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Home > Publications > Quill > Narrative Writing Toolbox



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Wednesday, February 17, 2016
Narrative Writing Toolbox

Let 2016 be a year of growth

By Tom Hallman Jr

The New Year is less than a month old as I write this column, but Iím in a reflective mood.

I hope it reaches a young reporter, perhaps someone at a weekly or small outlet, at your first ďrealĒ job after college. Itís there where the theory of the classroom collides with the reality of the newsroom. Have any doubts about your ability? Be honest.

Because writers are insecure, itís easy to feel as if the hand of God touched only a select few among us, people who are simply so brilliant that it would be foolish for anyone to attempt what they do.

Iíve been in the business for nearly 40 years, and Iíve listened to some of those writers when I was younger. I was in awe of their work and their resumes. They were part of a club I didnít belong to because they had the talent that I lacked.

What a terrible trap.

Yes, when it comes to certain kinds of writing ó investigative or explanatory ó a level of intellect is required. The strength of the story depends on deep knowledge of the subject. But when it comes to storytelling, we need to use our hearts.

What a great equalizer.

All of us have cried and laughed. Weíve hurt and been hurt. Loved and had our hearts broken. Weíve won and lost. Weíve been overcome with emotion after hearing or watching something.

Storytelling is the melding of emotion, theme and finding the universal in life.

Tell me a story. Itís that simple ó and itís also that complex.

Now that we have that out of the way, I want you to make 2016 a year of growth. And I want to help you.

First, some advice: I want you to understand that you have to take the long view when it comes to our business. You have to want it, love this pursuit of story. You are not alone. Not only do you have the Society of Professional Journalists, and Quill, you have my website: tomhallman.com.

I started it to build a community of creative people. Itís a place to share stories and ideas and pose questions about the craft of narrative reporting, structuring and writing. Iíll share more about my plans later in this column.

Finally, I encourage any of you to reach out directly to me at tbhbook@aol.com

Questions. Advice. Critiques. Send them my way.

A few months ago, I received this email after one of my stories ran in The Oregonian:

Tom: I started reading the CJ story without checking the byline, but I stopped after only a few sentences to confirm that you were the writer. You seem to have a special gift for writing about those human beings who can cause us to grapple with the mystery of grace and gratitude. And you always seem to actually, if only for a fleeting moment, touch the mystery.

I promise you this: If you work hard this year, if you apply yourself to story craft, you, too, will get such letters from your audience.

Iím starting my 36th year as a reporter at The Oregonian, and I just published an anthology of work. The book is called ďDispatches from 1320.Ē I chose the title because the stories that appear in the book were written in a newsroom that no longer exists, one in Portland, Ore., at 1320 S.W. Broadway, the longtime home of The Oregonian.

Decades in the news business have taught me that audiences are bombarded and overwhelmed with facts. Answers to most questions can be found within seconds online.

What we long for, though, is meaning and a connection at a deeper and more universal level. We are fundamentally creatures who long to understand and have things make sense. In the midst of our ambiguity we like certainty.

Science answers many of our questions. But science will not help us with the greatest questions: Who am I? Why am I here? What is my purpose?

For those answers, we must turn to story. Story helps us discover what is truer than facts. As a storyteller, my mission is to explore, through people, the meaning of life. How do people find it? How do they live it out?

The stories in this anthology honor quiet heroism and common humanity. They celebrate ordinary people and moments ó big and small ó that make life beautiful.

Through story, readers have the courage to start working with our inherent longings for authenticity, community, mystery and meaning. Through my stories I believe that readers experience intimacy, vulnerability and ó dare I say ó hope.

The role of a storyteller takes me into worlds where people who are not newsmakers play out the great themes of life in private. The best stories are about ďsomething,Ē not just a recounting of an event. A story reveals, gives meaning and, on some level, provides lessons about life.

Now, I have something practical for you.

Each month I will deconstruct a story thatís featured in my book. On my website I will talk about the nuts and bolts of the story. Iíll explain how I found and reported the story. I will go into detail about choices made in terms of structure. Iíll share tips on how I conducted the interview. Iíll explain why I started ó and ended ó the story the way I did.

Iím not trying to sell copies here, but Iíd like you ó the early-career journalist ó to consider getting a copy on Amazon and connecting with me. You can connect with me on my Facebook author page..

Hereís to a year of learning and growing.

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