Editor’s note: A great many Storyboard readers are journalism students, nonfiction writers in MFA programs, and beginning reporters and editors. The pieces in our Essays on Craft department cater to such readers but also to veterans in search of a refresher. You can find Michael Pollan writing about natural narratives; Laurie Hertzel on how to craft scenes; Peter Manseau on religion writing; Mark Kramer on voice and meaning; Bruce DeSilva on endings, and much more. Today, in a new piece, NYU professor, author, and former New York Times columnist and editor Francis Flaherty writes about the thinking and ingenuity behind enterprising story ideas.
In spring of 2001, Jennifer Lopez was hooked on a star. Not only had she made Latino music mainstream, but she was enshrined as a gorgeous incarnation of the American Dream, soaring from the Bronx to Beverly Hills, from Jenny from the Block to Queen of Pop. Mix in her signature va-va-voom, and the nation was smitten.
But while all this is true, it’s not the whole truth. Not everyone was gaga over Lopez, and a smart New York Times reporter named Regina Montague, scrounging for stories in Lopez’s own Bronx, dug up one of the dissenters. She was a student at Bronx Community College, her name was Jozann Jackson, and she had made a film which, according to Montague’s ensuing article, chronicled Jackson’s “personal struggle with men who pass her over for the J-Lo types”:
”Young girls want to be like Jennifer Lopez, and they wear skimpy clothes just to get a guy,” Ms. Jackson, who made the film for a school festival, said. ”They’re all identical: bleached-out hair, strapless tops, stiletto high heels, press-on nails, and a lot of makeup that makes them look like a doll.”
The story was short — 370 words — and it was published in the City section, a Times section distributed only in New York City. The next day — I was an editor on City at that time — I heard Montague’s phone ringing. The BBC, and as I recall at least one other media institution, was on the line, clamoring to interview Jackson and Montague.
Why the heavyweight media interest in a short, local piece about a student video? Was it because the article was about Lopez? No, Lopez stories were everywhere. It was because the article put forth a new idea about Lopez. Until then, the national conversation was all, “yay, J. Lo!” — few stories explored the notion that someone, somewhere, might be razzing her.
But Montague did. “Ms. Jackson said she hoped her film started an anti-Lopez trend on campus,” Montague wrote. Anti-Lopez! Till then, those words had never been paired before.
It is hard to remember how lionized J. Lo was back then. But she was. She was Elvis, she was Marilyn, she was Lance Armstrong (before the doping). To find a blemish on a goddess was big news.
We often think that writing is all in the doing. If a story is thoroughly and smartly researched and reported, and freshly and vividly written, it’s got to be good. But many times, writing is also in the thinking that precedes the doing. It’s in the underlying story idea.
In the mid-90s I was speaking with Steve Lohr, another Times journalist, about upcoming stories for the Sunday Business section. Lohr said something like, “70 percent of the value of a story is the idea.” I don’t remember what story we were discussing, but the “70 percent” I do remember. It’s a rhetorical number, of course, but Lohr’s point is real: Ideas matter — a lot.
Nevertheless, writers, whether they sit in hectic newsrooms or lonely garrets, spend something closer to 7 percent of their time on the brainstorming of ideas. Why? I’m no psychologist, but I think it’s because writers are anxious to do their stories, to get cracking and to beat the competition, and to spend time spinning out ideas — something you can do while whittling wood or watching a fat cloud float across the sky — does not seem to be doing anything. Journalists want to be on the phone, memoirists want to be at the keyboard. Let’s get the party started!
Many journalists also believe all good ideas are self-evident, so what’s to think about? I disagree. Yes, many good story concepts are apparent — but some of the best ones are not.
Of course, when news is fast unfolding, getting the party started — doing the reporting and writing and photographing and filming — is critical, at least for journalists if not for essayists and other nonjournalist writers. You can’t think smart about ideas if you don’t know the facts. But eventually the news frenzy slows and the topic enters Feature Land; even then, the pondering of ideas gets short shrift.
I did not fully value fine story concepts when I had that talk with Lohr. But when I left the business news department for the weekly City section, I got it. At City, we had to conjure fresh, inventive story ideas. Our beat was New York City, and we published on Sunday — after all of the city’s big daily papers (including our own), as well as weekly papers, magazines and TV stations, had spent all week doing the same. In terms of story ideas, that meant all the low-hanging fruit and even the middle-hanging fruit was gone. If we didn’t want to run a bunch of stories that just echoed what others had done all week, we had to stretch and scrounge for fresh topics.
Note to new writers: Just as smart story ideas can be especially valuable to particular editors — like us at the City section — they can be especially valuable to you. Established or staff writers will usually be tapped for the plain-as-day story idea, but if someone has an idea that is his alone, then he has nothing but daylight ahead. This was the case with the J. Lo item. Montague, a Texas girl who got her first lasso at the age of 2, was a summer intern at the Times in 2001 — the ink was still wet on her Boston University diploma. Yet there she was, at her desk, in the 43rd Street newsroom, speaking with the BBC.
Victor Navasky, longtime editor of The Nation, once counseled young writers to venture out to remote places to find stories. His reasoning was that if they stayed in a place where, if you throw a random rock, you’re likely to clunk a writer, they would face far more competition. I’m saying something similar: that a novel story idea is competitively advantageous.
What is it that makes an article idea so smart the BBC will be wooing you on the phone? John Le Carré had one helpful answer, given in a 1997 interview with George Plimpton in The Paris Review. “The cat sat on the mat” is not a story, Le Carré said, but “The cat sat on the dog’s mat” is.
This essay is my answer to that question.
The idea that makes you smile
Many good story ideas sit in plain view. Here are a few hypotheticals: a profile of an Oscar winner (“The Pride of Tuscaloosa”), an update on a town flooded 100 years ago (“Johnstown: High and Dry”), a day in the life of a subway motorman (“1,000 Miles of Track a Day”). It is a bonus if the article is timely, like the Oscar and flood stories, but like the one about the motorman, it needn’t be.
These stories can be excellent, or they can be blah. They can be sensitive and insightful, or they can be crude and cardboard-like. They can be of great consequence, like a probing profile of Saddam Hussein, or they can be pure journalistic frou-frou, like a riff on white-chocolate martinis. But these stories, fine as they can be, are not conceptually creative. None rests on an idea that, by itself, makes you smile.
This idea, though, may make you smile:
It is New York City, 1999. The economy is up, the murder rate is down, tough areas are getting gentler, and the city is generally smiling. Nevertheless, a smart Times reporter named Guillaume Debré suspects that some people are dismayed by these developments. He sets off to find such a person, and he does. It is the owner of La Paz Funeral Home in the South Bronx. A large chunk of this man’s business has come from murders. The guy is not a creep; he is glad that murder has dropped. But the dollar is unforgiving, and the decline in violent death threatens to put him out of business.
Debré reported: “‘Since the rebirth of the area, business has never been so bad,’ said Hector Marquez, 57, who has owned La Paz since 1977. ‘Ten, or even five, years ago we used to do a crime-related case every week or two,’ he said. ‘Now that it is clean, it is down to once a year.’ ”
While the media was focusing on all the rosy news, Debré was unearthing something less rosy, and if it was less widespread it was also no less real. Measured solely by quality of concept, this short report, which was also published in the City section, had it all over the Oscar profile, the flood update and the motorman snapshot. Like any story, this story might have been reported or written poorly (it wasn’t), but the underlying idea is indisputably fresh and savvy. The Debré article did not dispute or contradict the basic good news. It just added to it, and thus helped the media portray a fuller reality.
