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Home > Publications > Quill > Narrative Writing Toolbox


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Monday, August 10, 2009
Narrative Writing Toolbox

Survive the storm with narrative

By Tom Hallman

When two or more journalists get together these days, the talk inevitably turns to the state of our business. We’re too busy with cuts and a shrinking news hole to muster the enthusiasm needed to discuss what’s required for a narrative.

A few weeks ago I joined a group of journalists in a hotel bar. Soon, it seemed as if we were hanging out in an emergency room comparing our journalistic injuries. And then a woman at the table said the turmoil might make it easier to get narrative into the paper.

What she said, and the discussion that I had with her over the phone days later, should be used as a roadmap for those of us searching for our role in this new world.

When the storm finally passes, the journalist who understands story, understanding why it matters, will remain productive and valuable, no matter how the story is disseminated. If you want a future, you have to become a storyteller.

“All the talk these days is local, local, local,” Pat West-Barker said. “We’re also supposed to find new ways to tell stories with multimedia. Narrative stories do all that and more, better than any other type of story.”

She’s right.

West-Barker, 64, was the associate features editor at the Santé Fe New Mexican until she took a buyout. She watched the battle between old-timers worshipping the inverted pyramid, and those who believed narratives were the way to capture readers.

“The inverted pyramid is good for hard news stories,” she said. “But readers remember stories about people. Narrative gives us stories about life. There are so many way to tell these stories, combining print and multimedia.”

So what’s holding us back?

“For so many section editors,” she said, “narrative isn’t part of their training. They aren’t sure how to use it or what it is.”

But, she said, there could be a new commitment to trying narrative at small papers willing to experiment because the crisis has forced them to look at ways to attract and retain readers.

“What’s been done in the past isn’t necessarily working,” she said. “Papers are being forced to look at different ways to present the news. Narrative should be right there front and center.”

West-Barker said that, in her experience, the push for narrative often came from the bottom up. It’s something I continue to hear from reporters from across the country. It’s a battle that should have ended long ago.

West-Barker said she had an advantage when she got into the newspaper business because she was an English and American studies major, and she earned a master’s degree in psychology.

“I wasn’t trained to be a journalist,” she said. “I didn’t have that J-school mentality that a story had to be written a certain way.”

During her career, she worked in public relations and in corporate. “I was trained to be a writer,” she said.

By that, she means she had to continually ask herself what she wanted readers to get from her words.

“That’s not the newspaper approach,” she said. “What we do is just present the facts, and once you get that down, it’s pretty easy to do. You crank it out and fill up the paper. Or we pour stuff onto the Web with a lot of posts that no one cares about. Newspapers do so many things that readers don’t even remember.”

To touch readers, we need stories that require writers to think. What does it mean? What are the message, lesson and theme? It’s time, she said, for writers — and editors — to move away from what she calls “pro-forma” features that are passed off as narrative.

“What I mean is a story that opens with a quote, maybe three grafs and then the nut graf,” she said.

“There is no voice, no narrator, no point of view.”

Newspapers, West-Barker believes, are at the crossroads. Those run by timid editors hanging onto the past, judging success by how many posts are produced each hour, are in danger of becoming irrelevant to the market.

“What we have to ask is what readers respond to,” she said. “We need to write the stories that we want to read.”

Earlier, I’d told West-Barker that I believe stories help readers find meaning in what seems to be meaningless.

“Yes,” she agreed. “What makes humans human, different from the apes, is that our purpose in life is to make sense of our lives. At the heart of our existence is narrative, a story about who we are."

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