For an ambitious young reporter who loved writing stories, it sounded like the assignment of a lifetime. My editor, Joel Rawson, wanted daily narratives for the front page of The Providence Journal. The idea also seemed impossible. I’d written narratives before, but usually had at least a week and even more on some occasions. Never a day.
But good editors, like reporters, are in the sales business, and Joel poured it on thick. This was a chance for great storytelling, he said, to write like his heroes Ernest Hemingway and Jimmy Breslin, whose columns gleamed with details like the sun glinting off a mobster’s pinky ring, and unforgettable characters like Clifton Pollard, who dug JFK’s grave at Arlington National Cemetery. Rawson wanted stories that took readers into gritty South Providence, where cars rusted on cinder blocks, and to tony Barrington where sailboats were silhouetted against the sky.
The staid morning Journal was the Rhode Island establishment’s Gray Lady of record. Its copy desk chief, a fierce pipe-smoking protector of those Gray Lady standards, nicknamed “Chairman Mao,” greeted the plan with suspicion and set forth preconditions. These “stories” had to be off the news – no overwritten paeans to spring. And no 100-inch mega-turds either, like those Sunday narrative reconstructions Rawson and his “New Journalism” acolytes were so fond of. I would get 20 inches, 800 words, no more. Oh yes, and they were due to the desk by 8 p.m. Sharp.
Rawson chose another storytelling disciple, Berkley Hudson, to divvy up the work. It didn’t take long for Berkley and me to come up with a name for the crushing demands of our new job: “The Heart Attack Beat.”
My favorite story from my “heart attack beat” days is “From Jon to Lani: The Gift of Life.” As Chairman Mao decreed, it started with news – a weekend cop short about a teenage girl hit by a train and the Boy Scout credited with saving her life. It also had the promise of a story.
It would never have risen above that cliche – Boy Scout saves girl – without the essentials that narrative demands: immersion, on-site reporting for scene, setting, characters and status details, gleaned from interviews, observation and documents. I raced from the police station to the railroad trestle to the men’s shop where the modest hero stacked shirts, my notebook and tape recorder picking up threads. I knew how fast the train was going, that the engineer cried “Girl,” that Jon told her “Pretend you’re in Bermuda” while he held her mangled leg in the air to keep her from bleeding to death before the rescue crew arrived.
But I still didn’t have a story, a central idea, a theme. I had pearls – anecdotes, quotes, details – but as sports columnist Tom Boswell puts it, no thread to string them on that would weave a narrative instead of an article’s patchwork of facts. And the clock was ticking. I had two choices: shoot for a hospital interview or head for the girl’s house. Squeamishness, I confess, made my decision. But fate delivered Lani’s parents. In their living room, Lani’s mother said that her daughter’s clean-cut rescuer was just the kind of kid her rebellious child couldn’t abide.
I’d finally found a story. However imperfect the puzzle, the last piece fell into place.
In the process, I discovered that narrative writing was possible, even in the crucible of tight deadlines, whether it’s a few days, or in the case of the Jon and Lani story, a single shift.
Making every assignment a narrative workshop
Storytelling on deadline may not often match the influential definition Jon Franklin provides in “Writing for Story”: “A story consists of a sequence of actions that occur when a sympathetic character encounters a complicating situation that he confronts and solves.”
After all, it may be quite a stretch to consider some newsworthy figures encountered on deadline – a wily politician, say, or a serial killer – as sympathetic characters. And while news is full of complicating situations, the timetables for conflict, climax and resolution may not meet your 6 p.m. deadline. Jon and Lani were both sympathetic characters. Given the choice, I would have focused on Lani, a troubled child whose life is changed on that trestle, not only by a train, but by the stranger who saved her. But Lani had just emerged from surgery, ruling her out as the kind of source who could provide the complication, point of view, scenes, climax resolution and point of view narratives demand.
But don’t let such constraints dissuade you from trying to make each assignment a workshop in narrative writing skills. On deadline, you and your readers can be satisfied if your story meets the qualifications of my definition:
A story features characters rather than sources, the intimate voice of a narrator instead of an institution; communicates experience through the five senses and a few others: a sense of people, sense of place, sense of time, and, most important, a sense of drama; has a beginning that grabs a reader’s attention, a middle that keeps the reader engaged and an ending that lingers in the reader’s mind like the reverberations of a gong.
Some writers are skilled enough to produce a full-bodied narrative on deadline, one that reflects all the ingredients of literary grace.
Others can begin with reporting and writing that delivers the elements of my definition of story, one that
- Features characters rather than sourcesIn most news reports, people are little more than a name, a title, an age and an address. “Janice Richardson, 35, advertising account manager at Hathaway Communications.”A person can be sketched quickly and with powerful effect with a few brushstrokes, as Mitch Albom of The Detroit Free Press does with his portrait of a football player and convicted rapist:He is kind of thin for a football player, with a gangly walk, dark hair that falls onto his forehead, a thick neck, crooked teeth, a few pimples.
