One of the most riveting stories to emerge from the Boston Marathon bombing coverage was the Boston Globe piece, by Eric Moskowitz, about “Danny,” the young Chinese entrepreneur who spent more than an hour with the bombers in his carjacked Mercedes, trying to figure out how to escape. The story was relatively short, at 2,183 words, and read even faster because Moskowitz kept a tight focus on narrative action. A passage:
With Tamerlan driving now, Danny in the passenger seat, and Dzhokhar behind Danny, they stopped in Watertown Center so Dzhokhar could withdraw money from the Bank of America ATM using Danny’s card. Danny, shivering from fear but claiming to be cold, asked for his jacket. Guarded by just one brother, Danny wondered if this was his chance, but he saw around him only locked storefronts. A police car drove by, lights off.
Tamerlan agreed to retrieve Danny’s jacket from the back seat. Danny unbuckled, put on the jacket, then tried to buckle the seat belt behind him to make an escape easier. “Don’t do that,” Tamerlan said, studying him. “Don’t be stupid.”
It begins, like the ancient epics, in medias res—in the middle of things.
“The 26-year-old Chinese entrepreneur had just pulled his new Mercedes to the curb on Brighton Avenue to answer a text when an old sedan swerved behind him, slamming on the brakes. A man in dark clothes got out and approached the passenger window. It was nearly 11 p.m. last Thursday.” (I can’t help feel a digital-age irony here, that Danny drives into mortal danger by doing the right thing — pulling over to text.)
The construction of narrative journalism depends upon certain strategies associated traditionally with fiction, and we get all of them here: scene, dialogue, character details, point of view. The fact that the events tick-tock in a block of time (about 90 minutes) and inside the confines of an automobile, create what classical critics might call a unity of time, place and action that intensifies the experience of the reader.
This story should remind us of how rarely dialogue appears in breaking news, with reporters depending more often on quotes gathered after the fact. Even though he is using a single source (the bombers being unavailable, one dead, one arrested), the writer chooses to re-create the dialogue in the car based on Danny’s recollection. I count at least 12 paragraphs containing dialogue such as: “Don’t look at me!” Tamerlan shouted at one point. “Do you remember my face?” / “No, no, I don’t remember anything,” [Danny] said.
For more installments of “Why’s this so good?” go here.