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Home > Publications > Quill > Narrative Writing Toolbox

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Friday, June 20, 2014
Narrative Writing Toolbox

Building a story is not about writing a news report

By Tom Hallman Jr.

In a previous column I turned to readers to see if any wanted to participate in an on-going experiment to help writers make the leap from news to features, and from features to narrative.

We work in a cluttered and competitive media world, battling for the attention of consumers who can choose radio, television, hundreds of newspaper sites and websites that aggregate news. The best way to stand out — and I know this from reader response — is to tell a story, one that has a character, a narrator and a strong voice. Doesn’t matter if it appears in print, online, in a magazine or on TV or radio; just tell a story.

But to do that effectively, you need skills that are hard to master when you’re busy writing, producing, posting and moving from one story or event to the next.

So my plan is to work with a group of storytellers to help them discover craft and technique in the real world. That means looking at stories that don’t require three months of reporting and two more of writing. If you’re interested in participating, just email me (tbhbook@aol. com) and I’ll get you in the loop as we build a community as part of the SPJ family.

In this issue and future columns, I’ll share reader questions, add my thoughts and use examples of my stories to make my point. So let’s get started with questions sent to me from Doris Norrito, Jeff Arnold, Meredith Rutland and Ricardo Torres.


I’m stuck in this routine of interviewing a source, putting together a readable story and not really thinking too much about the writing process. How do you move beyond interviewing a single source and crafting a story, not a news report? How best to use different leads and story structures in narrative pieces?


How do I move beyond the obvious — using short and long sentences in a story? How do I use pace on a sophisticated level to convey a character, the character’s emotions and the character’s world?


How do I find ways to humanize stories about issues in a way that makes readers relate and feel something?


How do I report in a way where I don’t come back to the newsroom with 17 pages of notes and find I have to whittle it down to a manageable story?

The most important thing you can do — long before you start writing — is to ask yourself what the story is about. It seems obvious, but some reporters skip over this critical question and begin writing, believing they will discover the story in the process.

When I ask that question, I’m not thinking news value or event coverage. I want you to focus on the meaning of the story. What do you feel?

Once you’ve answered that, it helps streamline your reporting, structuring and writing. You know what to put in your notebook, and what to leave out. And it gets you out of the trap of building stories around great quotes, which can be seductive — especially in the midst of reporting. But a quote in a narrative serves to reveal the story, the character and the situation.

An example from my own work: I was assigned a weekend shift to cover an annual event where girls from throughout the metro area are invited to a convention center and given a chance to pick out a free used prom dress that’s been donated to a charity.

I could talk with the organizers, get a quote or two and write a standard event story. But I was looking for a feature, so I considered following one girl through the process. But there were thousands of girls, and it seemed limiting. So I walked around the place, talking with volunteers, some of the girls and their mothers. But I paid close attention to what I was feeling. Then I found a quiet corner and asked myself: What’s the meaning of this day, this place and these girls?

I knew what I needed, and I set out knowing what I needed to ask and observe. That meant I didn’t have to spend time going through page after page of random notes in the hopes of finding the story. I spent about an hour reporting, got back to the newsroom and wrote the story in about an hour.

Because of that simple question — What’s the story about? — I was able to be efficient, take a risk, make the story readable and play with pace.

Here is the opening:

It’s just a dress. Only a few yards of limp fabric on a hanger. Take the finest, most expensive silk ever spun and there’s still no life. And certainly no magic.

What a dress always needs is a girl.

A girl in a dress takes a father’s breath away. He turns from the television when his daughter walks into the room and is struck by how quickly the years have slipped away, gone in a heartbeat when he wasn’t paying attention to all the changes.

A girl in a dress stands before her mother and they realize — despite all those arguments over messy rooms and dirty dishes — that they share a bond that doesn’t need to be expressed in words, only in a glance that says “We’re alike.”

A girl in a dress stands before a mirror and sees her past and her future, the girl she is and the woman she will become.

A dress without a girl is nothing.

That becomes clear Saturday morning when one sees the hundreds of dresses hanging from racks in a large room at the Oregon Convention Center in Northeast Portland. Every imaginable color and size are available.

They have about as much character as towels. But that’s about to change. If you listen carefully, from the other side of locked doors you can hear the sounds of girls.

Contact me if you’d like to participate in future columns and ask questions about building story — not just writing around quotes.

Tom Hallman Jr., a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter with The Oregonian, is considered one of the nation’s premier narrative writers. During his career, he has won every major feature-writing award, some for stories that took months to report, others less than a couple of hours. The stories range from the drama of life and death in a neo-natal unit, to the quiet pride of a man graduating from college. You can reach him at tbhbook@aol.com, on Twitter @thallmanjr or on his website, tomhallman.com.

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