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Home > Publications > Quill > Dream big, but be realistic when writing a narrative


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Thursday, January 24, 2008
Dream big, but be realistic when writing a narrative

Tom Hallman Jr.

When I meet with young reporters who want to make the move from news to narratives, I tell them to dream big, but be realistic. Forget about launching a multipart series. Writing a well-structured narrative is difficult, and when a reporter plunges in without a handle on the techniques, the failure rate is high.

My advice is to find a story that can be written as a straight feature. If the story falls apart in the middle of the process, the reporter can write it as a feature. But if it works, it will be elevated into something special for the readers and the writer.

I want to show you how I approached a recent story. But before we get to it, remember that a narrative must have these elements: character, theme and a beginning, middle and end. So this was the story: A nun in a Southwest Portland Catholic school was getting ready to retire after 38 years at the school.

My first goal, as always, is to find the real story. I start by reporting; get the names and dates. But narrative reporters ask probing questions that allow the character to reveal her story.

I went out to the nun’s home and sat with her for about an hour. I let my heart be my guide. After leaving her house, I sat in my car and jotted a thought down on a legal pad. That thought later became the lede.

Let’s look at the lede. As you read this opening, focus on a few techniques. Look at the narrator’s voice and how I use it to shape the theme.

Life’s most powerful forces are invisible. How do you begin to explain faith, perseverance and love? The best you can do, at least in this case, is to stand outside a Southwest Portland home in an early morning rain and wait for a 79-year-old woman to start her day.

She limps out — cane in hand, right shoe an inch taller than the left — and is helped into a van that will carry her to a school at the foot of the hill. Although she’s in constant pain, she settles into the seat with a smile. Her name is Sister Dolores Doohan. But everyone calls her “Sister D.”

Just down the street is St. Clare School. Sister D has taught there for 38 years. She’s the heart and soul of the place. Now she’s leaving and moving across the country. Yet she refuses to say goodbye. Uttering the word would make it so final.

When it comes up, she changes the subject, explaining that Iowa isn’t that far away and that people travel all over these days and that no one can be sure when two paths might cross. The truth is that saying goodbye makes Sister D cry.

Leaving St. Clare and its 234 students — kindergarten to eighth grade — has been one of the most difficult decisions in her life. No one has been at the school longer than Sister D. To many people, she is the school.

So she’s prayed over this, relying on God’s guidance the way she did long ago when she left home against her father’s wishes and took the train from Oakland, Calif., to Dubuque, Iowa, to join the Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

 High up in the story, I again use the narrator’s voice to make a larger point, this time hammering home another theme that gives a narrative meaning and makes it resonate with readers.

In this section, focus on the use of the narrator’s voice. Why could only the narrator say this most effectively?

 A child believes a teacher has no life beyond the classroom. A teacher is the face in the front of the room, the person who hands out assignments and issues grades. Where she came from, or how she got there, doesn’t register.

But decades later that child is wiser to the ways of the world. From the past, the adult hears the echoes of a special teacher’s voice. Something sticks, something that has nothing to do with math or science or social studies or all those things that once seemed so important. The gift that was given is that teacher’s very essence.

From an old woman dying in a bed to a girl who thought she knew it all to a child who one day will certainly remember the sister with a limp.

Mention Sister D to kids who’ve graduated from St. Clare School and in their eyes you’ll see her soul. One word from her past — persevere — lives on in them.

And when you learn where she came from, it makes sense.

In the final passage, I want you to look at how I don’t state the obvious. And in being subtle, I allow the reader to discover something, which makes them emotionally engaged in the piece.

Sister D stands in a corner of the school gymnasium watching young faces file through the door. “Oh, my goodness,” she whispers. “This is marvelous.”

She turns away.

Something in her eye? Adjusting the glasses?

Possibly.

The story took a few hours to write. There isn’t a reporter out there reading this column who couldn’t have attempted it. Now, go find your story.

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