Try to do what Debré did. Think of others who might suffer from a drop in crime. Locksmiths? Burglar-alarm installers? Insurance salesmen? Anybody who’s looking to get a job as a security guard? The exercise can make your brain throb, but in a good way.
When he was a young reporter, a former colleague once told me, he worked for a magazine that ran an annual college roundup. His editor showed him the prior year’s roundup and said, “I want you to do the story this year.” Eager to make his mark, my colleague pored over the older piece, interviewed many school administrators and experts, and, happily, presented his boss with what he thought was a fresh approach.
“No, you don’t understand,” growled the editor. “I want you to do the same story we did last year. Exactly the same.”
I can’t verify this tale, but if true that editor was in one deep rut. How bored he must have been, living a life like Groundhog Day!
His calcified thinking is bad for society, too, because journalism should show us not only the patent but the latent — not only the stuff that’s sitting on the table but also the stuff that’s under the tablecloth. This role extends beyond finding minor angles to major news, as Debré did. Take a received wisdom or a social stereotype — that landlords are evil, for example — which while sometimes true is not always true. Whose job is it to tell the undertold story, the one about the saintly landlord and the evil tenants? Journalists’. Smart ideas do not just give writers a competitive edge or supply readers with engaging copy. They are a civic virtue.
Here is another funeral-home story that, like Debré’s, offers an under-noticed angle to a major event.
Amadou Diallo, a West African immigrant, was shot 41 times by police officers in 1999. A huge tragedy, a huge story, and the media reported every chapter of that story, from Mr. Diallo’s death to the investigation to the funeral to the officers’ indictments to the trial verdicts. Overhanging it all were the specters of racism, racial tension and racial violence. The story was about a killing, but the real story was race.
Richard Weir, who later became a reporter at the New York Daily News and the Boston Herald, was covering the story for the City section. Waiting amid the throng of journalists outside the Manhattan funeral parlor where Mr. Diallo’s body was taken, Weir noticed something. The parlor had a Spanish name: Francisco’s Funeraria. Its owner, Timothy O’Brien, was Irish Catholic. And the parlor specialized in Muslim funeral rituals for sub-Saharan people, like Mr. Diallo.
In other words, in its staff, history and clientele, Francisco’s Funeraria was a rainbow of religions and skin colors. How did the parlor come to specialize in Muslim funerals? Well, a Senegalese man had brought his murdered brother there 14 years earlier, and then helped to foster a relationship between Francisco’s and the local West African community. In turn, the parlor grew expert in shipping bodies back to Africa for burial; it also favored the spare décor that Muslims prefer; and it respected Islamic sensibilities, removing any crucifixes when a Muslim was prepared for burial, and pointing the coffin east, toward Mecca.
If the Diallo tragedy said something about New York and race, Francisco’s also said something, but something very different. Again, Weir’s small account is in no way a rebuttal of the main theme — racial discrimination — of the larger story. But it does augment that larger tale.
Ideas that make you smile can be profound, or not. They are topic-agnostic. But whatever pool, small or large, that smart idea plops into, whether it’s J. Lo or the Pentagon Papers, it will make waves and enlarge the public conversation.
How to think smart? Pretend your topic — terrorism, the World Series, the nichification of magazines, the ascent of Pope Francis, fusion cuisine, tattoos, term-limit laws — is a jewel. A reflexive journalist looks at the topic head on and sees just one view, maybe two. A conceptually creative journalist slowly rotates that jewel every which way, until he finds a facet for which he can say, “Here’s a side of the story people have never seen.”
The conceptually smart writer is always asking, “What’s up with that?” He is the kid at the dinner table who wonders, “Is it possible to eat peas just with a knife?”
The conceptually smart writer is swivel-headed, eyes darting everywhere. If life is a parade, he looks not just straight ahead but also side to side, and who looks inside the tuba because… well, he doesn’t really know why. He is the kid on the sidewalk watching the parade who stops up his ears just to see a band marching to music, cheeks puffed out from making music, and the crowd tapping to the music — and there is no music. He is the kid who keeps watching after the last float has rolled by because he wonders how a crowd acts, and moves, after the parade that they’ve waited hours for recedes from view. As the St. Mary’s by the Sea High School band struts by, he asks: Are there different gaits for marching? There’s the goose-stepping of the Nazis (Do geese actually walk that way? Note to self: call a naturalist), and there’s that stiff-legged walk you see in some Asian armies (What’s up with that?). And look at the drum majorette — that is one odd baton. Are there styles and sizes for those things? Is there any trending going on in the baton industry? Have there been any lawsuit-fueled alterations of the baton because a majorette or a spectator got beaned?
As the parade proceeds the kid who will grow up to become our conceptually creative writer keeps wondering: How many official parades are there on Fifth Avenue each year? As new ethnic groups arrive, how long is it before they get their own parade? What were the popular parades of the past, and are they still happening? Who has applied for a parade permit and been rejected? From a cop’s perspective, how do the parades differ? Is the Stueben Day Parade their favorite because the marchers are all sedate Germans in their 80s?
And still more wondering: New York is made for parades, with Manhattan’s concrete canyons. But what about other cities? Do they have as many parades as New York, and are their sponsoring groups different? Are there cowboy parades in Abilene, Norwegian parades in Minneapolis? What is the oldest official parade in the United States? In the world? Did the Egyptians march? Those stiff-legged wall drawings make it look like they did. And what about ticker-tape parades now that there’s no ticker tape? What do Wall Street workers send fluttering down now? Post-It Notes? And what do psychologists and sociologists say about the impulse to march anyway? Yes, they are displays of civic and ethnic pride, but are there other reasons for them? Are parades a marking of territory, like when bobcats pee to keep other bobcats away? And do animals have parades? Are there monkeys who march around to show the hyenas who’s boss? What’s up with that?
This writer will get dizzy from all his swiveling. But while the conceptually uncreative writer has just one story to write — the parade, its route, the number of floats, the size and reaction of the crowd, the local nabobs in attendance — our dizzy friend has gobs’ worth of tales, all fresh and original.
A moment in the sun
It is spring 2004. Americans are glued to CNN, watching the hearings of the 9/11 commission as it tries to sort out the country’s response to the attacks. A major theme that emerges is how the CIA and FBI withheld information from each other, battled over turf, and were generally jealous and guarded in their dealings.
“What are turf battles all about?” our swivel-headed writer friend wonders as he watches. “Are they some vestige of prehistoric days, when rival hunters would clash over control of pterodactyl nesting sites? And how do CEOs manage underlings’ turf battles? What do sociologists say about them?”
Now, it did not take the 9/11 commission to spur interest in turf battles. Everybody knows somebody who guards his territory like a mastiff, often to the detriment of his company’s or school’s or agency’s overall mission. So a story about the psychology and sociology of turf battles would draw a respectable number of readers at any time.
But the 9/11 hearings bumped up interest in turf battles big time because it put them in the news. The news is like a comet. The multitudes are busy with their various daily labors and then, as the news-comet streaks across the sky, they all look up to gape. To be mathematical about it: The total interest in a subject is the sum of its intrinsic interest and its timely interest. Intrinsic interest is constant; timely interest is variable. Birdhouse architecture always commands a certain amount of interest, but if the president is obsessed by it, interest grows.
