You can insert the situation of your choice: Trial verdict. Lottery win. Pink slip. Natural disaster. Gift from a stranger. Loss of a loved one. Gain of a loved one.
No matter. The question is ubiquitous — and almost always useless. It can work OK enough on TV or radio, where individual emotion can be seen on a face or heard in a voice. But it’s still lame and limited. And those physical aids are lost the minute you strip away that three-dimensional aspect of human communication, and tell a story in the flat marks of print. That leaves it up to the reporter/writer to paint word pictures that show emotion.
“Show” is the operative word here. As with any important moment in a story, and especially in a narrative piece, the goal is to “show, don’t tell.” The more you want hold the reader’s attention to a moment — or scene or detail or character or emotion — the more you want that moment to be specific, visual and revelatory. You want to be at the very bottom of the Ladder of Abstraction with well-chosen bits that reveal the universal theme or experience or feeling at the top.
“How does it feel?” is a tell question. It is generic and invites generic answers, usually in the form of adjectives. Unless the source or story subject is a natural storyteller, you’ll likely get responses like “Wonderful.” “Amazing.” “Horrible.” “Unbelievable.” You might get a bit lucky, and hear “It was the best (or worst) day of my life.” But even that is of marginal value. The reader can’t see what made is so good or bad.
Reporting for Emotion
So how do we gather the authentic emotion we need for our stories? We report for it with observation and with storyteller questions that invite specific little stories; I guess you can call them anecdotes, but I prefer to think of them as moments or descriptions that reveal the experience of that emotion for that individual story subject. (Important: This kind of interviewing has to be done with care, sensitivity and strong ethical awareness. Tread softly.) We often have to ask layers of questions to gently peel the artichoke of emotion until we get to the sweet center. We have to take care not to project how we might feel in a given situation. We have to check our assumptions. We have to listen with our full selves.
Then we have to chose a select few details that best show emotion, and help the reader understand, or even experience, it a bit.
This is true of reporting and writing any emotional situation, whether joyful or tragic. But in a nod to Valentine’s Day, we’ve rustled up some examples of this at work in a range of love stories. Keep in mind that there are all kinds of love, not just those of the romantic variety.
Love stories at work
In her New York Times story about the late-life reunion of two Auschwitz survivors, Keren Blankfeld paints an unforgettable, one-graf picture of the clandestine meeting spot of two young lovers. It is especially powerful because of the juxtaposition of a classic story of forbidden love with the horror of the death camp:
On their set date, Mr. Wisnia went as planned to meet at the barracks between crematories 4 and 5. He climbed on top of a makeshift ladder made up of packages of prisoners’ clothing. Ms. Spitzer had arranged it, a space amid hundreds of piles, just large enough to fit the two of them.
It was 1999, more than 20 years ago, when David Finkel of the Washington Post wrote what remains one of the most heartbreaking and hopeful love stories I’ve ever read. The fact that I still remember it is testament to its strength. “Exodus: One Woman’s Choice” is set in the confusing desperation of the war in the Balkans. A young Albanian woman lives in Tent 37A, in a refugee camp in Macedonia. She meets, kisses and falls in love with a French firefighter who says he can get her out of the camp to a better life together. Her father begs her — then orders her — to stay. She has one day to decide between the known family love of a lifetime and the unknown promise of love for the future. As with Blankfeld’s story, Finkel makes the tug of love more poignant by setting it in place that would seem to defy love. A single, intimate story leaves the reader with an eternal, universal question: When is love a destination, and when is an escape?
Who would have expected love in such a place? It is hot, without shade, except beneath the brittle leaves of runty bushes or inside tents where the air feels thick. It is lines of people waiting for whatever there is to wait for, which is everything. For news. For water. For food. For doctors. For phones. For toilets that are holes in the ground. For showers that are nothing more than buckets of water heated over scraps of wood, scraps that lately have been coming from the frames of the latrines. The latrines are near the tents. The tents are staked inches apart. The stench is unavoidable. The noise is without pause. There is nowhere to hear silence, nowhere to feel alone, nowhere to find relief. Occasionally there’s a bit of cloud cover and a teasing burst of wind, but the wind merely stirs up the dirt, and the dirt, in turn, covers everything, including Vjosa’s dress, which is what she was wearing when the Serbs came to her door and told her family they had 10 minutes to leave, and her hair, which is turning from blond back to dark brown, a reminder of how long she has been here.
