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Home > Publications > Quill > Great stories don't write themselves


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Wednesday, December 10, 2008
Great stories don't write themselves

Tom Hallman, Jr.

All Andy Chapman needed was a nudge from an old-timer like me — I’m 31 years older than the kid — to try something different. So a few weeks ago, he wrote the first narrative of his career.

“I’ve gotten positive feedback almost across the board, based on story rankings and people telling me they enjoyed it,” he wrote me in an e-mail. “I found out today that Carla, the mother, really liked it, so I’m relieved on that front. The newsroom reaction has been similar. I’ve gotten some congratulations. I’m being careful not to let this go to my head, because I basically just fell into a great story and went with it.”

I’m told him — and I’m telling you — that you don’t “fall” into a story. Non-narrative writers think that’s the case: you have a great story that writes itself. Chapman worked hard at the reporting, structuring and writing — the three-legged stool that is a narrative.

He’s 22 and working at the Gillette News-Record, a Wyoming daily that believes in good writing and encourages the staff to grow. Chapman’s beat is education and community news.

“Honestly,” Chapman told me, “I’ve never done anything like this. For me, a story was a news story. Just lay out the facts with no frills.”

The story idea came from one of the paper’s photographers. Last year, the photographer had been at a school football game and heard opposing players talking about a small kid on the other team. The photographer thought it might make a fun story for the upcoming season.

“I started looking for the smallest kid,” Chapman said. “I went to equipment checkouts and talked to some of the coaches. I was put in touch with someone who had the list of the smallest kids in the league. I called three on the list and left messages. Finally one of the moms called me and wondered why I wanted to do a story.”

That’s one of the first lessons when it comes to narrative. In many cases, there’s only the germ of an idea, no ready-made story. The subject can’t understand why you want to talk to them. It’s up to you, the story-teller, to be looking for the heart of the story.

“My reporter instinct took over, and I got the basic facts,” Chapman said. “How old the boy was, how much he weighed.”

Chapman wanted to watch the boy play and called the mother to see if he could come to the game.

“She said yes,” he said. “I asked if her husband was going to be there. There was a pause, and then she said he was in Seattle. She left it at that. When I asked if he was coming back, she said no. Then she told me about the cancer.”

When Chapman called me for advice, I asked him questions about the character, or characters, and what he needed to find out about them. Why did this boy play football? What did it mean that the father wasn’t there? What about this cancer?

“It was really difficult for me,” he said. “I was so used to not involving any emotions. I always distanced myself from that. Just make it bare bones with the facts and not get really fancy.”

I told Chapman to go back to reporting. Ask questions that would lead him to the heart of the story.

“You told me there was no reason for this to be in the paper,” he said. “You told me there was no news. If it was going to be a story, it had to have heart. It made me focus on things other than his height and weight. I started asking questions about what he was feeling. All of a sudden the story took on new meaning with the dad having cancer, the small boy fighting on the field and his dad fighting in the hospital, why he played football and how he missed his dad."

“The questions added a whole set of emotions,” he said. “I’ve never done anything like this.”

Structuring and writing proved to be tough. I talked with Chapman when he began writing, giving him questions to answer, asking why he wanted to start the story where he did. What were the pros and cons? What effect did he want for the reader? Was the mother really a character, or was she just muddling up the story? We talked about building to an ending that would resonate with readers.

I remember talking with Chapman and giving him advice. I asked him what he found most useful.

“Use emotion and involve myself in the story,” he said. “Pay attention to detail and ask concrete questions. Have the confidence to trust myself. Go with your gut. Just write.”

Chapman went through six drafts, each time polishing and chipping away.

When the editor praised his final story, Chapman said he didn’t believe the story was that good.

“I took it with a grain of salt,” he said. “I figured she was just being nice to me and commending me for making an effort. But the readers really liked it. One of the photographers told me she hardly ever reads the paper. She said the loved the story and it almost made her cry.”

Chapman’s story: www.gillettenewsrecord.com/articles/2008/10/19/news/today/news00.txt

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