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Wednesday, February 2, 2011
Words & Language Toolbox

Write stories, not reports

By Paula LaRocque

Reporters often wish to work on a “project” — something beyond routine reportage that would allow them to spread their writer’s wings, that would free them from the strictures of inverted pyramid and cramped space.

In other words, a story. Not just a story as in “I’m writing the city council meeting story,” but a drama — with characters, conflict, setting, and beginning, middle and end.

But fact can read like fiction, and while the city council report and many like it are not appropriate storytelling vehicles, many factual accounts are. Or could be. If an account has complexity, characters, conflict, climax and resolution, it has the attributes of a story.

Below are several storytelling beginnings, nonfiction and fiction. Notice how they present the same elements: time, setting, principal player, personal conflict, and a sense of drama and uncertainty. See those elements in Jonathan Harr’s best-selling “A Civil Action,” winner of the National Book Award for Nonfiction:

The lawyer Jan Schlichtman was awakened by the telephone on a Saturday morning in mid-July. He had slept only a few hours, and fitfully at that. When the phone rang, he was dreaming about a young woman who worked in the accounting department of a Boston insurance firm. ... The woman was a juror. ... [She was] trying to decide which path in the forest to take and Schlichtman was attempting to point the direction. ... Schlichtman awoke, enveloped by a sense of dread.

The man on the phone identified himself as an officer at Baybank South Shore, where Schlichtman had an automobile loan that was several months in arrears. Unless Schlichtman was prepared to pay the amount due — it came to $9,203 — the bank intended to repossess the car, a black Porsche 928.

This opening identifies time and setting and introduces principal player and lawyer Schlichtman. It presents his personal conflict and uncertainty: He’s broke and this current trial could make or break him. All that in very few lines.

From former Associated Press and Fort Worth Star-Telegram reporter Mike Cochran’s “Claytie,” a biography:

It was a silent, solemn group that boarded the company plane in Midland one fine spring morning in 1991 only months after a tumultuous Texas governor’s race had sapped much of Claytie’s strength and spirit — plus $8 million of his personal fortune.

If not the worst of times, it was a close second.

Again: setting, time, principal player, personal conflict and drama/uncertainty.

Even a tome such as William Shirer’s “Rise and Fall of the Third Reich” shows it’s not enough to be a celebrated author with a celebrated subject — you still need a story:

On the very eve of the birth of the Third Reich a feverish tension gripped Berlin. The Weimar Republic, it seemed obvious to almost everyone, was about to expire. … Adolf Hitler, leader of the National Socialists, the largest political party in Germany, was demanding for himself the chancellorship of the democratic Republic he had sworn to destroy. ...

Throughout most of the night… Hitler paced up and down his room in the Kaiserhof hotel. … Despite his nervousness he was supremely confident that his hour had struck. ... [And on Monday, January 30, 1933], the man with the Charlie Chaplain mustache, who had been a down-and-out tramp in Vienna in his youth, an unknown soldier of World War I, a derelict in Munich in the first grim post-war days, the somewhat comical leader of the Beer Hall Putsch, this spellbinder who was not even German but Austrian, and who was only forty-three years old, [became] Chancellor of the German Reich.


Again: setting, time, principal player, personal conflict, drama/uncertainty.

Point is, the storytelling beginnings of good nonfiction are no different from those of good fiction.They have the same basic goal: to present a world and characters the reader cares about. And they have the same basic tool: the language. Here are the first lines of Ken Follett’s latest novel, “Fall of Giants”:

On the day King George V was crowned at Westminster Abbey in London, Billy Williams went down the pit in Aberowen, South Wales.

The twenty-second of June, 1911, was Billy’s thirteenth birthday. …

“Four o’clock,” Da said, then he left the room, his boots banging on the wooden staircase as he went down.

Today Billy would begin his working life by becoming an apprentice collier, as most of the men in town had done at his age. He wished he felt more like a miner. But he was determined not to make a fool of himself. David Crampton had cried on his first day down the pit, and they still called him Dai Crybaby, even though he was twenty-five and the star of the town’s rugby team.


As in the nonfiction beginnings above, Follett presents place, time, principal player, personal conflict, and sense of drama and uncertainty. To state the obvious: All of these storytelling leads, whether nonfiction or fiction, could appear in newspapers or news magazines, print or online.

Paula LaRocque is author of “The Book on Writing,” “On Words” and “Championship Writing.” Her first novel, a mystery titled “Chalk Line,” will be published by Marion Street Press in September. E-mail: plarocque@sbcglobal.net. Website: www.paulalarocque.com

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