Journalists know this. So, when the Abu Ghraib story broke in 2004, the City section ran a profile of a former New York prison guard. Why? Because the job of the prison guard — the pressures, the temptations, the dangers, the tedium — was in the news.
Timely stories can offer readers a wonderful freshness. Imagine that you write a fine article about how the Eisenhower Administration failed to seriously explore outer space because of furious turf battles between the Pentagon and civilian scientists. You prove that these wasteful clashes put us far behind the Soviet Union, and did so in mid-Cold War. Fascinating and significant but … it’s all a very done deal, no? We walked on the moon back in 1969; the space race is long over, the Cold War is long over, even the Soviet Union is long over. If, however, you write about turf battles when the 9/11 Commission puts them back in the news, your article has dramatic immediacy. How bad were these turf battles? Are they ongoing? What price will we pay for them in the war on terrorism? Can they be corrected? Can they be corrected in time?
A good peg is a book so new it’s still being written. A good peg is the difference between hearing a Sunday recap of Saturday’s game and being at Saturday’s game.
What do news pegs and timeliness have to do with smart story ideas? Just this: If you want to ponder-wonder, to hatch creative, fresh story ideas, focusing on a subject that is in the news may garner you more attention from editors and readers. That is when interest in the subject is peaking. But if you are a writer but not a journalist, if today’s news is not your thing, no problem. Just remember to ponder-wonder, and if you do, you will unearth story ideas that make you smile.
What’s more, pegs have limits, especially as the tech-propelled news cycle quickens. Overemphasis on them confers a superficial topic du jour or even topic de l’heure quality to journalism. If a reality-show cast is driven to eat rats, then today the whole nation may be agog over rat cuisine. But if some celebrity’s toddler gets a mullet, then tomorrow the agenda may switch to all mullets. The roving eye of the news sometimes doesn’t land long enough on a subject for anybody to give it a decent look. If someone has a new thought about rat cuisine, too bad if we have gone from Rat Day to Mullet Day.
But even in this revved-up news world, a gangbuster story idea — whether it is profound or puffy —may slow the cycle down a bit. Smart concepts still get some respect.
An idea taxonomy
There is no app for smart story ideas. You just have to sit and think. But I’ve roughed out a few categories of smart ideas below, not as a how-to but rather as a sampler of what kinds of ideas you might encounter if you just sit and think. Some ideas are for imaginary stories and some are for real ones, many of the latter published in the City section from the mid-1990s to the early 2000s. I’m sure these categories overlap, and I’m sure this taxonomy is incomplete. That’s another sweet thing about ideas — they’re infinite.
Picture a 1950s sci-fi film, the kind with highly evolved aliens that make humans look as dumb as potato bugs. They have giant heads to accommodate their massive brains, or maybe they are nothing but heads, sitting smugly in a beaker of bubbling liquid. Writers in that highly evolved world would probably use pure thought to deduce story ideas. No need to pound the pavement. But Ingrid Eisenstadter is an earthling writer, and she did the same thing.
Back in 1998, Eisenstadter was in a flooring store in midtown Manhattan and saw a 75-ton vault there, a vestige from the building’s days as a bank. Her brain whirred: She knew bank vaults were too heavy to move and, being a business journalist, she also knew that due to mergers and closings many bank branches had been shuttered and transformed into clothing stores, restaurants, flooring firms and whatnot.
Presto, a story idea born of deduction: What are these many immovable vaults used for now?
In a Times story I edited, Eisenstadter reported that one restaurant, Blue Water Grill, uses its vault as a banquet room — the thick steel walls prevent smartphones from disrupting the festivities. A men’s clothing store uses its vault to display suits — which customers then try on in the small private rooms where bank patrons once opened their safe deposit boxes. The flooring store? Its vault is a library for its 2,000 binders of carpet swatches.
Sometimes, the deduction is just a short hop from the underlying fact. Cal Ripken played in his 2,131st consecutive baseball game in 1995, surpassing the record held by Lou Gehrig. Boil down Ripken’s achievement to its essence — perfect attendance over a long time — and it’s clear there are plenty of other Ripkens out there in schools, government agencies, restaurants, theaters and whatnot.
Eleven days after Ripken set his record, the Times’s Lawrence Van Gelder wrote that deduced story, called “Baseball’s Iron Men Aren’t the Only Ones Made of Sterner Stuff.” Readers met such paragons of endurance as Bob Garland, who never missed a day at his milk company in Maine from 1939 to 1992, and Potter Stewart, the Supreme Court justice, who appeared on the bench unfailingly for 23 years.
To become that alien with a big head, just ask: If this, then what? “If New York City raises cigarette taxes, then won’t teens and other smokers without deep pockets buy more “loosies,” the illegal single cigarettes that some merchants sell? If crime plummets, then won’t bail bondsmen be hurt? You need to confirm your deduction, of course, and you may be wrong, but if you don’t do any deducing all you will have is the stuff that’s already known — that cigarette taxes have risen, that crime has plummeted. Train your eyes to detect the ramifications.
The purloined letter
The characters in Edgar Allan Poe’s “Purloined Letter” search high and low for a stolen note — only to find at the end of the story that it sits in plain view. The same holds for some smart story ideas. No microscope or deerstalker cap is needed to uncover them. You just need to look.
For example: New York’s Chinatown is famous for its hundreds of stores peddling fish, fruits and vegetables. Many New Yorkers flock there after work to shop, and many is the story written about this singular corner of New York, from its low prices and exotic wares to its foreign feel and the reeking smells of its shops in August.
But in 2002 a Times writer named Kelly Crow noticed something obvious but overlooked in this much-visited neighborhood. Often, merchants put their customers’ tofu or snapper or figs into persimmon-colored plastic bags. Not yellow, not green, not white, but persimmon — a color rarely seen in plastic shopping bags anywhere else in the city. It was one of those ideas that, when uttered, every New York journalist who has ever ambled down Canal Street, Chinatown’s main road, said, “Of course! Why didn’t I think of that! What is up with those odd-colored bags?”
Crow’s answer: Red means good luck in Chinese culture. That’s why Chinatown vendors prefer these singular reddish bags. For similar reasons, they avoid bags that are white (the color of mourning) and yellow (the color of death).
The smart writer looks hard, until she sees something new.
The unlit corner
The klieg lights of the media shine bright, but they don’t shine everywhere. Many corners are dark or dim. Smart writers poke around these neglected spots. When the media dwells blindingly on something, ask, “What about this topic aren’t they writing about?”
Consider the Hamptons. Much is the ink that has been spilled every summer scrutinizing the parties, the gear and the goings-on of well-heeled folks like Alec Baldwin and Gwyneth Paltrow, who vacation there along with tens of thousands of singleton strivers who rent the area’s houses. All true, and all fascinating, particularly for celebraholics.
But that is not all there is to summer homes in New York. In a 2001 article called “The Hamptons It’s Not,” Field Maloney recounted how he and six other twentysomethings rented a tiny bungalow in the Rockaways, a working-class beach community in Queens. The bungalow had Astroturf carpet on the porch and the day was punctuated by the screeching of low jets from Kennedy Airport. Maloney described a decidedly un-Hamptons scene: “‘It’s all pretty simple,’ a Rockaway man with a silvered walrus mustache told me: ‘’If you see little kids in underpants, it’s a Puerto Rican beach, if you see grown men in their underpants, it’s the Russian beach.’”
