Rage—Goddess, sing the rage of Peleus’ son Achilles
murderous, doomed, that cost the Achaeans countless losses,
hurling down to the House of Death so many sturdy souls,
great fighters’ souls, but made their bodies carrion,
feasts for the dogs and birds.
Boom! We know instantly that the story will explore the devastation wrought by rage. Achilles gets pissed off, and his friends become feasts for dogs and birds.
“The Odyssey” opens with a similar punch, as does “The Inferno” and “Romeo and Juliet.” For a more contemporary example, I would offer “The Good Fight,” a crackling TV series about a predominantly black law firm fighting to stay sane and mount meaningful resistance during Trump’s four years in the White House. The opening seconds of the pilot show one of the main characters watching in disbelief as the 45th president is sworn into office, instantly establishing the show’s central line of action as well as its thematic track.
For journalistic models, one of my favorites remains Lane DeGregory’s nut sentence in her profile of an aging Evel Knievel. Lane, a Pulitzer winner at the Tampa Bay Times, opens with a scene where Knievel is raging at her and at the world over the indignities of growing old when he would rather be young and rocketing across the Grand Canyon. A few lines in, the story uncorks this beautiful sentence:
It hurts like hell, being mortal.
I would give a lot to have written that sentence. When I show it to other writers, I point out the line’s simplicity, its avoidance of fancy language. Too often, when journalists draft their nut grafs, we suddenly feel compelled to speak like Walter Cronkite. I admired Cronkite and saw him as a towering figure of credibility and professionalism. But few of us actually speak in his heightened and highly formal voice.
The best nut grafs, I believe, are simple and penetrating, delivered in a calm voice that’s not fussy or stentorian.
Coaching the story within
Some of the effective summary nuts, I’ve found, tumble out of our mouths when we’re not actively trying to be brilliant, or even to write.
When I work with writers who are struggling, I ask them to tell me why their story matters. I ask this casually, usually at the end of our session, when their notebook and laptop are closed. I do everything possible to lower the pressure and make it seem like we’re just shooting the breeze. Sometimes we walk. Sometimes I let them talk about other stuff in their lives and then circle back to this key question at the end, like it’s an after-thought.
It works more often than you’d think. The writers talk, and I listen, and when they say something promising, I interrupt: “Man, that’s good. Write down what you just said.” They keep talking, and more gems slip out, and I get them to save them all, knowing that ultimately they’ll pick the best two or three, which is usually all we need. They start to understand that they don’t have to conjure up some astonishing revelation that’s never occurred to them before. All the insights they need, usually, are already inside them. They know their story down to its bones, and they know why it matters, or they wouldn’t have gone after it so hard in the first place. The gems are waiting just under the surface of our awareness. We just have relax and see them.
I always look for models of what works, the stories that stick in our hearts and minds. I pay close attention to everything written by Robin Givhan, Stephanie McCrummen and Eli Saslow, all three of them Pulitzer-winning writers at the Washington Post. All have an uncanny gift for articulating what their stories are about so seamlessly that I often can’t find anything like a traditional nut graf. Somehow they weave their central point into nearly every sentence, so readers never have to wonder why they should care.
These writers’ choices of whom to follow, what scenes and details to include — all of it is grounded in the clarity of their theme. Dip into almost any of their stories, and you’ll see it. You might start with Givhan’s clear-eyed account of Bill Cosby’s entrance at an arraignment, or “Miranda’s Rebellion,” McCrummen’s masterful take on a Southern woman crossing the political divide, or “Into the Lonely Quiet,” a justifiably famous piece where Saslow ushers us with great care and empathy into the wilderness of grief created by the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary. At every step, in each of these stories, the journalists know what they’re doing and why they are doing it, and they make sure the reader knows it, too.
I also study the one-paragraph blurbs that usually run at the top of long newspaper takeouts and magazine pieces. The good ones are irresistible distillations of the story to come. Once I assigned a student to dissect the blurbs that opened every piece in an anthology of Gary Smith profiles. Those blurbs were a master class on identifying what matters. One of my favorite blurbs of all time appeared at the top of Chris Jones’ Esquire piece about a disturbed man releasing dozens of dangerous animals outside a small Midwestern town.
It was dark and wet and dangerous in Zanesville, Ohio. Terry Thompson had let his scores of big animals out of their hard, grim cages, then shot himself in the head. The tigers and bears were loose. Night was falling. Everything was out of control.
Learning from movie trailers and music
I take inspiration from all forms of storytelling. I am obsessed with movie trailers — I can watch them for an hour at a time — because the studios assemble those mini-dramas with great care, knowing that tens of millions of dollars are riding on a preview’s ability to draw an audience. Some trailers are very, very good. Some are hackneyed. But even the bad ones are educational, teaching me what not to do.
I’m equally fanatical in my study of great songwriters, because they know they don’t have much space and must make their points quickly. I have long admired the first line of “Eleanor Rigby” — “Look at all the lonely people” — and wondered how Lennon and McCartney achieved such simplicity and clarity when they were so young. They open the song with what amounts to a nut sentence, appealing to the mind’s eye of the listener to recognize the plague of loneliness around us all. Then they zoom in on Eleanor, picking up the rice after the wedding.
More recently I’ve been admiring “Do You Know the Way to San Jose,” the Dionne Warwick hit from 1968. I have a couple toddler daughters, and they love Warwick’s slinky “whoa-whoas” and the thumping beat, and they clamor for me to play it in the car on our way to preschool. I’d always thought of it as this light and breezy little number and had not paid much attention to the words. But then, on the umpteenth time my daughters requested it, I actually heard Hal David’s lyrics, and they hit me so hard I almost drove off the road.
L.A. is a great big freeway
Put a hundred down and buy a car
In a week, maybe two, they’ll make you a star
Weeks turn into years, how quick they pass
And all the stars that never were
Are parking cars and pumping gas
I mean, damn. That lethal little phrase — “In a week, maybe two” — was tossed off so casually. And it stunned me, the way the narrator’s ambitions and assumptions had boomeranged on her, sending her fleeing the City of Angels. The writer made it look easy, and that’s perhaps the hardest thing of all, to know the heart of your story so well that mapping it feels like breathing.
Thomas French is a Pulitzer Prize winning reporter and author of four books. He now teaches journalism at Indiana University.