From the Storyboard archives: tips on three of the fundamentals of narrative, from a trio of accomplished writers and editors. Click through to their full essays, and in the meantime here’s a highlight of each:
The simple goal of intimate journalism should be to describe and evoke how people live and what they value. That short phrase encompasses the full range of our lives – work, children, faith, anything that we do or that we believe important, everything ordinary and everything extraordinary in our lives.
I’m talking about a kind of story that rises and falls on narrative structure, the reporting of physical detail, the reporting of human emotion, on evocative tone and the pulling of thematic threads through the course of the story. It’s a journalism rooted in descriptive realism.
The basic techniques:
Thinking, reporting and writing in scenes.
Capturing a narrator’s voice and/or writing the story from the point of view of one or several subjects. In other words, writing from inside the heads of our subjects, trying to evoke their emotional realities – their felt lives.
Gathering telling details from our subjects’ lives, details that evoke the “tone” of that life. This means gathering a full range of sensory details – trying to report through all five of our senses, which creates not “color,” as some reporters would call it, but documentary detail that allows us to write, in Algren’s terms, as if “things are exactly what they seem.”
Gathering real-life dialogue. It creates the sense of life happening before readers’ eyes. A corollary to this is to keep in mind the goal of having as few quotes as possible from people who are speaking to no one in the story except the reporter – in other words, the narrator. In fictional stories, subjects do not talk to the omniscient narrator. When they do in artful journalism, it’s the equivalent of disembodied, talking heads in TV news.
Remarks made to no one in the story keep readers from losing themselves in the telling, because it reminds them that events aren’t really happening before their eyes but are being relayed secondhand through an interpreter. Quotes going out into the ether interfere with readers losing themselves in the self-referential boundaries you are trying to create in the story.
To make a scene vivid, think like a movie maker. Don’t try to describe everything; aim your camera. What do you want to zoom in on? Do you want to show the subject closely, intimately, slow down and build tension?
Or do you want to pull back, show more sweep, use a wider camera angle, so to speak – pan around the room or the park or the murder scene or wherever the scene is taking place – and show a fuller view?
Here’s a case of zooming in close. It’s from “Rim of the New World” by Anne Hull for the Washington Post:
The driver of the car has three piercings through his lip and eyebrows. “Only in Stockbridge,” Cisco says. “They a disgrace to Atlanta.” His co-worker, Karl, a black high school senior, nods in agreement. “You know that.”
The assembly line of humanity keeps rolling forward. One man is covered in tattoos: animals, a spider web and a swastika. His female passenger is also a mural of ink. A baby is smiling from the car seat. The driver passes his money up to Cisco. Each knuckle on one hand is tattooed with a letter: S-K-I-N.
Cisco turns away from the window. Keeping his voice low, he tells Karl, “That man got a Nazi tattoo.” Karl leans over to steal a look. The customer senses Cisco and Keith gawking but his face reveals no emotion. Cisco gives the man his ice cream cone, mocha-colored fingers wrapped around the white napkin that covers the cone, and into the outstretched knuckles that spell S-K-I-N.
Portray a character’s motivation. It is necessary for plot. Why does the character do what he does? If there is no reason, then the story – which is to say, the plot – falls apart.
But motivation also shows character.
If your subject does something for one reason, then it says something about her character. If she does it for another reason, then it says something else about her character.
It might show that the subject is brave or cowardly, bold or shy, generous or selfish.
He is 5 years old.
They live on the outskirts of Tegucigalpa, in Honduras. She can barely afford food for him and his sister, Belky, who is 7.
Lourdes, 24, scrubs other people’s laundry in a muddy river. She fills a wooden box with gum and crackers and cigarettes, and she finds a spot where she can squat on a dusty sidewalk next to the downtown Pizza Hut and sell the items to passersby. The sidewalk is Enrique’s playground.
They have a bleak future. He and Belky are not likely to finish grade school. Lourdes cannot afford uniforms or pencils. Her husband is gone. A good job is out of the question. So she has decided: She will leave. She will go to the United States and make money and sent it home.
You can find more than two dozen of our essays on craft here.