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Home > Publications > Quill > Narrative Writing Toolbox


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Tuesday, December 9, 2014
Narrative Writing Toolbox

For good stories, ditch rules and find emotion

By Tom Hallman Jr

I see them walk nervously into the room, unsure why they signed up for a series of writing classes I teach. This isn’t at a community college but an athletic club that also offers classes on bridge, dance and guitar.

Not one majored in journalism in college. The most they’ve ever written is usually a letter. But in many ways, they are better storytellers than those of us who work in daily journalism. So what can those of us who write for a living learn from them?

THEY COME WITH NO EXPECTATIONS

They sign up for the class because they want to write. They’re not looking to win an award, get a better beat or write ego-driven stories. That leaves them open to possibilities, letting the story call out to them, refusing to believe that any story is too small. How often do we do that?

When I arrived at The Oregonian nearly 36 years ago, I was sent to the police beat, at the time a place considered a dumping ground of sorts for reporters who couldn’t cut it.

I approached it as a rookie: no expectations. The skills I learned on that beat — dealing with reluctant sources, getting people to talk and “seeing” the structure of a story because it was so clearly dramatic — served me well when I moved to features and then narrative.

We need to approach each story or assignment as a way to practice our skills.

THEY APPROACH WRITING EMOTIONALLY

While they come into the classroom looking for the “secret,” a handout that will reveal how to write a story, their lack of experience frees them up to think differently.

Not one of them is hung up on dogma — “that’s what I learned in J-school” or “that’s how we always approach this type of story.” That makes them open to letting the heart guide them to the story. That emotion is what fuels them as they explore, and then as they write.

Many of us don’t do that. We fall back on patterns. That lack of emotion can leave us with flat stories that don’t resonate with readers.

For example, a reporter emailed me for help last year. She’d been given a routine — even boring — assignment: cover a high school senior prom.

We talked about the story and how she wanted to approach it. There was nothing new, and in her answers I could hear the resentment she felt having to cover a prom.

I asked her to tell me about the event. I wanted to see if I could discover emotion that I could use to help her tell a story. She told me that before the prom starts, school officials allow parents into the room to see the decorations and take photographs of their children. But then they have to leave.

That’s the story, I told her. She said she didn’t understand.

“The story is the open house, if that’s what you want to call it,” I told her. “That’s the moment, that’s about life. It’s about watching a child grow up, thinking about the past and confronting the future.

“Do the story the right way,” I told her, “and you will have something powerful and poignant.”

She said she didn’t understand how to open it. In the past, she said, reporters had simply written that whatever high school held its prom Saturday night and 200 students had a wonderful evening.

If I was writing the story, I said, I’d look for the emotion. I’d start the story in the room with the parents, but not focusing on one set of parents as in a traditional feature. I’d do short vignettes with several parents, each pair revealing something different, but something that — together — made a larger point.

“I’d end the story when the prom starts,” I told her. “I’d end it when it’s time for the parents to leave, to let the children start the prom. It’s a scene with deep meaning.”

THEY HAVE NO RULES

They start a story with a quote. They use first person. They have long paragraphs. They use exclamation points. They write what they feel, not by filtering themselves before they’ve typed a word.

Yes, some of the stories ramble. Yes, some have endings too abrupt. But all those problems can be fixed when the story is re-written and polished, giving the reader the gift of something new and original, not a story they’ve read 100 times.

I received an email from a reporter who was going to profile a man who worked at a power plant. He was a supervisor, and the story was going to be structured around his job, how he worked with employees and rules and regulations regarding the plant. When I told her I was bored, I asked her to tell me more about this guy. Turns out that on the weekend he was a priest, traveling to rural parishes far from the city.

You interested? I sure was.

Most of the people he ministered to were old. If he is sick, or out of town, the parishioners just have a prayer service without communion. His wife can’t depend on him at home to fix leaky pipes or mow the lawn. The reporter told me that once, right before their daughter's wedding, when they were doing last-minute preparations, he had to leave to oversee a funeral in a rural parish.

Think this reporter has an original narrative story? Yes!

And I used that exclamation point on purpose.

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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