A good story. The media’s high beams are always trained on the Hamptons, so they haven’t a candle to spare for the Rockaways. But Maloney did.
Similarly: The stars of Broadway, their names gracing the marquee, are media darlings. Their every move is lavishly covered. But every star has an understudy, an accomplished actor who stands in for that star during sickness or vacation. These understudies are fascinating figures: What is it like to play second fiddle to a star? How do they stay in good form if they rarely trod the stage? What do they do all night as they wait in the wings? (Play checkers? Read Variety? Stew and sulk?) Have any understudies climbed to the top? Have any eclipsed their star in a stand-in performance? And what is it like to step onto the stage and face an audience miffed that the famous star they came to see will not appear?
Bring on the stories about the stars. But also bring on a tale about the poignant figure known as the understudy. That’s what Dana Kennedy did in a 2001 Times story called “Almost Famous,” where you will learn, among other things, that Shirley MacLaine is one of the rare understudies who has scrambled to the top.
The contrarian impulse
Some of the best concept writers are contrary. When everyone else looks up, they look down.
Imagine a story about the homes of the homeless — the listing cardboard boxes, the wooden lean-tos, the tacked-up tar paper and other ways the homeless stave off the elements. Typically, such a story would contain touching interviews with the homeless about their cramped quarters (“You’ve got to bend your knees just right to fit in the bed”), the structures’ flimsiness (“A good strong wind and she’s gone”), the danger of intrusion and attack (“They beat my friend Billy bad”).
But — now you are the journalist slowly rotating the diamond for the Unseen Facet — you hatch a much less familiar story: an appreciation of the shelters of the homeless. Your article, amply photographed, celebrates the inventive architecture of these structures, the personal touches and the triumph of will and wile over slim means. You call the story “House Proud” and take readers from Ernie the Bookworm’s alphabetized library, hidden behind his bed, to Mary’s tiny garden of tomatoes, spinach and carrots, to Marty’s “Jacuzzi,” a pool of fresh water behind his plywood shack that’s perfect for a summer dip.
This hypothetical article rests on no startling news. It just adds a fresh angle to the conventional take — that the homes of the homeless are the sad little structures of folks in straitened circumstances.
Journalists say that “man bites dog” is news but “dog bites man” is not. The adage is good shorthand for a novel story idea, but it speaks about an easily acquired novel story idea. It takes no brainwork to see a man biting a dog, or to realize that such an event is unusual. But to see Mary tending her tomato plot and conjure up “House Proud,” a writer must be able to see beyond the conventional wisdom —those stereotypes, truisms, norms, and social backdrops that form the unexamined wallpaper of our lives.
Another example of smart contrarianism: For decades, nostalgic New Yorkers have swooned over the Brooklyn of the Past. The Brooklyn, that is, of the 1940s through the 1960s, the fabled borough of the Dodgers, egg creams, stickball, Coney Island, the Brooklyn Bridge and celebrities from Mel Brooks to Barbra Streisand. But a writer and novelist, Jill Eisenstadt, flipped that notion in a skeptical 2001 Times piece.
“I wonder how good could those good old days have been without air-conditioned subways and disposable diapers?” Eisenstadt asked. “Could folks of yore watch a live round-the-clock spy cam of the Brooklyn Bridge, use an A.T.M. that speaks Urdu or learn to blow glass? Did their movie palaces offer a choice of 12 films and corn popped in canola oil?”
Eisenstadt knew that Brooklyn nostalgia was just too rosy-hued, that the good old days were getting too good a rap. So she punctured that gassy myth. Too many people were nodding yes, so she shook her head no.
The Nth degree
The caricaturist takes a trait that exists — a jutting jaw, an aquiline nose — and makes it more. Writers also can find inspiration in exaggeration.
For example: Laura Pedersen, a New Yorker, writer and dog owner, took her pets every morning to the dog run, a chained-off part of a nearby park where they could exercise. When she did, she realized that other dog owners were using the run to network, glad-handing other pet owners and deploying their dogs as wedges into conversations, all in an effort to forge business connections.
Pedersen wrote a Times story in 2000 about this scene (of course it was called “Petworking”). Now, imagine that the story simply said, “Some people in New York are using the dog run to do much more than just scratch Fido behind the ears. They are ferreting out jobs, sealing deals, etc.” Mildly interesting, but Pedersen wanted to add more pizzazz. So she exploited a reputed trait of New Yorkers — that they are brash opportunists — and portrayed their doings at the dog run as an extreme example of that signature opportunism. New Yorkers are so ambitious, Pedersen in effect said, that they are conducting their eagle-eyed networking at the early morning dog run, a time and place when most normal people — i.e., non-New Yorkers — would be yawning, nursing a big tub of coffee, and avoiding all human contact.
What was Pedersen doing when she portrayed New York as Networking City? She was playing the caricaturist. Just as an Al Hirshfeld rendering of a man with an outrageously jutting jaw pleases readers who recognize him as Jay Leno, readers of “Petworking” smile at the caricatured, glad-handing, business-card-at-the-ready New Yorker.
Consider one more: A Times writer, Erika Kinetz, discovered that sanitation workers in one New York neighborhood were being outfitted with new black unisuits. The thought of burly garbagemen decked out in fashionable gear is charming without more, but Kinetz also realized that the story location — on Madison Avenue on the tony Upper East Side — offered an opportunity for caricature: This stylish neighborhood is so stylish that even its garbagemen sport designer duds — it’s style taken to the nth degree.
Caricature stories and contrarian ones work in opposite ways. The former confirm and magnify a norm; the latter contradict a norm. A Madison Avenue story that is contrarian rather then caricaturist might begin this way: “Even though the Upper East Side is fashionista central, it is home to a new, no-nonsense clothing store devoted to generic, sensible, reasonably priced goods…”
The patchwork quilt
You are hiking along the Appalachian Trail with your cousin, a Manhattanite whose idea of nature is a daisy on his dinner table. You ask what kinds of trees he likes and he says, “Trees are green and grow from the ground and that’s basically all I know. I never thought about the differences among them.”
You smile. He’s in your element now, and soon he knows all about sycamores and maples and beeches. He knows gingko leaves turn bright yellow in the fall. He knows the ailanthus is the tree that grows in Brooklyn. He knows the oak tree is the national tree of the United States.
Like your city cousin, we all see sameness in a scene at first blush. A grove of trees is a big sea of green; a classroom of college kids is a roomful of slouchy blue jeans; a hospital nursery is wall-to-wall wailing. But if we look steadfastly, distinctions emerge from those seas of sameness: There is one lone tree, just one, that has startlingly white, papery bark. Amid the Levi’s, there’s one sole student in a suit; he must have a job interview today. And look closely at that baby, so much tinier than the others. Is it a preemie?
Gaze long enough to discern such differences, for lurking in them are story ideas.
For example, ask many New Yorkers to describe the archetypal immigrant, and they will say he is poor or in political danger, hails from the Third World, and is seeking a stable and prosperous life. But if you scrutinize the rolls of immigrants long enough, you will see some immigrant groups who diverge markedly from this stereotype. In 2005, a Times writer named Jiro Adachi profiled one such group — the Japanese. These immigrants are middle class, they come from a developed country, they are two-thirds female, and they have immigrated not for prosperity or safety but for cultural freedom. These women say they were repressed in Japan, pressured to marry young and to be demure and “feminine,” but in New York they can pursue their passions — break-dancing, hip-hop, whatever.
