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Home > Publications > Quill > Narrative Writing Toolbox - May/June 2010


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Monday, May 31, 2010
Narrative Writing Toolbox - May/June 2010

Story matters, character counts

By Tom Hallman Jr.

I'm often approached by writers new to the narrative game who want to know how to make the leap from news to features, and then from features to narrative. As I’ve said before: story matters.

If you want to write magazine pieces or books, you have to know story down cold. For the novice, I say find a story close to the news because it gives you a structure, and the beginning and end are obvious.

Once you’ve written a few of these, it’s time to start looking at the world — or your beat — like a storyteller. What do you see that other people miss?

Last year I did a small story for our neighborhood section about a school that serves the homeless community. The school had moved into a new building. That was the news. I interviewed the principal, teachers and a few kids and wrote a news story with a few feature touches.

Two months ago I was still thinking about the school and wanted to write about it in a new way. My plan started with story thinking. What was the most innovative way to tell a story about that school: a piece with a beginning, middle and end, and one with meaning?

Here’s what I came up with: Tell the story of the kids through the school bus that picks them up at motels, shelters and Section 8 apartment complexes. Look at the bus as if it were a train. Write about life on the bus.

Given that approach, what character most matters for this story? It’s the bus driver. The school has four drivers who travel 1,300 miles a month to pick up these kids. So I had to find the right driver, one who had the qualities necessary to be a character.

After talking with the school administrators and meeting one of the drivers, I settled on the perfect one: Penny Scrivner, a former Greyhound driver and long-haul trucker.

Now that I had my character, I looked for a scene that revealed her character:

Scrivner inches the bus through a large puddle to create a dry path from the apartment door to the warm bus.

“I’m not going to make those kids walk through that,” Scrivner says.

An apartment door opens.

“All the kids on this bus are special,” Scrivner says, adding that the bus will carry 22 kids this day, a full load. “I’ve picked up kids waiting on street corners. They don’t have an address. I just know they’ll be standing there waiting.”

Scrivner has worked at the school for 18 months. At 64, she had planned to retire this year. The kids on the bus asked her to stay.

She spots a child in the apartment doorway and waves.

“I thought my life was tough,” she says. “Then I saw how these kids lived.”

She yanks on a handle to open the bus door.

“I see myself in these kids,” she says. Her single mother abandoned Scrivner and two siblings when Scrivner was 2, and the children went to grandparents. After bouncing around a few California towns, the extended family moved to Klamath Falls.

“I had a place to live,” she says with a shrug. “But it was no picnic.”

A small girl struggles up the bus steps.

“Hi, Penny,” the girl calls as her three siblings run toward the bus.

“I don’t care where you all sit,” Scrivner calls out in a no-nonsense voice more Greyhound than school bus. “Just be quiet.”

When the last girl gets on, Scrivner closes the door.

“Penny,” the girl asks, “can I have a hug?”

“Oh, honey,” Scrivner says, “yes, you can.”

Satisfied, the girl buckles her seat belt and looks out the window. There’s no one waving goodbye.

“Penny,” she says, “I’m glad you drive this bus.”

“Honey,” Scrivner says, “I’m glad you’re on this bus.”

Then they’re off for the next stop, a child’s home at a motel.

In the body of the story, we meet the children, but it’s Scrivner who provides the narrative spine that holds the story together.

That character is what will make your story memorable. And by learning how to write about a character, you will be well on your way to exploring the power of narrative.

The character is what gives the story meaning. Look at how my story ends:

Before the bus arrives at the school, Luke Akins, 9, tells Scrivner that he and his mother will move from a shelter.

“It closes in three weeks,” he says. “My mom said we’re moving. She knows where we are going.”

He thought for a moment. “But I don’t,” he says.

Scrivner keeps her eyes on the road.

“Don’t you worry, honey,” she says. “I’ll find you.”

Tom Hallman Jr., a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter with The Oregonian, is considered one of the nation’s premier narrative writers. During his career, he has won every major feature-writing award, some for stories that took months to report, others less than a couple of hours. The stories range from the drama of life and death in a neo-natal unit, to the quiet pride of a man graduating from college. You can reach him at tbhbook@aol.com.

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