This is the inaugural installment of Work the Problem, a storytelling advice column featuring everyday craft quandaries and a roving band of narrative sages. Today’s players:

>Dave Tarrant, reporter, Dallas Morning News
>Jack Hart, former Oregonian editor and author of Storycraft

Tarrant is on the enterprise and projects team, where he started in 1984 as a general assignment reporter covering the suburbs. He’s won state and national awards, including the Heywood Broun award for a series on the homeless in Dallas and the DART Center Award for his coverage of military families struggling after more than a decade of war. From 1988 to 1992, Dave worked at Stars & Stripes, in Europe, reporting on the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Gulf War. He returned to the News in 1993 to write profiles, narratives and enterprise stories. He’s interested in moving more deeply into narrative at this stage in his career. A few of his stories:

As for Hart, here’s his lightly edited University of Chicago Press bio for his latest book Storycraft, which should be a staple in any serious narrative student’s reference collection: During his quarter-century at The Oregonian, Hart served as managing editor, training editor and writing coach. He edited four Pulitzer Prize finalists, including winners in explanatory journalism and feature writing. He also edited a portion of the work recognized with the 2001 Pulitzer Gold Medal for Public Service and the 2006 breaking-news Pulitzer. Along the way he developed an international reputation for his work with narrative nonfiction. Hart, who earned his doctorate at the University of Wisconsin, was a tenured faculty member and acting dean of the journalism school at the University of Oregon, and taught at five other universities. His work includes A Writer’s Coach and The Information Empire, a history of the Los Angeles Times. His column, “The Writer’s Workshop,” ran in Editor & Publisher magazine for a decade.

The question according to Tarrant:

Often, newspaper narratives are about characters involved in an extraordinary event – a tornado, a fire, or a school shooting. But how do you find the not-so-obvious characters who might develop into a story that surprises and even amazes? How do you prospect for stories beyond the obvious ones?

An answer with Hart:

The short answer is that we overlook great narrative possibilities because we mistake news for story. And that’s especially true for us veterans, who’ve been operating with the non-narrative definition of news for so long that it filters the way we see the world.

As a result, narrative becomes an afterthought. News happens – tornadoes, fires, school shootings – and we cover it in conventional ways. Then we look around for narratives we can hang on that news peg. Nothing wrong with that, so far as it goes. But if we limit ourselves to that approach, we miss an awful lot of opportunities for great storytelling.

In Journalism 101 we learn that news is a change in the status quo that’s important because of factors such as timeliness, proximity, the importance of those involved, consequence, and so on. But a great story doesn’t have to meet any of those standards. It may very well revolve around something that happened to an obscure person long ago and far away with little obvious consequence for anybody except those directly involved. It still has to meet standards. But it has to meet story standards, not news standards.

Writers who learn to see in terms of story standards discover a world quite different from the one perceived by dyed-in-the-wool news reporters. My longtime colleague Tom Hallman Jr. comes to mind. Tom could find a great A1 story in the tale of a woman who trained to use a seeing-eye dog, a man who got a job after suffering a brain injury, or a mentally handicapped twenty-something who moved into his first apartment. Tom has great story instincts. But he also has a great conscious understanding of what makes a story.

I explored those elements at length in Storycraft, my book on the subject, and I won’t dive in too deeply here. But I will quote Jon Franklin’s definition of story and briefly explore its key elements. “A story,” Franklin said, “consists of a sequence of actions that occur when a sympathetic character encounters a complicating situation that he confronts and solves.”

That’s a clear, succinct statement of what’s called the protagonist-complication-resolution theory of story. Learn it so well that it becomes an unconscious part of your thinking, and you’ll start to see stories everywhere, not just those associated with big news events.

At the simplest level, you’re looking for folks who solve problems. Describe them grappling with a challenge, show us how they eventually change their thinking to see a way around that complication, and then walk us through their ultimate victory. Voila – you have a real story.

Your main character is your protagonist, meaning that he or she takes an active role in solving the story’s central problem. Your theme emerges as you describe that process. And if you want to connect with your audience, that theme ought to illustrate universals that apply not only to the protagonist, but to the rest of us as well. The best stories teach us how to think and act in ways that resolve complications and lead to successful human lives.

Take Hallman’s “The Boy Behind the Mask,” a Pulitzer winner for feature writing. It told the story of a middle-schooler with a terrible facial deformity who underwent life-threatening surgery to improve his appearance. The surgery failed, leaving the boy to cope with his appearance as it was. The theme that emerged was that part of growing up is coming to terms with who you are. Even though that theme grew out of a very particular case, it was a true universal – something relevant to almost every reader.

Tom’s ability to spot a story and analyze it in a way that produced a universal theme had an enormous payoff. Not only did the story win just about every prize in American feature writing, but it also produced an unprecedented volume of positive reader response. And it didn’t have anything to do with tornadoes, fires, or school shootings.

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Got a narrative issue you’d like help resolving? Email us at contact_us@niemanstoryboard.org and we’ll try to get you an expert answer.

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