The more you look at something, the more variety you see.
Look inward, angel
Drug smugglers hijack a man’s boat and set him adrift on some wood. He fends off sharks, lashes himself to some flotsam to ride out rough seas, eats fish caught with hooks fashioned from paper clips (he’s a writer), and at long last flags down a boat of Haitian refugees, who rescue the sun-dazed castaway even as they are engaged in their own desperate fight for survival.
A story? Oh, yes.
Writers have no trouble detecting the rich dramas of outer life — disputes and rivalries, thrills and chills, chases and challenges. But they often overlook or underplay equally rich tales of inner, emotional life. These are squandered opportunities. Be on the lookout for such invisible tales, the ones brimming with jealousy, or pride, or selflessness. Be a little bit Jane Austen, and see the unseen.
Consider: A writer proposes a story about “nanny breakups” — instances when a nanny decides to leave a family, or vice versa. Maybe the kids are little monsters or maybe the nanny is ill-tempered and lazy, or maybe the family is moving or maybe the nanny has decided to go to medical school. For whatever reason, there is a parting of the ways.
Outwardly, these leave-takings may be uneventful. They may involve just a goodbye, some hugs and a sniffle or two. But inwardly, they often teem with high feeling. Parents’ love for their children and anxiety over their well-being prompts them to hire the best caretakers they can find. Yet some parents can grow jealous of a nanny’s bond with their children, and guilty over resorting to an outsider to raise them. The children and the nanny may grow attached to each other, and any parting will mean grief to either or both of them. There may be anger over the parting if the parents feel the nanny has mistreated their children, or if the nanny feels she has been treated shabbily, or if the children feel abandoned. Nannies usually are less affluent than their employers, and this class difference can spur resentment on the nanny’s part, and superiority or arrogance or sheepishness on the parents’.
If you doubt that an outwardly uneventful story can engage a reader, flip through Pride and Prejudice.
Some stories are both outwardly eventful and inwardly rich. One such tale focused on a Russian immigrant who spoke no English when he arrived in the United States at age 18, but within a few short years he earned the country’s highest grade on the notoriously difficult CPA test. But while the outward facts of this 1995 Times tale are compelling, the story got deeper when the writer, J. Peder Zane, sought briefly to plumb the inner meaning of numbers for this amazing numbers whiz.
In answering Zane’s questions, the man, Vitaly Sorkin, described his childhood in Russia. “As a student there I was drawn to math because it was logic and order,” he said. “It was a rational realm in a world without reason.”
What did Sorkin mean by “a world without reason”? Well, it turns out, his childhood in Russia happened to coincide with a period of great political disruption there, the start of the great political transformation of Russia from a Communist society to a capitalist one. Chaos and disorder ruled the day. “He recalled the ever-longer lines for basic goods in the late 1980s as the Soviet system breathed its last gasps,” Zane wrote, “with crime and rampant inflation rising and expectations nonexistent.”
Questions about Sorkin’s marvelous achievement and his genius — Did you get anything wrong on the CPA test? How many job offers have you gotten? — are of course central to this profile. These questions focus on the “headline” part of this person, and readers naturally want to know all about his newsworthy accomplishment. But Zane’s psychological observation is important, too, even though it is brief.
Mr. Sorkin’s revelation of his emotional attachment to mathematical order transforms numbers into more than numbers and him into more than a prodigy. The tale blossoms from something iconic but cartoonish — hard-working immigrant realizes the American Dream — to a fuller portrait of a particular immigrant whose “wow” test score is rooted in his individual quest for psychological comfort. We learn not only what this prodigy did; we learn what he feels.
A story about a marvelous exploit, like that of this genius accountant, keeps reader and subject at a distance. What reader can identify with this super accomplishment? But reveal a simple inner truth about this amazing man — his yearning for stability amid disorder — and the reader says, “This guy is human, just like me.”
People like to wrap up big-time abstractions in simple symbols. Christianity is a cross; America is a flag, a Chinese philosophical concept is the yin-yang sign.
As in life, so in art. Symbols can be a powerful and vivid way to say a big and vaporous thing.
For example: Many immigrants, separated from their loved ones, regularly send money and gifts to those back home, desperately hoping both to help them and to remain present in their lives. One story that told of that practice, a 1999 Times article about Caribbean immigrants in New York City, was particularly powerful because it hung on a symbol.
The symbol was a barrel. According to the author, Abigail Beshkin, Caribbean immigrants in New York often send goods to their families back home in sturdy cardboard barrels that are rimmed in metal and sit a few feet high. The immigrants ship the containers at Christmastime but, often, they buy them in the summer and, slowly over the months, with precious dollars, fill them up with necessaries and niceties — rice and canned milk, shoes and dresses, soccer balls and CDs.
As the containers get filled, each item tells its own story. (You can imagine: “I found these cloth slippers for Luisa for $1 in Chinatown!” or “Here are those sneakers you wanted, honey!” “Hey, Pedro, with this soccer ball you can kick like Ronaldo!”) Clearly, the container holds emotions, too. The barrel is the symbol that makes these abstractions visible.
Another story wrapped in a symbol: New York’s Little Italy is a fabled, but rapidly dwindling, neighborhood, and one day in 2002, Crow, author of the Chinatown shopping-bag story, was eating at one of the restaurants that make the place famous. But she did a double take because the maître d’, even though he spoke Italian, was Mexican.
Now, the Italian maitre d’, importuning passersby to sit and dine at his restaurant, is a hallmark of Little Italy, and Crow well knew it. To have a non-Italian maître d’ is a riveting symbol of the vanishing of this historic area. Crow’s story about this Latino encroachment carried a headline that made the symbolic point: “Maître D’ Says ‘Buona Sera,’ but Back Home, It’s ‘Buenos Días’.”
Look for such symbols as you write. They can offer an anchor for your story and make abstractions palpable, and they are everywhere. The barrel is Love Made Visible. A child’s much-patched pants is Poverty Made Visible. A farmer’s gnarled hands are Work Made Visible. Not every symbol will sit at the center of a story, as the barrels did, and some symbols, like Christ figures in bad novels, are frequently overdone. But symbols offer heft and shape and color, and that’s what readers hanker for.
In 2003, the City section editors realized that they hadn’t run a lengthy profile in a long time. So they sat and mulled. They started in the political realm — Election Day was coming — and soon zeroed in on the idea of a female politician. New York has had many prominent women in politics; in the early years of feminism, Bella Abzug, Geraldine Ferraro and Carol Bellamy were big players not just in the city, but in the entire nation.
Great! But who exactly? The names of some local female politicians were bandied about, but when the editors tried to summon up one who had the headline stature of a Ferraro or an Abzug, her face stubbornly stayed blank.
That blank face became the story. In “Where Have All the Women Gone?” reporter Erika Kinetz, author of the aforementioned piece on sanitation workers, recalled the glory days of the ’60s and ’70s, when the city was in the undisputed vanguard of women in politics. But in 2003, New York was at best in the middle of the pack. Cleveland, to pick just one city, had already had a female mayor for two years by then; New York had never had one, nor had it ever had a female speaker of the City Council.
