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Thursday, August 4, 2011
Narrative Writing Toolbox

For real stories, dig deep into a characterís life

By Tom Hallman Jr.

A few minutes before writing this column, I got off the phone with a man who is dying.

This is a side of narrative journalism that many reporters donít see. If you want to tell real stories, youíre going to have to dig deeply into a characterís life. That kind of access doesnít come from flashing a press pass, and details donít come from a news release or public information officer.

You donít get to stand at a distance. Instead, in this case, you sit in a quiet living room ó notebook in hand ó and pry, asking a man what itís like to know ó at age 44 ó that he has a few months to live.

Iíd heard about this dying man from a police officer I know. I thought heíd make an interesting story and asked if I could come to his house to talk. He agreed. When I was done writing my story, I called him to check it. I double-checked the spelling of his name, corrected a mistake Iíd made about the year he joined the force and then told him goodbye.

From a pure storytelling standpoint, nothing comes close to the potential of writing about someoneís life. Itís a remarkable place, one that makes readers think and feel and see the range of our shared humanity.

If I wanted to pull off what I would call a full-blown narrative, I would have spent the next three months in this manís life. Iíd want to know what choices he made and what regrets he had. Iíd want to be there when he said goodbye to friends and family, and document what it would be like as the clock wound down.

But even with my limited story, I still had to draw on narrative skills. And they had little to do with the words I put on the page. Narrative requires a different kind of story thinking and reporting. If you approach the story as if youíre covering city hall or the school beat, you will never get to the heart of the story.

Why are you there? Whatís the story about? Whatís the emotional center youíre looking for?

Those seem like obvious questions, easy to contemplate when you are in the newsroom. But when youíre in the characterís world, you should have a better answer than well, it sounds like an interesting story.

A good narrative writer reminds me of a homicide detective. Both are thrust into unsettling events, but both need to maintain focus to do the job.

It might feel awkward ó especially if you are new to narrative and coming off a hard news beat ó to ask probing questions. Iíve been there, but Iíve discovered that those questions are what reveal the heart of the story. If you shy away from the question, youíll get back to the newsroom and discover you donít have what you need to build a solid story structure.

There is a template for covering many breaking news stories. Thatís not the case with narrative. Each story, and character, will require you to take a different approach, sensing when itís time to ask an emotionally loaded question and when itís time to back off. A hard news interview is almost linear. A narrative interview meanders ó and that can make a new writer nervous ó as you search for the storyís meaning.

What you need is the confidence to ask questions that can be uncomfortable. This isnít going to be what itís like asking a city councilwoman what she thinks about the latest budget increase for the street department.

And if you canít find the courage to ask the questions, youíll never be able to write narrative.

Oh, and donít try to take the easy way out by doing an interview over the phone. You need to be there in person.

A story works when you draw the reader deep into the characterís life, one that is filled with hopes and fears, dreams and desires.

The cop I interviewed, for example, was going to be dead in three months. I talked with him while his wife sat next to him. At times, there were tears. But I had to ask the questions that some reporters might shy away from because they seem too intrusive.

A few questions I asked: Whatís goes through your mind when you know youíre going to die? Do you get scared? What do you want your legacy to be?

It was a strange place to be emotionally, but thatís part of what happens when you start narrative reporting.

A few years ago I spent time in a neo-natal unit as part of a series I wrote about the nurses who worked there. One night, I watched a baby die. The parents had given me permission to be there, and just after 7 p.m., I found a chair and watched them arrive. I heard the mother cry and discretely jotted down some notes.

That night I was a father and reporter. At times, I was deeply moved as I watched the parents grieve as their sonís life ebbed away. Yet I also realized that what I was witnessing would make a great scene in my story.

Thatís the fine line a narrative journalist walks. In every story you bring part of who you are to the interview. What intrigues you? What do you want to know? What does being there make you feel?

Above all, remember that you are an intrusion. You get to leave that characterís world.

By the time you read these words, the cop I wrote about may be dead.

Tom Hallman Jr. is a reporter for The Oregonian and winner of numerous awards for narrative and feature writing, including the Pulitzer Prize. He teaches the SPJ Narrative Writing Workshop, held in multiple locations throughout the country every year.

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