- Communicates experience through the five senses, and a few others: a sense of people, sense of place, sense of time, and, most important, a sense of dramaOut in the field, Gerald M. Carbone of The Providence Journal records sensory details in his notebook. “I will always write down ‘Sight,’ and I’ll look around and see what I’m seeing; and I’ll write down ‘Sound,’ and then ‘Smell’ or ‘Scent.’ “The habit enabled him to report and write an award-winning story in three days about a dramatic mountaintop rescue that contained this evocative passage, lifted directly from his notebook:Below the treeline, the White Mountains in winter are a vision of heaven. Deep snow gives them the texture of whipping cream. Boulders become soft pillows. Sounds are muted by the snow. Wind in the frosted pines is a whisper, a caress.When a reporter is on the scene, the contrast is striking. Reporting for story means being alert for narrative elements: scenes, dialogue, details. Not just a person’s age, but what she’s wearing, how she moves, any and all that can put the reader in the world of the story.I wrote the jump-and-run narrative “It Wasn’t a Trap” for the St. Petersburg Times in 1986. It’s about a bizarre killing in a poor Miami neighborhood under assault from crack. From a distance of two decades, I can still remember dashing from scene to scene, fortunately with Ricardo Ferro, a Times reporter and Cuban-American who seemed to know every nook and cranny in the city. Together, we climbed the roof where the trap had been set; journeyed to the project apartment where the dead burglar’s sister lived; checked in with the cops, who’d marked “man trap” on the roster board; learned from the funeral director that he had dressed the dead man in his own cast-off suit and buried him in a particle board “pauper’s casket.”At every spot, in every interview, I kept digging for the theme embedded in this tragedy, one that would guide the structure, the voice and the choice of details and voices. Once again, it was a case of two lives converging. This time, I had two days in the field before returning to St. Petersburg to draft and rewrite all weekend for Monday’s front page.
To write effective narrative, you have to report the specific, and let that guide your questions. (“Who pays for the funeral? How much does the county pay? What was he buried in? Where was he buried? What does it look like?”) Asking such questions engages your sources in the pursuit of your story; remember, everyone has a story. The writer’s job is to weave them into a master narrative.
- Has a beginning that grabs a reader’s attention Compare these leads from two stories on the same event:A 28-year-old Queens woman was stabbed to death early yesterday morning outside her apartment house in Kew Gardens.Neighbors who were awakened by her screams found the woman, Miss Catherine Genovese of 82070 Austin Street, shortly after 3 a.m. in front of the building three doors from her home.— The New York TimesThe neighbors had grandstand seats for the slaying of Kitty Genovese. And yet, when the pretty, diminutive 28-year-old brunette called for help, she called in vain.— The New York Herald Tribune
The 1964 case of Kitty Genovese and her callous neighbors became a symbol of a new generation of uncaring Americans. The Times lead is boilerplate summary, ordinary treatment for just another murder. The Herald Tribune’s hard-boiled cliche approach isn’t perfect. But for all its faults, it’s hard to imagine that the case would have been so deeply embedded in our country’s history without the Trib’s blunt focus.
- Has a middle that keeps the reader engagedIn May 1982, Tony Conigliaro, a much-beloved former Boston Red Sox player, emerged from a four-month-long coma after suffering a heart attack. It fit our front-page narrative criteria, so off I went to a hospital press conference. Crafting a story from this kind of journalistic pingpong means keeping a reader involved from start to finish.We focus on leads and endings, ignoring the fact that muddled middles often bring a narrative to a screeching halt. The deadline storyteller’s challenge is to maintain interest. Varying sentence length keeps the reader alert, as does dramatic information from an expert source, delivered in an omniscient narrative voice:Reporters were not allowed to see Conigliaro, who had auditioned for a sportscasting job the day of his heart attack. What they would find in a second-floor hospital room, Dr. Kaulbach said, is a 37-year-old man “in extraordinary condition. He is lean, he looks like an athlete, his muscles have not lost their tone.”It is a mirage.“If you watched him for a while,” the doctor said, “you would realize he does not behave like a person who is awake. He’s sort of vague, he sort of stares. He is no longer truly comatose, but you cannot say he is conscious.”Conigliaro faces “many months” of physical therapy, and even after that, the doctor said, he could not predict a full recovery or a normal life.
“He will not recover to the point where he will go jogging or do anything that is within the realm of possibility for the average citizen.”
- Has an ending that lingers in the reader’s mind like the reverberations of a gong Matt Purdy of The New York Times met that standard in his story about the testimony of Johnny Morales, the little boy who saw his father murdered and had to confront the killer:“You saw the shooting?”“Yeah.”“You saw your Daddy get killed by the man you saw?”“Yeah.” No further questions. For whatever it was worth, the 7-year-old had done his part in the adult version of justice.
Then he was hustled out of the courtroom, walking in a smart suit between two comforting women.
The door banged open and Johnny was a boy again. He quickly drew his hand up to his mouth as if it had been hit by the door, let out a big “Ah,” and broke into a big, toothy smile.
The road to narrative writing is a long one, a quest to learn the skills of reporting, writing, theme, structure, characterization and voice that the form demands. Four years separated “the heart attack beat” that produced “From Jon to Lani: The Gift of Life” and “It Wasn’t a Trap.” Those years of practice taught me a fundamental lesson: A full-bodied narrative may be out of reach on deadline, but the individual skills and, more important, the habits and narrative judgment that make narratives possible, aren’t.
1. Get out of the office as much as possible; that’s where the stories are.
2. Learn to capture physical details about everyone you interview, sum up the overall impression in a single theme (slovenly, authoritative, indifferent) and choose one or two details that make the reader see the person as someone other than a name and title.
3. Identify and record the hallmarks of a scene – time, place, action, dialogue.
4. Replace inverted pyramid thinking with beginnings, middles and ends.
5. Ask not only “what’s the news?” but “what’s the story?”
The more these elements make it into your daily work, piece by piece, the greater your chance to produce deadline narratives that contain all of them.