A woman grieves at her husband's grave in Bucha, Kyiv, which was the site of a massacre of civilians by Russian soldiers

A woman visits the grave of her husband in Bucha, Kyiv Oblast, where Russian soldiers are alleged to have killed numerous civilians on May 12, 2022.

A standard — some would say ideal — approach to effective narrative nonfiction is to follow a single, primary character through an intimate journey that illuminates a larger social situation. The key is to find a person to follow — one who fully represents the issue you’re exploring, who is credible and can carry the weight of your story, and who provides access without conditions that compromise your reporting. Sometimes story subjects like that show up as we report and keep our eyes open to the key players — or played upon — of an event. But usually it means determining what kind of person represents the story you are striving to tell, finding them and gaining their cooperation.

I’m a fan of this form as both a reader and a writer. I think of it as the micro that reveals the macro. A friend has a more sophisticated way to think of it. She calls it the Physics of Storytelling, where the more intimate and individual a story, the more universal it becomes.

Storyboard is a trove of this kind of narrative. Consider how Katie Engelhart found one resident of the first nursing home hit by COVID to take readers inside Ground Zero of the pandemic. Or how Peter Jamison found one family to represent the divisive tensions of vaccine politics. You can also read pretty much anything by Eli Saslow of the Washington Post to study the power of the form, whether he’s writing about the reactivation or nuclear missile silos on America’s prairie, the scourge of poverty and homelessness in American cities or the gutting of America’s middle class,

Alas, the ideal is not always, or even often, the reality, especially in deadline-driven journalism. Sometimes that single, perfect story subject can’t be found, or won’t cooperate, or represents part, but not all, of the story we need to tell.

There are as many solutions as there are challenges to that reality. One of them, counterintuitively, is not to tell the deeply intimate story of one but instead to find a few — perhaps three or four — and show how each of them represents a facet of a multi-faceted issue.

That’s what Carlotta Gall and Oleksandr Chubko of The New York Times did in their recent profile of “The Three Women of Bucha: Deaths and Lives.” Gall and Chubko had reported on the massacre of citizens in Bucha, Ukraine, by Russian soldiers in the early weeks of the war. Over time, as mass graves were discovered and bodies identified, they identified three women who had gone missing: a 34-year-old civil servant who was visiting friends, a 36-year-old Bucha native who was getting over a rough youth, and a 81-year-old retired epidemiologist who lived alone in a forested area with her dog and cat after she was widowed. Once the bodies were found, Gall and Chubko returned to find out who the women were, and how they could help readers understand the horrors of this war.

Triptych lede and parallel structure

But how you do approach a story like that structurally? Following one person through a narrative journey, with expansions to show what their journey can teach us about the bigger issue, is one thing. But asking readers to follow three? Especially when there’s no full access to any of the three?

“The Three Women of Bucha” is not a simplistic structure but is, counterintuitively, an intriguingly simple one.

The story starts with what I think of as a triptych lede. In one tight graf it introduces us to each of the women in ways that foreshadow the the story focus and let’s us know that their deaths, while as individual and intimate as possible, were part of a collective:

BUCHA, Ukraine — One woman was badly beaten and shot through the eye. Another, held captive by Russian soldiers, was found in a cellar, shot in the head. An 81-year-old grandmother was discovered hanging in her garden, perhaps killed, perhaps driven to suicide.

The three sentences are distinct to each woman’s situation yet completely parallel in syntax. The writers then pull out with a straightforward nut — no fuss, which is a reminder that often the most direct nut summary is the most effective — letting readers know what these three women were part of and where the story is headed.

The thing to note is what happens next in the story, which is not overly long. The writers provide just a few grafs profiling each of the women one at a time. They, too, are in parallel: Who was she and what did she did in her life, a few character descriptions from her loved ones, and what she was doing just before she went missing. Each of those short sections ends with a note of mystery:

One’s mother leaves a post on the Facebook: “If anyone knows her whereabouts, please call.”

One’s family begs her not to go out but “she left again … promising to find dog food because they were running out. She never came back.”

The grandson of the oldest woman had fled to safety but called her. ” …she was weeping but was happy that they were out of danger. ‘She said everything was fine,’ he said.”

From here the story pulls out again to three brief paragraphs about what was happening at the time around Bucha. Then, in a reverse structure — almost like looking at something upside down or in a mirror. The story returns to each woman to tell how their bodies were found and what was know, or not, about what had happened to them. It ends with three short, parallel grafs that are almost epitaphs to the three women:

The grief and loss remains overwhelming. His mother, a refugee in Sweden, wept at missing her mother’s funeral.

Anna Noha’s father, Volodymyr Kopachov, died on July 7, soon after burying his daughter. He lies beside her in Bucha City Cemetery in the section reserved for victims of the war.

Oksana Sulyma’s parents made separate visits to the cellar where she died. Weeping, her mother distributed sweets to the neighbors.

A complex story needs a simple structure

It is tempting when dealing with multiple characters or a complex issue to try to trick up the structure to match that complexity. Sometimes the truly creative and disciplined writers can pull that off. Consider how Kim Cross used a chance meeting along reverse-direction bike trips to drive the structure of her dual profile.

But often the best approach is the most direct, especially on a fairly tight deadline when you’re writing fast and the reader, no doubt, is reading fast.

“The Three Women of Bucha” doesn’t whiplash me around again and again, making me struggle to follow the characters or their trajectory into war. It sets me up with that triptych lede, tells me the world I’m in, then carries out a parallel structure, one woman at a time, in ways that lets the story of each stand out without making me struggle. It ends with an echo to the beginning, in a triptych.

It is easier for the reader to follow — and for the writer to write.

Further Reading