Old train in a forest

By Madeline Bodin

Browse through a year of articles on The Atavist Magazine website and you will see stories about a diverse collection of topics: swimming cows, abuse at an elite high school, a fossil tooth,* a spy, a cult and a daring escape across the Bering Sea.

“The thing uniting our stories is that they are narrative. They are driven by plot, with great characters and scenes,” said The Atavist’s editor-in-chief in her session at this year’s Power of Narrative Conference at Boston University. “You come to The Atavist for the kind of story you want to sit with. You want to read it to the end because you want to find what’s going to happen, which can mean a number of things.”

Atavist editor Seyward Darby

Seyward Darby

In her talk, Darby discussed the process of writing a compelling narrative, from interview through edits, including the art of keeping readers scrolling to the end of the story. Sometimes a writer knows how they are going to propel a reader through the story before they even pitch The Atavist, Darby said. Other times the elements are there, but the story’s engine is either built or re-tuned during the editing process.

Once, Darby said, The Atavist commissioned a writer who had never written an article longer than 1,000 words, but still had a compelling story to tell. Another time, a writer had gathered fascinating information about the decline of monarch butterflies and the people who were fighting to save them by various means, including growing native plants. But what would hold it together as a story? What would keep readers scrolling so that they could would follow the butterflies and the people to try to save them.

The power behind a story, a “story engine” or “narrative engine,” can be a question. Tom French, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who now teaches at Indiana University, has often said that a story’s engine is a question. Among the questions that have driven French’s own stories are: “Will the boy get a kiss?” and “When the tiger escapes from her enclosure at the zoo, who will die?” Readers keep reading to find out the answer to that question. Beneath all of those questions is another question, French has said: “What happens next?”

Darby said that a story engine can be a direct question like “Who done it?” or it may be something more subtle.

She explained how to find the best what-happens-next thread to pull your story together. One technique is to write a working nut graf — a paragraph that summarizes the story and puts it into context or that links the story to a larger meaning. She doesn’t necessarily recommend that you include that nut graf in your story, but to use it as a navigational tool to guide your writing. A nut graf is especially helpful when you are lost in a thicket of research and interview transcripts.

Tell it out loud to a friend — or yourself

Darby also recommends telling the story as you would to a friend — not as a way to write the final draft, but as another tool to find that narrative thread. Telling a story out loud lets us tap into the “eternal human art” of verbal storytelling because we want, by our very natures, to keep the listener entertained. She recommends recording the narration in a voice memo on your phone. In the course of that telling, and then listening to it, ask yourself what were the most important things you said to keep people engaged.

When you find those engaging things, you have found your story engine.

For example, Darby said, Nora Caplan-Bricker, a Boston writer, pitched a story about the decline of monarch butterflies that was already a perfect feature for a magazine like Scientific American. Caplan-Bricker turned it into an Atavist story by including the journey of a single butterfly as a unifying thread. Caplan-Bricker could do this because people tag butterflies with numbered stickers to track their migrations. A boy had named this butterfly “Flamingo.” (You can practically feel the story click into place with that fact.) The result, Darby says, is a beautiful story about climate grief, butterflies and making a difference.

Darby sees the story engine as including not only the question, but the person, object or situation attached to that question. For example, it includes the person trying to answer the question. In another illustration of a story engine, she recounted an article about a possible treatment for Batten’s disease, sometimes described as juvenile Alzheimer’s. The story’s focus was a boy with the disease and how his vocabulary shrank as the disease progressed. After the treatment, he gained a word. The big loss of language and then the small gain of a word was the story’s engine, she said.

Propelling the narrative forward

Keeping readers reading isn’t always about ratcheting up the drama, Darby said. A cliffhanger isn’t always the best way to end a section. She prefers sections that end in “trampolines” rather than cliffhangers. A cliffhanger leaves the protagonist in peril, but can leave readers hanging. A trampoline is something that, when your reader lands on it, bounces them forward.

For example, in The Atavist story “A Crime Beyond Belief” by Katia Savchuk, about a home invasion in the San Francisco area, the story could have begun with the bizarre crime and the police department’s dismissal of the couple’s terrifying experience. Instead, Darby said, the story begins with a police detective finding a strange collection of items in a suspect’s home: swim goggles covered with black tape, a Nerf Super Soaker with a flashlight and a laser pointer taped to it, a bottle of NyQuil and one blond hair.

Sometimes, Darby said, the question that will really keep a reader wondering is not “What happens next?” but the mystification of “What is going on here?”

I came away from the session not only with ideas about how to find the through-line or the narrative engine within a story, but also about where to search for stories in the first place. I’m inspired to find some significant endings and then look upstream for the stories that brought them about. If I’m lucky, I may find my own equivalent of a butterfly and the child who named it “Flamingo.”

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Madeline Bodin is a freelance environmental and science journalist based in Vermont. Her story, “The Curious Case of Nebraska Man,” was published in The Atavist last year.

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