The news out of Moore, Okla., couldn’t help remind us of the historic tornado in Joplin, Mo., and of one narrative in particular: Luke Dittrich’s National Magazine Award-winning Esquire piece on how a group of strangers survived by crowding into a convenience store cooler. The scenario, which happened two years ago yesterday, was echoed this week at Plaza Towers Elementary, where 70 to 80 children survived by taking cover with their teachers in a bathroom. Dittrich visited the Nieman Foundation last year to talk about his piece, “Heavenly Father!…,” as part of the Nieman Narrative speaker series. Dittrich’s story was so strong partly because he recognized the opportunity for narrative. From a gargantuan topic (tornado), he extracted Story (what happened to a specific set of people caught in a specific shared circumstance). The piece works because it contains the key narrative elements, including:
Arc. The story has a natural beginning, middle, and end. The people went into the cooler, helped each other survive, and then returned to their lives. Dittrich, in his Nieman talk:
I was drawn to the cooler because it’s so tightly focused – it’s a very tight space with a bunch of people crammed inside, in the dark. I liked the idea of simplifying it as much as possible. The thing that made it easier was the fact that there weren’t two dozen disconnected individuals in there; there were maybe six or seven smaller units. My biggest fear was that (readers) were gonna lose track of who’s who. Approaching it as family units or as friend units, or as people who were helping each other, helped me try to keep it as comprehensible as possible.
Characters. Strong narratives usually depend on a strong leading character or characters—someone who faces a challenge and then either surmounts it or fails. Dittrich tracked down every person from the cooler and then:
I first tell them to just give me a little backstory – who are ya and what do you do? How long have you been around here? Where do you come from? In this case I had them start with what happened as best they could remember from the moment they woke up that morning to the end of the day, and to just walk me through every single thing they could remember about that day.
Detail/description. Dittrich went so far as to have the people from the Fastrip cooler sketch out everyone’s places as best they could recollect, to better “see” the scene and to make sure the details lined up:
I got anybody that could to sketch out who was around them. When I got them finally together at the site of the Fastrip I got them to arrange themselves as they were, as they were crouched down and draped over each other, so I could picture it in my head.
To read the whole conversation with Dittrich, about the tornado and other stories, go here.