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Friday, December 2, 2011
Narrative Writing Toolbox

Study and react: Not just for ball players

By Tom Hallman Jr.

I'm writing this in the middle of the World Series, which got me thinking about what makes one hitter good and the other great.

I can't speak from experience. I was a lousy player as a kid. But listening to commentators talk about the players on the St. Louis Cardinals and Texas Rangers reminded what baseball can teach us.

Good hitters are born with certain attributes: great hand speed, superior fast-twitch muscles and functional strength. What I've been hearing over the past week, though, is that the best of the best practice two things that we can take from the ball field and incorporate in our newsrooms: study — preparing for the game by studying opposing pitchers — and reaction — being able to tell in an instant if the pitch thrown is a fastball, curve or sinker.

Too often, young reporters sit around waiting for the perfect story, the one they'll hit out of the park. What happens, though, is they miss the story, or they're unprepared for what it takes to report, structure and write a great narrative. A better approach is to look at every story — including the 3-inch brief — as a lesson.

By looking at the story as a classroom, you continually sharpen the skills you bring to the next story. Getting a street cop at the scene of an accident to talk when the public information officer isn't around will let you practice the skills you clearly need if you ever want to pull off a major, in-depth narrative feature.

Even more critical is the ability to sharpen your story senses. You're given an assignment, or find a story idea. Is it a feature, a hard-news story or a brief? Or is it a brief that could be turned into a feature? What elements do you spot that guide you? While reporting, what elements are necessary and what are distractions?

Using the baseball example of swinging away at a bad pitch, it's foolish to make a big story out of something that is better served by quickly dispatching it as a hard-news story or brief. But it's just as dumb to see a pitch hang over the plate and find yourself standing there with your bat on the shoulder.

Let me take a recent story of mine and break it down to show you what I'm talking about.

I received a call from a woman who told me about a story, mentioning that she had pitched — pun intended — to a few television and newspaper reporters who told her they weren't interested.

They didn't see the story. I listened and recognized a feature hidden in what others may have dismissed as a news brief: One of Oregon's wealthiest men had given a school for homeless children $400,000 so officials could build a new classroom. The principal had invited the man back to the school. The possibilities for a story were clear. I saw structure emerge, just the way a batter knows the tendencies of certain pitchers.

Here is my opening: During his long and storied career, John Gray has been invited to thousands of power lunches with some of the most prominent and influential people in the United States. He's dined in fancy restaurants and been entertained in private clubs. Appropriate, of course, for a businessman who sat on numerous big-time national corporate boards and also developed Salishan on the central Oregon coast, Sunriver Resort near Bend and Skamania Lodge on the Washington side of the Columbia River Gorge.

But on Wednesday — in the twilight of a life well lived — the 92-year-old Gray set out to Northeast Portland for a low-key lunch that was as important and as close to his heart as any he's ever attended.

At this point, I'm in the batter's box. Gray, the kids, the officials are the pitchers. I have to be alert. What's going on? What's being said — or not being said? If I'm not ready, I'll miss what they throw.

When it was time for lunch, I waited with Gray in the line and talked to him about his childhood. He grew up in a tiny town. His father died when he was in the first grade, leaving behind a mother trying to raise three boys during the Depression. She was a teacher in the town's one-room schoolhouse. I knew then that he understood these kids. This was more than a wealthy guy writing a check.

"We were always poor," he said. "But we were always loved."

Because of that preparation and reaction to what he said, I knew how my story had to end: And then he stepped inside to break bread.

The phrase "break bread" was me swinging the bat. It had a deep meaning that drew the story to a powerful close. I chose that phrase for a reason. I got a lot of response to the story that no one else wanted. Here’s a portion of an email I received after publication:

“I'm sure many writers would have ended the story with ‘And then it was time for lunch,’ but the heart of the story — the ‘surprise’ like a well-turned mystery — only comes in those last four paragraphs. And, to me, that's what makes the telling of this story so great.”

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