EDITOR’S NOTE: Storyboard recently revisited the long-standing debate over the ‘nut graf’ — variably called the summary nut, the billboard, the transition, the significance graf, the so-what passage, the foreshadow. Veteran writer and story coach Chip Scanlan weighed in with a strong caution about the dangers of the nut. I countered with thoughts on how to use variations of the nut to help both the story and the storyteller. And 20-plus top writers and editors volunteered their own quips and quick ideas about use, value and terminology of summary nuts.
Today we feature a thoughtful addendum from Los Angeles Times writer Thomas Curwen, who includes some elegant examples.
Let’s begin at the beginning and make sure we’re on the same page. What is the nut graf other than language in the lead of a story that helps readers understand why you’re asking them to ignore the kids, the ringing phone or the latest Tweet and spend their time instead with your writing? It is the compelling argument, the rationale, both plea and demand, that nothing is more important than this story. Sometimes it’s needed; sometimes it’s not.
The nut graf exists in proportion to the strength of the narrative. If you have a story that simply can’t be put down, you probably don’t need to intrude with anything that tells readers why they should bother. The velocity of the story, the promise of its white-knuckled ride, should do that, and any step out of that singular moment (a bear attack, a man whose life is ending) — any intrusive voice — will not only break the narrative spell but probably annoy readers.
Of course not all stories have a bear rushing at you or a man waiting for the Grim Reaper. In those instances, you could say that the nut graf came in the form of a few sentences, sprinkled in and around the opening itself:
Johan and Jenna had been on the trail little more than an hour. … It was one of the most spectacular hikes they’d taken on this trip, a father-daughter getaway to celebrate her graduation from high school.
He never asked to live to be 90 … He is ready to die.
Other stories – arguably most – do need some signpost to alert the reader of its significance, and for that, the key is to either go big and epic or be sly and unobtrusive.
When writing about a farrier who is still shoeing horses in Southern California, I went big (which can be a risk: the more conspicuous the nut graf, the more readers will feel manipulated).
Horseshoeing may be a throw-back to the past, but so too are the rural neighborhoods and communities that Gorton visits: nooks and crannies in the region’s topography, forgotten easements and municipalities where horses are still accepted.
Out here paved roads turn to dust. The rattle of the city doesn’t quite disappear. It recedes, and when Gorton puts heat to metal, hammer to anvil, the digital world goes analog and when he stands beside a horse, his senses quicken to the flicker of the ears, the darkness in the eyes, a wildness that is beautiful, dangerous and life-affecting.
When writing about astronomer Mike Brown, who helped demote Pluto from the planets in our Solar System, I went sly (by letting Brown himself provide the nut graf).
Since killing Pluto in 2006 — his intentionally dramatic expression for the role he played demoting the onetime ninth planet — Brown is eager to put his celebrity behind him. The mock funerals and hand-wringing, the obscene phone calls and earnest debate, he feels, waylaid the real agenda: to understand how the solar system developed.
“Killing Pluto was awesome,” he says, “but we need to find out how we got here.”
And above all, when you need a nut graph — no matter the form it takes — it must deliver on its promise. Readers give us the gift of their time, and we are bound to one another, as writers, to honor that.