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Home > Publications > Quill > Narrative Writing Toolbox



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Wednesday, February 12, 2014
Narrative Writing Toolbox

Storytelling isn't just for a select few

By Tom Hallman Jr.

One of my goals with this column is to strip away the mystery and intrigue that so often surrounds writing. Because writers are insecure about what we do, it’s easy to feel as if the hand of God touched only a select few who are simply so brilliant that it would be folly for anyone to attempt what they do.

What a terrible trap.

Yes, when it comes to certain kinds of writing — business, law or medical — a certain level of intellect is required because the strength of the piece depends on the facts, not the story structure or emotion. But when it comes to narrative storytelling, we need to use our hearts, which is a great equalizer.

Not all of us can comprehend the intricacies of writing about legal affairs. But all of us have cried and laughed. We’ve been overcome with emotion after hearing or watching something. Narrative writing is the melding of emotion, theme and finding the universal meaning in a story, or a character’s world.

And in our changing world, when I use the word “writing,” it doesn’t matter whether it’s on a printed page or on the Web. More often than not, video is becoming part of the package, too. The same rules apply. The bottom line is this: Tell me a story.

It’s that simple, and yet that complex.

I was reminded of that because of emails I received from two newspaper reporters making the leap from news/ features to narrative. One is carving out a career as a freelance magazine writer; the other is working on a book.

Both are struggling in ways that may sound familiar.

“I write for newspapers and magazines, and I really need to get better at narrative writing. My editor there asked me to try and write more narrative than newspaper style.

“My editor has sent back one of my stories and asked me to redo in a more narrative style. I want to deliver what he wants and also to better my writing. Plus, I really like writing for the magazine and want to continue. Apparently I use too many quotes and also ones that don’t add to the story.”


I read what she’d written, and I could see what the editor wanted. Then I gave her a call. Before giving her my suggestions, I asked what she was grappling with.

“Confidence,” she told me. Being told something “didn’t work” made her doubt her ability as a writer. She also said that the level of editing help varied. Some editors asked for “more narrative” without explaining what that meant. Others said stories didn’t work, adding, “What were you thinking?”

I made three suggestions that any of you can use:

Go through the piece and look at all the quotes. If she, the writer, could say it better than the character, then paraphrase. What’s left are the best quotes that reveal something about the character and the character’s world.

Another problem was there was no obvious story. The piece read like a nice newspaper profile. The issue wasn’t with her reporting, but with the structuring of the piece — really, the story required thinking before the writing. What was this story about?

I told her to go through the story and look for elements that revealed conflict, because conflict and challenges are what hold a reader’s interest. That’s what makes a reader care about “what happens next.” The story had challenges, but they were buried under the weight of a traditional news approach that kept readers at a distance.

Finally, I suggested a better ending because a story — not a news report — has to have an ending that leaves readers satisfied.

I found one, two paragraphs up from the writer’s original ending. By simply moving around the paragraphs, she was able to eliminate a flat, unnecessary quote that ended the story and replace it with one that summed up the story and revealed much about the character.

I then turned my attention to a writer grappling with a book, a work of non-fiction that focuses on the life and career of a compelling character. He’d written 10 chapters and asked if I’d look at the manuscript.

He said he’d moved parts of the book around, eliminated a couple of pages worth of “redundant and nice-but-not- necessary quotes.” But he still felt he was struggling.

“I’ve been chipping away at it after work each night,” he said, “and it’s been a challenge to break out of my newsy voice and go deeper again.”

Here’s part of what I told him by email:

“It’s clear you are a professional writer. But what I would like you to do has nothing with the ‘writing’ but more the structure and voice. The entire book has the same rhythm — by that I mean the same length of paragraphs, the use of quotes in the same format. There are no surprises. By that I mean a surprise that gives a reader pause, makes them think and feel. What you have here is a brilliant newspaper series, a great magazine piece. But to move to the level of a book, you want to give readers material that is both factual and philosophical, something that raises issues that make them ponder and begin to understand the character.”

Another goal I have for this year is to select a few writers to work with on a story and then write about the experience in a future column. If you are interested, contact me.

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, on Twitter @thallmanjr or on his website, tomhallman.com.

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