Notice that this story is not a profile, which is what the editors had set out to find. The hunter of ideas usually bags some game, but often it’s not what he first intended. The editors’ problem of hatching a good strong profile idea would have to be solved another day — but in the meantime they had in hand a smart political story. Notice also that the editors would not have discovered this idea without knowing New York’s political history. Perceiving a departure from the past requires knowing the past. More broadly about smart story ideas: You can indeed whittle wood while you seek them, but it helps greatly to be aware of history, of norms, of conventional wisdom. Smart ideas are smart only within some body of knowledge.
A world of their own
Imagine a neighborhood beauty parlor: You know it’s exactly 4:30 when the prompt Mrs. Perkins arrives (not Ms. — she’ll tell you, loud and long, that she’s no feminist). And you know that the moment Ariel Smithies opens the door for her Wednesday trim, she will begin bragging about the success of her son, a dentist. You also know that she will not stop until grumpy Jean Calloway, whose own son is basically a layabout, tells her to pipe down.
The odds are, too, that when Stella, the owner, rips open that day’s bills she will launch into complaints that she can’t make a nickel with the rent rising, and that she’ll have to raise her prices if she doesn’t want to starve, ladies, thank you very much. And then she’ll offer everyone a donut — plain, because we all need to watch our weight.
This imaginary beauty parlor, like a real one, is a world unto itself, with its own family, setting, rhythm, ecosystem, personality and history. Those traits make such worlds the subjects of fine stories. (Just think of all the TV shows — Cheers, Parks and Recreation, Friday Night Lights — based on such worlds.) And they are everywhere, in homes, schools, taverns and workplaces.
But there are less apparent places where such self-contained worlds offer themselves to the discerning writer. In 1999, a Times reporter, Douglas Martin, found one on the heart-transplant ward at a New York hospital. Here’s the sweet, finely wrought opening:
Betsy cuddled next to Charlie on the bed, and both ignored the nonstop television. She kissed his neck, ever so gently, and a nice moment started getting nicer. Suddenly, the door flew open and three nurses, two doctors and who knows who else burst into Room 319.
Electronic monitors down the hall had indicated an alarming change in Charlie’s heartbeat, so a medical team raced to the rescue. Betsy, who married Charles Schultz three years ago, turned bright red. ”Never again,” she said as she finished telling the story. ”Tempting, but that’s it.”
It was another strange moment on Ward Seven East in the Guggenheim Pavilion of Mount Sinai Medical Center, the place where people with failing hearts wait for transplants. Charlie has waited 10 months and 10 days, longer than the 14 others on the ward. He is the dean of the self-described ”pole people” — a reference to the poles supporting the intravenous medication dispensers they must drag everywhere.
In just those few paragraphs, a reader can imagine the world of this ward, where patients stay for months, not days, allowing the growth of a communal life with distinctive characters and routines.
I found another such world in Times Square. One morning in the early 2000s I took a different route to the newsroom and bought my coffee from a young Afghani vendor. I noticed that, near his cart, at the top of a subway entrance, was a middle-aged black man who had a shoeshine stand. Between the two was a disabled white man in a motorized wheelchair that was plastered with red, white and blue bumper stickers. He peddled patriotic items to tourists. The threesome was sheltered by the subway entrance roof and by the construction scaffolding for the now-completed Westin Hotel, so they were cozy and dry if it rained.
I took the new route for a few days, and realized that this threesome had formed their own little family. The shoeshine man was friendly with the Afghani — a handsome charmer who seemed to be the center of the group — and both of them chatted often with the wheelchair patriot. There were various supporting players, too. The hardhats at the Westin bought their coffee and crullers from the Afghani, and they let him and possibly the other two use their bathroom. The coffee man and the shoeshine man had regular customers, who’d banter with them not just about sugar and shoe polish but about sports and family and whatnot, in a quick gotta-get-to-work kind of way.
This was mostly a morning family; the Afghani would pack up his coffee cart at noon and leave, and the shoeshine business ebbed in midday. But still it was its own little world. The three men could not have been more different — a young Afghani, a middle-aged black man, a patriotic white flag peddler — and, poetically, they had grown roots in a spot famed for both transience and diversity: Times Square, the Crossroads of the World.
Unfortunately, the shoeshine man refused to speak to our reporter, and so the story never happened. But if it had, we might have learned: How did the day unfold for these three men, with commuters streaming out of Port Authority, a block away? What were the dynamics of this “family”? Did they bicker over politics? Were there ethnic or personality strains? What did the shoeshine man think about the war in Afghanistan, and did the disabled man relate to the hardhats? What sights had they seen from their Times Square perch?
Search for worlds that are harder to discern than, say, a beauty parlor. Maybe you’ll find one like the one that got away in Times Square.
We have looked at some important news events — the killing of Amadou Diallou, the scandal of Abu Ghraib — and explored smart story ideas that were spun off of those timely topics. But virtually every story, from the tiny to the topmost, has nestled within it some smart story ideas:
In January 2005, a fire at the Chambers Street subway station in Manhattan destroyed equipment and knocked out much service. The mess would take months to fix. The hyperactive New York media examined the event from many angles: the cause of the fire, the disruption for commuters, the cost of repair, the explanation of how a small fire could hobble a big chunk of the subway.
As an editor at the City section, you must answer this question: What fresh angle is left to write about?
The media, unsurprisingly, dealt with serious issues, so you ask yourself: Did this admittedly unhappy mess have any lighter side? How about this: What will passengers do with the extra riding time they will have for the six to nine months the repairs will take? Maybe one rider welcomes the extra 40-odd minutes of travel; she’s addicted to Yukio Mishima novels. Maybe another plans major knitting for her sister’s expected twins, and another is delighted to have more time to chat with a good friend whom she sees on the train but hardly anywhere else. Those flirting teens? They won’t even notice the extra travel time. This spinoff tale is made up, but it would have been a smart idea.
Just as even modest stories like this subway fire can yield at least one smart spinoff, mega events, like global warming and 9/11, teem with them. Here are summaries of two novel 9/11 articles published in the City section soon after the attacks. Notice how these tales supplemented and played off the intense media coverage of the tragedy. That is no accident. Huge news events prompt huge media coverage, and that coverage creates a whole backdrop of conventional wisdom and iconic imagery that conceptually creative journalists can play off of to develop fuller, more nuanced reportage.
1) In the immediate aftermath of the attacks, anxious families and colleagues blanketed New York with “missing” posters of the victims, desperately seeking clues to their fate. The posters were affixed to lampposts, walls, subway railings and mailboxes. Desperate families and co-workers handed out “Have you seen _____?” flyers to passersby, and pleaded on TV and radio for leads.
But not every victim had such loving support. Paul Lisson, 45, was a painfully shy, socially awkward loner who died in the towers on 9/11. He was single, and he had a strained relationship with his father; his mother, to whom he had been close, was dead. His social network was tiny. Not only were there no posters pasted up for Lisson; he was so socially isolated that the person who filed the missing persons report was not a lover or relative or co-worker or friend. It was his hairdresser, who filed the report when he missed his appointment.
“She figured there were few if any others to do so,” wrote the reporter, Leslie Berger. “No one would be blanketing the city with missing posters about him. Mr. Lisson was not among those with partnerships and portfolios, loving wives, houses full of children and roomfuls of friends.”
This story of aloneness made 9/11 even sadder, but it also enlarged the chronicle of that day. The media was right to focus on heart-wrenching story of the victims who had a band of loved ones scrambling to find and help them. But this story told a different, less publicized tale.
