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Saturday, October 3, 2009
Narrative Writing Toolbox

A two-wheeled path to great stories

By Tom Hallman Jr

Two months ago I bought a motorcycle. It’s 28 years old and banged up with more than a few rust spots. At 54, I had to take it slow. I registered for a daylong safety class. Two weeks later I got my license and hit the road on two wheels for the first time in nearly 30 years.

Little did I know that getting back on a motorcycle would serve as a refresher course on narrative writing. Riding reminded me of all the skills necessary to report, structure and write the type of stories that resonate with our readers.

When you’re driving a car, you don’t have to pay attention to the road. Yes, you have to be alert, but drivers — and I’m as guilty as anyone — talk on a cell phone, fiddle with the radio and often daydream. Because you feel safe, your senses are dulled.

Driving a car is similar to news writing, or even cranking out the routine feature story.

It’s a new world straddling a motorcycle. There’s a moment of panic when you merge into traffic. Your senses are on high alert. Is that car moving from a parking spot? Is that car two blocks ahead stopped or getting ready to make a turn? When you hit the corner, you feel the forces working against the bike, and you have to gently maintain your line so you don’t crash.

Driving a motorcycle is similar to narrative writing.

Don’t just read Tom’s advice – get a full-day experience. Consider attending one of SPJ’s Narrative Writing Workshops led by Tom Hallman. Click here for dates and locations.

When you cover hard news, a certain complacency eventually sets in. You’ve done it before. The public information officer hands you a press release that you rewrite. You cover yet another meeting. Do it long enough, and it’s no longer necessary to be sharp. Same with the routine feature story. You look for a “good quote.” You try to come up with a snappy lede. Beyond that, you’re on auto-pilot.

As I’ve said before, narrative writing is dependent on strong narrative reporting. That means all your senses need to be fully engaged — just as they are when you’re on a motorcycle — when you enter the character’s life or the character’s story world. What you observe leads you to the heart of the story.

Here’s an example from a story I recently published. I’d heard that a nurse had come back to work after undergoing surgery to remove a brain tumor. I got some information from her, then arranged a time to interview her in the hospital.

My plan was to write a traditional feature story. But I got there early — something I like to do — so I could gather myself and get a feel for the story world. It’s much like riding a motorcycle. What’s the traffic look like? What do I need to be aware of here?

I found a seat in the lobby and watched. I saw the receptionists and the volunteers. I saw the worried patients coming for surgery. I saw the nurses appear from beyond locked doors to talk to family in the waiting room. Within a few minutes, I had a feel for this story world.

This is what I thought, word for word, and what appeared in the story:

A hospital is more than operating rooms and high-tech equipment. It’s about the people who work there.

I stepped up to the desk to tell the receptionist I was there for the interview. Now — just like merging into traffic — I knew what I was looking for, what questions to ask and what I needed to observe.

It seems obvious now, but the story wasn’t about the tumor. The tumor was important, of course, but it was a catalyst that revealed some truths about the nurse and the way she saw her place in the world in which she worked. My job was to find that story.

She wanted to conduct the interview in her office. But I asked her to take me on a tour of the unit. I wanted to observe her with her nurses. I wanted to get a feel for what it’s like dealing with the patients. I asked her to take me to the operating room and then to the room where she waited before surgery.

I watched her body language and her eyes. I wasn’t looking for a quote. I was looking for her to reveal the more emotional parts of her journey. Some were spoken: A phrase and a sentence that tailed off. Some were non-verbal, such as the way she stood by the bed and looked out the window.

If I was set on getting the “information” — driving a car — I would have missed the signals, all the clues that told me what the story was really about.

That allowed me to get to the heart of the story: This is a story about a woman who was nurse. And then she was a patient. How did that change her? What did that mean?

This was the answer that appeared in the story:

Because for a brief moment, she’d straddle two worlds, a gift that allowed her to see through free eyes what a nurse meant to people who came to the unit day after day, hour after hour.

When you go out on your next story, pause for a moment before you start looking for the quote or the news. Survey the traffic. How would you describe this story world? Who are the characters? What are their obstacles? What’s the real story?

Remember, dull senses make for dull stories.

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