Place was the object of love in the long life of mountaineer Dee Molenaar. He loved to climb, and he especially loved Mount Rainier, the moody, majestic peak that rises in Seattle’s back yard. Nicole Brodeur of The Seattle Times captures that love in one simple but say-everything line in Molenaar’s obituary:
When he turned 100 in 2018, Mr. Molenaar sat at the base of Rainier in a wheelchair for one last visit with his old friend.
It is one of the tortures of the internet that not everything you want is available. Such is the case with “13: Life on the Edge of Everything,” by Tom French. It was a serial narrative on life in middle school, published by the St. Petersburg Times in 2003. (Now the Tampa Bay Times, I can’t find a lot of stories that were published before a certain time. If this is just a result of my lame digital skills, I’ll revise and post link here later.) But even if you can’t find the original story, you can read the transcript of a keynote French made in 2017 at the Power of Storytelling Conference in Bucharest, Romania. French took the audience through a handful of pieces that couldn’t be more different, but that are all love stories at heart. And that all reveal the power of what Katherine Lanpher, a mutual writer friend, calls “the three most beautiful words in the English language: ‘What happens next.'” His talk is a master class in how to report narrative, and the power narrative has to hold readers. But it is “13” that I find most enchanting because of the undeniable power and universality of an innocent experience thet French uses as the driving engine of story: Will the mostly invisible Carlo, who has a crush on the hugely popular Kaylie, get her to notice him, then talk to him, then like him, then give him a kiss? This from French’s keynote:
I ask Carlo what he wants from Kalie. He says, “A kiss.” He only wants a kiss and for her to say that she’s his girlfriend for like a day. He says, “A kiss,” and then he stipulates ”on the mouth,” which cracks me up that he has to stipulate that. And I say. “Well, Carlo, have ever kissed a girl before?” And he says, “Umm, does my mom count?”
And then there’s the love some say is the strongest in humanity — maybe among all creatures: Mother love. Kelley Benham French wrote about the terror and wonder of it in “Never Let Go,” a three-part series for the Tampa Bay Times that chronicles the conception, birth and first six months in the life of her micro-premie, Juniper. To write the series, Benham French had to navigate how much to reveal about her the intimacies of her relationship with husband Tom French, the complexities of medicine and ethics, her own erratic emotions, and concerns about fairness to the readers and to her daughter, who she prayed would someday be able to read the story.
Benham French introduces us to the wonders of pending motherhood when Juniper is still in the womb:
After years of grueling and unnatural fertility treatments, the promise of her unfolded easily. We learned her gender in week 16, cataloged her anatomy in week 20. I scrubbed the baseboards in the spare bedroom and stopped buttoning my jeans. I tried to imagine her as a real child, in my hands and in my life. I drew, in ballpoint pen, her cartoon outline on my skin – with big eyes, a sprout of hair, and an umbilical tether to my navel that made her look like a startled space walker. That was the extent to which I understood her: only in outline, the details waiting to be filled in.
She lets us walk with her on her first meeting with Juniper, whom she saw through the terrified eyes of a mother and unflinching eyes of a reporter:
Tom wheeled me to her portholed plastic box. The nurse introduced herself as Gwen, but I barely heard her. There, through the clear plastic, was my daughter. She was red and angular, angry like a fresh wound. She had a black eye and bruises on her body. Tubes snaked out of her mouth, her belly button, her hand. Wires moored her to monitors. Tape obscured her face. Her chin was long and narrow, her mouth agape because of the tubes. Dried blood crusted the corner of her mouth and the top of her diaper. The diaper was smaller than a playing card, and it swallowed her. She had no body fat, so she resembled a shrunken old man, missing his teeth. Her skin was nearly translucent, and through her chest I could see her flickering heart. She kicked and jerked.
She stretched her arms wide, palms open, as if in welcome or surrender.
And to close Part 1, Benham French has us reach out with her as she dares to touch her child for the first time:
She was alien and familiar. She was terrifying and beautiful. She was complete and interrupted. I felt the icy hush that comes with looking at a secret you are not meant to see. I was peeking into God’s pocket.
“You can touch her,” Gwen said.
I reached in through the porthole. I saw how white and swollen my hand was. I let it hover over her for a second, then pulled away, as if from a fire. Finally I placed the tip of my pinky into her tiny palm.
She grabbed on.
We’re left wondering, as we always are when we are journey with a skillful writer, and when we are on the journey of love: What happens next?