2) For nearly a year after 9/11, the media closely scrutinized the 16 acres of ground zero. Nothing about those 16 acres was too tiny or too fleeting to report, from the second-by-second reconstruction of the attacks, to the exacting blueprints of the Twin Towers’ every floor, stairwell and hallway. Teeny details, photographed endlessly, became iconic. Broken coffee cups. Twisted steel beams shaped like a church spire. Ash-covered stacks of Brooks Brothers shirts.
Of course, this made total sense; ground zero was center stage. But the attacks’ tremors traveled citywide, so the City section editors asked: How did 9/11 unfold in neighborhoods far from ground zero? What strands ran from those neighborhoods to the 16 acres downtown? To find out, they sent a team of reporters to Highbridge, a Bronx neighborhood near Yankee Stadium that stood nine miles north of ground zero.
In the resulting article, readers learned that even though Highbridge had no twisted metal or crumbled buildings, the attacks had touched it in many ways. At 8 a.m., Abdoulaye Kone, a pastry chef at a restaurant in the Twin Towers, called his wife, Celestine, at their home in Highbridge. She never heard his voice again. Dana Gerandasi, a first-grade teacher at a local church school, was frustrated that morning as she tried to learn what happened because all the school TVs were tuned to Spanish stations, and she spoke only English. As that fateful day progressed, and Highbridge residents who worked downtown began returning home — on foot, of course, because the subways were at a standstill — they made for a startling sight: As they entered this mostly dark-skinned neighborhood, they were all covered with white ash. (“‘I was white,’ said David Morales, who was delivering flowers on Church Street in Lower Manhattan when the first tower fell. ‘If I had had an Afro, I would have looked like Michael Jackson.’”)
And the next day, Sept. 12? Although Highbridge was normally full of Puerto Rican and Dominican flags, that day it was the Stars and Stripes that sprouted from its homes and cars and hot dog carts.
The lights went out. They all went out, not just in my house in Brooklyn but in my neighbor’s house and in every other home, office and school in the city, in the state, and in seven other states in the Northeast, as well as in Canada. It was mid-August 2003, and not only were the lights out but the air-conditioning and the traffic signals and everything else electrical was off. People bumped their heads looking for that long-unused flashlight in the broom closet; they sat outdoors to escape the indoor heat; they gorged on ice cream because it was going to melt anyway.
The news was so big it got a proper name: the Blackout of 2003. It was a fast and furious development. Everything’s normal, then boom, everything’s not. But there is also something called slow news, the kind that sneaks up on you. If a building in Midtown Manhattan crashes to the ground, that’s fast and furious news, and it gets noticed. If that structure crumbles bit by bit, brick by brick, over years, that’s slow news, and often it draws little or no attention.
For example: In the 1980s, New York City began to relax the rules on using only historically authentic materials to repair landmarked buildings. The city allowed some owners to fix their roofs with synthetic slate, for instance, and allowed others to replace damaged terra cotta cornices with cheaper but lookalike fiberglass ones. As the years passed and the technology of these faux materials advanced, officials loosened similar restrictions on repairing wrought-iron fences, limestone facades, and so on.
This is news in baby steps. It is low tide becoming high tide. If city officials had approved these changes (which tend to be controversial, pitting preservation purists against cash-strapped building owners) in one dramatic swoop, a story would have been a no-brainer. But when the changes accrete slowly, it becomes fine territory for the discerning, conceptually ambitious writer.
To find slow news, though, a writer must shake hands with the past. If he interviews a landmarks official, he should ask not just what happened this week, but what has been happening over the last five or 10 or 15 years. That is what Jim O’Grady did in a 2002 Times article (“The Bionic Brownstone”) about the gradual relaxation of the historical preservation rules described above.
A close look at the past can put slow changes in high relief. Putting a photo of a Manhattan block in 1970 next to one of the same block today will underscore all the razing and rebuilding that happened in between. Past utterances can do the same: Think of those old-time quotations that show how much the world has changed — a politician saying a woman’s place in the home, for instance. Sometimes a sly writer will trot out just such a quotation but hide the name of the speaker. More than once in the last year, I’ve read a quotation expressing a sentiment that sounds liberal to modern ears. Then, coyly, the writer reveals that the speaker is none other than Richard Nixon. The author’s message: the nation, over the years, has slowly drifted rightward.
A study of the past can also be used demonstrate the “same old, same old” thesis: that a recent event, far from being a radical departure from the past, is in fact in line with it. For example, 9/11 was indisputably a massive event in Lower Manhattan, but in a 2004 Times article Eric Lipton proved that ground zero had seen several major events, both good and bad: An early Dutch owner of the site played a major role in a 1643 Indian massacre there; the killing sparked years of warfare. In 1776, a huge blaze destroyed every single home on the site. Ground zero is also the place where some of the Civil War draft riots erupted, and where Robert Fulton launched his famous steamship.
Today’s news is always outsize in contemporary minds; by placing it alongside the events of the past, we can put it in fuller perspective.
The knitting factory
Up to now, I’ve treated smart ideas as if they just pop up fully formed, like Aphrodite from the foamy sea. Often they do, but sometimes the process is more gradual. I’ll try to show that process with a hypothetical piece I’ll call “The New Rich.”
Consider an imaginary piece called “The New Rich.” The idea is to profile a half-dozen new millionaires, charting their rise to the top, and with the economy in the doldrums the story would have a nice contrarian twist. But the writer assigned to the piece is not impressed. To him it’s a stale old chestnut of an idea. But he dutifully began his reporting, aided by suggestions from newsroom colleagues. Among the millionaire candidates he rounded up were Ryan McPhail, who founded a chain of dry-cleaning stores in San Diego; Lee Bonham, a nationwide pawnshop magnate; and Terry Ansonia, whose Kid Zone, a string of child-care centers located in downtown office districts, had popped up all over the South.
Still no more than mildly interesting, the writer thought. So he examined his millionaires’ list more closely, and noticed that many of these new rich found their money in the economic struggles of others. There was the pawnshop king, for one, and the lawyer with the bustling bankruptcy practice, for another. Then there was the founder of a computer-training school that catered largely to folks who had lost their jobs and were searching for a new career. Even Ms. Ansonia’s Kid Zone could be linked to the recession; with money tight, many more moms were taking jobs and needed to put their kids in day care.
And so a stronger, more focused story was born. Call it “Rags to Riches,” but now that phrase has a smarter meaning than it had in the original story idea. Now, the “rags” signify both the new millionaires’ less affluent pasts, as well as the economic troubles that paved their road to riches. What’s more, the writer of this sharper story can explore the whole phenomenon of prosperity within recession. Besides the fields in which our “recession millionaires” prosper, what other businesses get buoyed up by bad times? Who smiles when the rest of the economy frowns?
Our smart writer detected a shared trait among the candidate millionaires, a trait beyond the obvious fact that they all had fat wallets. Of course, journalists make such connections all the time; consider the common phrase, “Three makes a trend.” But those threesomes are usually easy to spot — three police officers shot, three fires in Midtown, three cinemas shuttered. To see less visibly linked elements, the conceptually creative writer needs to squint hard.
Stories of distinction
It was a sweet story to run in June, the month of marriages: an account of creative marriage proposals.
