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Saturday, July 11, 2009
Narrative Writing Toolbox

Follow your internal compass

By Tom Hallman Jr.

One of the best things about writing this column is engaging in e-mail conversations with readers. Please, keep them coming my way. Some I answer directly; others, because they deal with such general storytelling techniques, deserve an answer in this forum.

I received such a question last month.

A young journalist said she had noticed someone in her community that intrigued her. She thought he might make a good story. She didn’t know what the story would be about, or even why she was interested in him. But there was something there, she said, and she wanted some advice on what the next step should be.

If there is an art to storytelling, it’s in that moment when you sense something. That’s the magic, what makes a story yours. But it’s difficult for journalists who’ve been taught to think only in terms of “news.” Without a template, they don’t know where to go, or how to find the story that’s hidden in the fog. And too often that means a missed story, one that will nag the writer for months or even years because she knew she had something special and it was just out of reach.

That nudge is what I’ve come to believe is the internal compass that leads me to the story. By following what I feel and what intrigues me, I ask more probing questions and I’m more observant. I often come away with a better story, even on stories where it started out as a routine news assignment with that built-in template.

I’m going to give you three examples, the first from a routine assignment, something written that day. The second is a news follow where I wanted to take a feature approach. The third comes from a series where I spent months reporting and writing a story that took readers deep into the character’s world.

A couple months ago I was sent to cover a high school assembly. The assembly was limited to girls. The goal was to inspire them to believe in themselves.

As I walked into the cafeteria, I noticed that black paper covered all the windows. I wandered over to the principal to ask why. She told me they didn’t want any of the boys to look inside. There was something poignant about the moment. I can’t tell you exactly why, but I thought about the journey young girls make, all the ups and downs, and how the high school years test a girl’s heart and soul in ways hidden to the world.

I asked the principal about her life in high school. It wasn’t a question she had anticipated. She was focused on the “news,” and it caught her off guard. She choked up. And she gave me this quote that revealed something about her and the power of the assembly: “I told my counselor I wanted to take the college test, and she said ‘why would I want to do that?’ I was an OK student. My choir teacher saw something in me and believed in me and encouraged me to go to college. I’ll never forget that.”

And with that I was able to build an opening and ending to a story that took readers into that cafeteria and made them feel something.

The second example comes from an interview I had with two men whose home was destroyed in a landslide. I wanted to see how they were doing, and met them at a friend’s house where they were staying while trying to rebuild their lives.

We talked about the facts: the slide and the hassles with the insurance company and the city. But it was the minor details of their lives that intrigued me. What did they do with their dog? What about little things, like doing laundry or paying bills? And then, sitting there interviewing them, I wrote a few lines that shaped the theme that took the story from news to feature:

“A home is more than a building. Having a place to come back to is part of what makes vacations so pleasurable. A home is a retreat from the world, a place where we make a statement and put down roots. A home is where we are able to claim a tiny sliver of Portland as ours. ... So what happens when it is destroyed?”

Everything in the story dealt with those issues. That was my road map for reporting, structuring and writing.

The third example comes from a series I wrote about nurses in a neo-natal unit. I was walking through the halls of a hospital one day when I noticed a double set of locked doors that led to the unit, specifically a unit within a unit where the most fragile premature babies were cared for. Every nurse who emerged seemed intense. So I took a seat and watched.

Remember the movie “The Exorcist”? Every time a character walked up the steps to the bedroom, the audience shifted in their seats, not sure what to expect when the door opened. That’s how I felt when I was sitting outside the neo-natal unit.

What went on beyond those doors? Who was in there? What were they doing?

So I got up and found someone who could tell me.

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