Wooden blocks with painted letters

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the second post in our focused series on the core elements of narrative by narrative journalist and teacher Lauren Kessler. Future posts will explore the development of character and crafting of story endings.

By Lauren Kessler

A passage from a true story:

In Portland, in the spare bedroom in his daughter’s house, David Bradley was sitting up in bed dressed in a thick, scarlet-colored robe, his dog Scooter napping by his feet, the bottle of Nembutal on the night table. When the doctor arrived in the early evening, the family was finishing its farewells. They had all sat together in David’s room that last week watching old episodes of the TV miniseries “Lonesome Dove,” his favorite movie in which–it was hard not to notice–the fiercely independent main character chooses to die on his own terms.

David picked up the end of his feeding tube, removed the plug and poured in the liquid Nembutal. Then he poured in a cup of water to make sure the medicine went down, re-stoppered the tube and settled back on his pillows. He talked to the doctor sitting beside him about how much he loved his family.

Downstairs, eight people sat in a circle on the floor, including David’s three daughters and his sister. In the middle of the circle were objects important to David: an eagle feather, the Leatherman tool he always carried with him, a battered stuffed animal he had when he was a child. Each person picked up an object and told a story about it. Then they went around the circle again, this time each person holding David’s eagle feather and saying whatever they wanted to say. David had wanted someone to recite the strong, unsentimental poem John Wayne had said at Howard Hawks’ funeral, “Do not stand at my grave and weep,” and so someone did.

Upstairs, David yawned. The Nembutal was beginning to take effect. David motioned the doctor closer. He had one more thing to say.

“You know,” he said quietly, “I’ve done a lot of things right.”

Then he smiled and closed his eyes and fell asleep. Within a few minutes, he was unconscious. Within 10 minutes he stopped breathing. The doctor felt for his pulse and found none, listened for his heartbeat, and heard none.

You were there.

Only you weren’t. The magic of scene-setting took you there.

More in the Narrative Elements series

  1. Narrative as a sum of its parts
  2. Today: Reporting and writing scenes
  3. Developing character
  4. Effective endings

But it isn’t magic. It is the result of engaged reporting, careful observation, thoughtful questioning, meticulous note-taking and cognitive empathy — those journalistic skills we practice and hone every day — plus a flair for narrative. Narrative journalism — the literary journalism or long-form reportage by the likes of Tom Wolfe, Joan Didion, Gay Talese and Jimmy Breslin —is primarily found in a few elite magazines. But the legacy of that work continues in the narrative approach sometimes found in news, feature and investigative journalism. This approach translates into thinking story, seeing events through a storytelling lens, reporting with the goal of gathering material for storytelling and embracing some of the elements crucial to compelling storytelling.

Chief among these is the crafting of scenes.

The scenes that build the story

Scenes are the building blocks of narrative construction, from stories on the big and small screen to novels to, yes, journalism. Scenes immerse readers in the moment, bring characters to life, and set a tone. The reader is in the room with David watching these last moments of his life. The reader is downstairs watching David’s family participate in a final ritual. It is woven into “The End in Two Acts,” a story I wrote for the Los Angeles Times in 2007. It includes interviews with medical and legal experts on “death with dignity,” religious and political arguments for and against end-of-life legislation, historical context, statistics gleaned from documents and testimonies — the stuff of solid, traditional reporting. But it is the scene that pulls in the reader and, most important, compels the reader to read on.

The only difference between writing a scene as a novelist and writing a scene as a journalist — and it is a huge and existentially important difference — is that journalists do not fabricate scenes; they report them.

Here is a very short scene, a snippet, from later in that same article, which contrasts David’s death with the end-of-life decisions faced by another man, Tom, who lived in a state without the Death with Dignity option. Here is Tom testifying in a court case:

“My doctor told me I’d know when I’m near the end because I’ll be coughing up blood,” he said. He was sitting motionless, a little slumped, at the witness table. “I’m not too thrilled with the prospect of ending my life drowning in my own blood.” His voice cracked. Someone brought him a glass of water, and he composed himself.

Reporting that serves the writing

I chose “The End in Two Acts” to illustrate the crafting of scenes for two reasons: First, as the author, I know exactly what went into the process of reporting and writing. Second, the three scenes you just read — David upstairs, his family downstairs and Tom in court — were based on different reporting methods, all of which are viable and legitimate ways to gather material for scenes. Reporting comes before writing, so let me explain.

The downstairs scene of David’s family was based on direct observation, being there, fly-on-the-wall reporting. I sat quietly in the corner and took notes.

The scene upstairs reads like the product of direct observation, but was not. David did not want anyone in the room except the doctor. And, frankly, I would not have asked to be there. So how did I get the material? I debriefed the doctor, a highly trained observer who was required to take second-by-second notes and had the family’s permission to share them with me. I had interviewed him before. We had established a rapport. He read his notes to me. I followed up with specific questions. I had previously seen David’s room and had notes describing it. I had several conversations with his daughter both before and after his death. I had met his dog.

The scene of Tom in court was written after I watched and rewatched the tape of that testimony.

A scene can be written only if the journalist has the material, however that material is ever-so-carefully gathered. A scene can be written well only if the journalist knows what makes a scene work. And guess what? We all do, even if we’ve never tried writing a scene in a piece of journalism. We read novels and short stories, see movies and watch drama and comedy on the small screen. We know scenes.

The raw material of scenes

A scene puts the reader inside the story. It is both descriptive and evocative. It has tone. It has emotional content. We know, from our own reading and viewing, the key element of a scene: There is setting. There are characters. Something happens. Characters reveal themselves in some way. The story — the plot — is advanced in some way. That’s the guts of a scene.

Scenes are most often a mix of description (describing the setting, the character or characters), narration (the telling of what happens) and exposition (explaining what might be necessary to help readers understand). The trick — and of course, it is not a trick — is to choose and use just what is needed to paint a picture and pull readers into the moment. Too little and the picture is fuzzy or incomplete or, worse, confusing. Too much and the reader is overwhelmed, not knowing where to look, what to pay attention to or, worse, bored.

Good choices rely on having more material than you need and then extracting the small details and precise actions that capture the moment and the purpose of that moment in the story. In the scene with David, for example, there is no physical description of the man. Of course, I had this in my notes, but I chose instead to describe what he was wearing — the thick, richly colored bathrobe. To me, this one detail caught the softness, the hominess of his death at home. I chose not to spend words describing what his bedroom looked like. Did that matter? Instead, I wanted reader to see his dog, Scooter, on the bed, the Nembutal on the bedside table. At the end of that first paragraph,  I came in with a bit of exposition about “Lonesome Dove.”

The narration, both of David upstairs and his family downstairs, is presented as simply as possible, unadorned by adjectives, adverbs, metaphors, whatever. The moments themselves were dramatic; I did not want to force more drama into the retelling. I wanted the drama, the emotion to come from what the readers took out — not any extras I put in.

In addition to detail, understatement and appropriate tone, consider two other “tricks” to making a scene work: the position of the “camera” and pacing. Our words control the camera — and thus the reader’s attention. Upstairs, the scene is a close-up: David. Downstairs, the camera is pulled back allowing the reader to see the circle of family in one shot. Upstairs, the pacing is deliberate and slow: The actions David takes when he ingests the medication. Downstairs, the pacing is brisk: We don’t hear what every family member says. We get a quick summary.

Scenes are a wonderfully satisfying challenge to write. More important: They are essential to narrative and a powerfully compelling way to connect with readers.

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Lauren Kessler is an Oregon-based narrative journalist, teacher and author of 15 nonfiction books.

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