One man proposed to his fiancée, a teacher, over her school P.A. system, stunning her with his voice when she no doubt expected to hear the principal’s. Her students were highly amused. Another hid a diamond ring in a package of M&M’s at a concert. And a third staged a mock arrest of his girlfriend for shoplifting. When one of the in-on-the-prank policemen unclipped his handcuffs, the man dropped to his knees and read her her “rights”: ”You have the right to be proposed to,” he announced. ”You have the right to be happy the rest of your life.”
And so on.
Lots of fun, but here’s the problem: This story of more than 3,000 words ran the risk of reading like a laundry list. “Here’s a quirky wedding proposal,” is followed, a few paragraphs later, with “And here’s another quirky proposal.” The writer’s transitions from one anecdote to the next would be more artful than that, of course, but no matter how artful the piece would still read like a string of echoing tales.
The solution: Make distinctions among the examples. That way, each tale adds a new twist, not just more of the same.
But how to distinguish among the tales? Richard Weir, the writer of this 1999 Times tale, focused on the why behind these unusual proposals.
One source, a bridal shop executive, said that creative proposals are a protest against the orchestrated nature of modern life. “Couples today know when they’re going to get engaged, when they’re going to get married, when they’re going to have their first child,” she said. There followed an example of a proposal that fit her theory — a man who put his proposal (“Jenny B. Will You Marry Me?”) on a sign in a window of the couple’s waterfront apartment. Then he took her on a boat cruise on the Hudson River, and handed her a pair of binoculars as they passed their building.
Another source, a wedding planner, said that some unorthodox proposals are prompted by a desire to share happiness. The paired anecdote fit that theory: It was a proposal made on the Yankee Stadium scoreboard.
By making these distinctions over motive, the writer avoids a laundry list feel. Why? Because when items are not equal to each other, they feel less like a list. Also helpful is the article’s new sandwich structure: reason, anecdote, reason, anecdote, reason, anecdote. That’s much less listy than anecdote, anecdote, anecdote, anecdote.
Making distinctions in a story also adds a sense of continuing discovery. If a story is a trip down a river, a series of echoing tales is an unchanging landscape — a straight river with the same shoreline, mile after mile. Vary the tales through distinctions, and the river begins to bend and the scenery becomes interestingly mixed. The reader is treated to gradual revelations throughout the story that sustain his curiosity and propel him forward.
Of course, these distinctions are not merely a writing tactic. They are reportorial and analytical; they get at the forces underlying the phenomenon. They deepen the story concept.
“The general idea,” writes William E. Blundell, author of The Art and Craft of Feature Writing, is to identify differentness and organize to exploit it.”
The headline no one sees
Journalists have a game they call “What’s the Headline?” They don’t mean the headline that will actually appear on an article. They mean a shorthand phrase for each possible angle a future story could take. (“Angle” is a journalists’ term for a story idea, and the term has plenty of synonyms: slant, tack, theme, concept, big thought and yes, headline.) These “headlines,” or nutshell statements, help journalists to compare these various tacks and to select the best, freshest, smartest one.
Here is how these faux headlines were used to assess the various angles for a 2001 Times story about the street in Queens where the bus from Rikers Island — the home of the city’s famous jail — drops off just-released prisoners every weekday. The prisoners arrive in the wee hours, but often an assortment of people is waiting for them: wives, girlfriends, kids, parents, prostitutes and drug dealers. The street also features a deli, some donut shops and a strip club. There’s a big subway station nearby, too, so the now-former inmates can go their various ways. Also close by is a big film studio and the new office of a big insurer.
A reporter, Adam Fifield, smelled a story in this unusual, busy scene. Here are the four candidate answers to the question “What’s the Headine?”
- Find an inmate as he exits the Rikers bus — his first step of freedom — and follow him from, say, the donut shop (better than prison slop!) to the subway, to his mother’s house in the Bronx, to his job-hunting efforts the next day. Interview him about what this first morsel of freedom tastes like and what his future plans are. (Headline: “Free at Last — But Now What?”)
- Focus on the tension between local residents and Rikers officials over the drop-off point. Some residents, citing the early hours when the prisoners are freed, are tolerant. But some merchants, families with children and others insist that the Rikers bus brings with it high crime rates and falling property values. Rikers officials deny this, as do various inmates’ rights groups. (Headline: “The Fight Over the Newly Freed.”)
- Explore the hard choices that confront these inmates. This ordinary Queens street is their crucible. After long months of prison, they enter a dreary bus and emerge free — but that freedom is a two-edged sword. Will they take their prison-issue pocket money and fall into the old ways? After all, the drug dealers and prostitutes are beckoning just across the street. Or do they show resolve and head to the subway station and a new way of life? (Headline: “Temptation Alley.”)
- Describe the ecosystem of this unusual street. The busloads of prisoners, the all-night donut shops, the drugs and sex, the subway station, the waiting wives and girlfriends, are interlocked like the pieces of a puzzle. The prostitutes hang out in the donut shops; the deli owner lets the wives and girlfriends wait under his awning; the subway attendant, a religious man, hands the freed inmates Bible tracts. In the manner of the movie “Grand Hotel,” this story would focus on the many faces of this unusual spot. (Headline: “Life on Freedom Street.”)
Which of the four to choose? Here are some of the questions that the conceptually ambitious writer might ask:
Which approach offers the richest material? “The Fight Over the Newly Freed” seems to be thin in human drama and emotion. It also seems to shortchange the unusual nature of this street by focusing on a common kind of dispute: a not-in-my-backyard battle in which residents buck efforts to put prisons, halfway houses, nightclubs, homeless shelters and other “undesirable” institutions in their neighborhoods. The other three ideas seem to do more justice to the street’s most striking trait.
Writers must also consider what others have written about the drop-off spot. If “Temptation Alley” and “Life on Freedom Street” have already been done, for instance, and the journalists reject “The Fight Over the Newly Freed” as not rich enough, they may settle on “Free at Last — But Now What?”
Also, as noted above, it is a big plus if one angle dovetails nicely with recent news. If the U.S. Department of Justice has just published a blockbuster report on recidivism, then “Temptation Alley” might be appealing. Or perhaps the reporter knows that the insurer, fearful for workers’ safety, has threatened to abandon the new office if the drop-off point is not moved. Then “The Fight Over the Newly Freed” may look good.
Journalists will also consider other stories they are planning. If they have scheduled an article about a NIMBY-ish dispute in another neighborhood, for example, “The Fight Over the Newly Freed” might be rejected. Journalists don’t like to sound the same note in two stories that run close in time.
Of course, the four angles can overlap. The theme of newfound freedom runs through all four, and no matter which angle wins out, a smart writer will always find room for a haunting, telling tidbit like this: As the prisoners exit the bus, people nearby can hear the clatter on the ground of discarded razor blades. The inmates needed those razor blades to protect themselves at Rikers. But they don’t need them anymore.
The conceptually ambitious writer knows that one choice is always the worst: to try to squeeze all angles into one piece. That guarantees a mishmash of a story. Half the piece may dwell on one inmate; the other half on local folks who oppose the drop-off point. One of the most critical parts of writing is picking what not to write.
Francis Flaherty, author of The Elements of Story: A Field Guide to Nonfiction Writing (HarperCollins), was a New York Times columnist and author for 19 years. He now teaches journalism at New York University and Columbia University, and edits books. He is writing a book on language with the working title, English: A Fan’s Notes.