A few years ago, a bunch of us were sitting around the front porch of this crumpled old resort in the Catskills, knocking back drinks and talking shop. I can’t remember how it began, but when the sun went down we developed a game: Tell a story in a minute.
It started off cool enough, and some of the kids were spinning fine ones, and quick. But pretty soon we were shouting at each other – “Shorter!” – and we were going shorter, and shorter, and shorter, until the rule had become: Tell a story in a couple of sentences.
Hemingway’s baby-shoes short.
I’m not sure I’ve been part of a better couple of hours of riffing. Being concise made us rethink how to tell a story, from entry point to structure to complication to end. There’s some truth to what good writers have always said: Being succinct is harder than going long.
That’s the first reason I like Brady Dennis’ story, “After the sky fell,” part of a series with photojournalist Chris Zuppa here at the St. Petersburg Times that earned Brady an Ernie Pyle Award.
It’s 296 words in 13 sentences, and it touches me every time I read it. While a lot of folks are cheering for long-form journalism (1. a worthy celebration a long time coming, and 2. have you seen how many people follow @longreads and @longformorg on Twitter?!), it’s a reminder that the value of a narrative isn’t related to inch count. Every writer wants to take his clothes off and dance naked in the Fields of the Lord, but sometimes a direct skip from A to B is best. Y’all remember Breslin? Jimmy Cannon? Pete Hamill?
There’s nothing showy or complicated in Brady’s language. There are no words with four syllables or more. Just 10 words have three, which means 97 percent of the words have two or fewer syllables. The story is tight as a fist. You can read it in 45 seconds.
And the structure is so simple. Both the set-up and the question that drives the story are right there in the cinematic sentences of the first paragraph:
The few drivers on this dark, lonely stretch of the Suncoast Parkway in Pasco County pull up to the toll booth, hand their dollars to Lloyd Blair and then speed away. None of them knows why the old man sits here, night after night, working the graveyard shift.
Lloyd Blair is alone in a tollbooth? Why? Brady does not dawdle. “Well, here’s why:” he writes – and we’re transported back in time.
What follows are nine sentences, each starting with “Because,” each building off the last to shape a story of love and loss years in the making, with reported details that take your breath and make you root for Lloyd Blair. The rhythm that structure creates – and the implied passage of time between each sentence – makes it almost like watching the scenes on a slide projector.
Here’s the party in Queens where they met.
Here’s them at work in Manhattan.
Here’s her growing ill.
And in the end – the last slide – we have our answer and the climax to this short story. We see him greeting drivers on a dark and lonely stretch of highway and we feel the strange contradiction between the pain he has lived, the predicament he’s in, and the cheerful greeting he gives strangers, especially when it’s cast against the only other quote in the story.
The last line is a surprising punch. Not sentimental. Not maudlin. No tears race down his cheeks, thank heavens.
Which leads me to another reason I like this simple tale. There’s a Hebrew phrase, Tikkun olam, which means “repairing the world.” One of my mentors used to say that’s what good journalism does.
It reminds us that our problems might not be as bad as the other guy’s. It reminds us to have the guts to empathize. It reminds us to go on living.
This story, in 296 words, helps repair the world.
Ben Montgomery (@gangrey) is an enterprise reporter for the St. Petersburg Times and the co-founder of Gangrey.com. He was also a Pulitzer finalist in 2010 for the project “For Their Own Good,” which detailed a century of abuse at the Florida School for Boys.
To read more about “After the sky fell,” check out Brady Dennis’ account of how he got the story.