitioners of long-form journalism want to put more Hollywood in their stories? That doesn’t mean dumb-as-dirt plotlines or bland structure. It means thinking and reporting in scenes. It means using a proven storytelling technique. Here is Davis again, when the gang breaks into the Antwerp Diamond Center. Notarbartolo refused to rat out his co-conspirators so Davis uses the nicknames Notarbartolo employed:
The King of Keys slotted the original in the keyhole and waited while the Genius dialed in the combination they had gleaned from the video. A moment later, the Genius nodded. The Monster turned off the lights—they didn’t want to trigger the light detector in the vault when the door opened. In the darkness, the King of Keys turned the key and spun a four-pronged handle. The bolts that secured the door retracted and it swung heavily open.
Speedy ran up the stairwell. It was his job to stay in touch with Notarbartolo, but there was no cell phone reception down in the vault. Upstairs, he got a signal and dialed his old friend.
“We’re in,” he said and hung up.
Notarbartolo put his phone back on the dashboard. He was sitting in the Peugeot and could see the front of the Diamond Center a block and a half away. His police scanner was quiet. He took a sip of cold coffee and waited.
It’s wonderful stuff and it vividly illustrates what it takes to pull readers in. You feel like you’re witnessing events as they unfold. The goal of any story is to keep the reader engaged, and reporting the heck out of your subject and recreating those cinematic scenes is one of the best ways to do it.
David Wolman is a contributing editor at Wired and the author, most recently, of The End of Money: Counterfeiters, Preachers, Techies, Dreamers − and the Coming Cashless Society (Da Capo Press, 2012). He tweets at @DavidWolman.
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