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Home > Publications > Quill > Narrative Writing


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Wednesday, December 2, 2009
Narrative Writing

See your re-writes before you hit 'save'

By Tom Hallman Jr.

I’ve been in the business long enough to remember when reporters glued pages together before submitting the folded sheets. It was a tedious and messy process, but it made it easy to see the work I’d done on the story before my editor saw it.

I was reminded of that re-writing/polishing process when I read a recent Vanity Fair piece about William Manchester and the making of his classic book, “The Death of a President.” Running with the piece was a photograph that showed a portion of his manuscript. It was easy to see where Manchester had literally cut paragraphs and moved them around, gluing them onto a new page as part of his re-writing process.

That process has been lost to a generation of writers who write on computers. The constant changes we make vanish each time we hit “save.” There’s no record — or lesson — on why we made certain changes and how the story changes, for better or worse, with each revision.

As an experiment, I decided to print a copy each time I made a change on a long feature I recently wrote. For this column, I’ll focus on just the first two paragraphs of the story to give you a lesson on how thinking and re-writing go hand in hand.

You’ll see how — just like you — I floundered while trying to launch the story. I wasn’t sure where the story was going. I got stuck on a phrase and refused to eliminate it even if the phrase was a clunker.

And remember, I’m just showing you the first two paragraphs of a long story. I repeated the process from beginning to end.

A reader sent me an e-mail about a Portland family that had bought back a 1951 DeSoto they’d sold in the 1980s. It seemed like an amusing story, a short piece. Then I met the family.

I discovered that the car had first belonged to Ernie Rigotti, a garbage man who’d died decades earlier. His widow eventually sold the car, even though her kids didn’t want her to. Decades later her grandson, then going through a divorce and feeling low, thought about his grandfather and how much the man had meant to him. One night, while reflecting on the man, the grandson searched the Internet to look for a picture of the DeSoto.

A link to eBay popped up, and he discovered the actual car. His family didn’t believe him, but he spotted his grandfather’s old key fob in a picture and knew it was the car. He bought it and brought it home.

I considered starting with the surprise: the grandson finds the car. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized I had a chance to write a narrative and tell a story. I wouldn’t use any quotes, and I wouldn’t give away the ending too early.

To work, the story needed meaning, a sense of pace and foreshadowing to make readers keep reading. The meaning would come from the characters and their journey.

So who were they? Well, Ernie Rigotti, his family and his car. In my opening, it would be critical to make readers feel three things: Rigotti loved the car, it was symbolic, and the loss of it mattered.

Given that, here’s what I wrote:

1. Ernie Rigotti worked hard and died young. In the 1950s, he lived in what was called the Italian section of Portland and had a one-truck garbage business.

What’s missing? The car and his family.

2. Ernie Rigotti worked hard and died young. He left behind the loves of his life: A wife, four daughters and a 1951 DeSoto.

3. Ernie Rigotti worked hard and died young. When he passed in 1978, he left behind the loves of his life: A wife, four daughters and a 1951 DeSoto.

4. Ernie Rigotti worked hard and died too young. When he passed — at age 65 — in 1978 he left behind the loves of his life: A wife, four daughters and a 1951 DeSoto.

I finally realized that the phrase “worked hard and died young” was in the way. I was stuck on it and, consequently, I refused to step back and ask if it helped or hindered the opening. I decided it would be better to “show” that later in the opening section of the story.

5. When Ernie Rigotti died in 1978 he left behind the loves of his life: A wife, four daughters and a 1951 DeSoto.

OK, first sentence done. Pretty straightforward. Not a lot of fancy writing. But it gives the readers a sense of the characters.

Now I turned to the car and what it meant.

1. He bought it new and the car — big, green and lumber — was a sign that Ernie Rigotti had made it, was a good provider even though he worked with his hands. For nearly 30 years — starting in 1947 — Rigotti owned a single garbage truck that wound through what was called the Italian section, a series of neighborhoods throughout inner Southeast Portland.

Way too much information. And no meaning. Through five re-writes I came up with this:

2. Bought new off the lot, the car reminded Rigotti that he’d made something of himself. Other men, he could say with pride, called him a good provider.

If you’re interested in the full story and my other re-writes, e-mail me at tbhbook@aol.com.

Tom Hallman Jr. is a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for The Oregonian. He’s considered one of the nation’s leading narrative writers. He travels around the country teaching SPJ’s Narrative Writing Workshop, which encourages journalists to adapt narrative techniques for their newsrooms.

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