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Home > Publications > Quill > Narrative Writing Toolbox


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Tuesday, February 3, 2015
Narrative Writing Toolbox

Stories need narrative engines to drive them

By Tom Hallman Jr

This being the first column of 2015, it’s a good time to help you get back to understanding the basic building blocks required to report, structure and write a story. The best way to do that is to tell you about the struggles I had with the last story I wrote in 2014.

If you go to my website, you can read my resume. The shorthand version is that I’ve been in the industry nearly 40 years. I’ve won awards, written for Reader’s Digest and authored two books.

Big whoop. My point is to tell you that all writers struggle. Here I’ll tell you why I struggled, how I got out of the mess and what you can learn from the process.

It began when I received an email from a reader who suggested I meet a Portland man named Tom Hekker. He was a fascinating man facing a terrible dilemma.

Hekker’s wife had Alzheimer’s disease, and he was caring for her. The man had traveled the world on grand adventures, and now his world had shrunk to a 1,500-square-foot houseboat. Eventually he had to place her in a care facility. I had great scenes with the two of them, wonderful stories about Hekker and his adventures, quiet moments when he talked about what the disease had taken from his wife, and insights from friends and his family.

Now it was time to write. And I couldn’t.

I’d start with a good scene, but it went nowhere. I started with her, with him, in the afternoon, in the morning, at night. Nothing worked. I set the story aside, but every few days I’d open my file drawer and see the Hekker file laughing at me.

At one point, I wanted to walk away. The solution, I figured, was to be clever. You know, be a writer. So I wrote this:

Although I feel compelled to craft a seductive opening to draw you into this story, the best approach is to just lay it out the way it began early last year when I signed onto my inactive Gmail account and found, buried under the spam, a letter.

“You should have coffee with the most amazing guy I have ever known. He is ready to turn 80. His name is Tom Hekker. Tom lives on a house boat. Tom has had ups and downs. But lived 100 lives. He has parked his sail boat around the world, ran with the bulls in 70s ... toured Israel on a bike, won the Oregon cup race car sweepstakes, farmed, had 9 kids with one woman who let him go for months on his treks around the globe including copying the Lewis & Clark trip (only one to actually do it few years ago). ... Now the only girl he ever kissed (true) has Alzheimer's and he is committed to keeping her at home. This guy is a real character.”

I’m going to violate the most basic storytelling rule here by giving away the ending of this story: In July, Hekker — tears in his eyes — gently led his wife from their home and drove her to a nursing home, a painful milestone in a relationship that goes back 67 years.

There’s not going be a lot of drama in this tale, no journalistic lights and sirens. But when you reflect on your own life — and this is certainly the time of the year we all do so — don’t the power and meaning emerge out of the quiet moments?

Perhaps you stumble over the word Alzheimer’s, and think you can’t stand to read yet another story about a disease. It’s not about a disease. In journalism they refer to a paragraph — the nut graf — where the writer lays out what the story is about. I don’t have one.

Do you see a writer crying for help? I do. So did my editor, who read that and suggested I try again. I had violated the most basic rule of storytelling: Know what the story is about.

I had a collection of stories spanning decades, powerful scenes and context from interviews with those who knew the couple. What I didn’t have was the narrative engine required to tell a single story. Can you tell your story in a paragraph? If not, you don’t know your story. And if you don’t know your story, you can’t write it.

I mistakenly believed that my so-called great writing, or the powerful scenes that would follow that opening, would captivate the reader. What I had to do was dig through all my notes and find the story I wanted to write.

I discovered it buried in in a section where Hekker had told me how he met the girl who became his wife. I called Hekker and asked when he was going to see his wife. Here is what I wrote:

Tom Hekker can’t bring himself to cross the lobby and punch in the code on a security door. When opened, it leads to another room, another life and a woman who has disappeared.

He’s emotionally adrift, this being the week before Christmas. The calendar reminds him that he met her this week, 66 years ago, when school closed for Christmas vacation. So he shakes the rain off his coat, removes his hat and settles in a soft-cushioned chair.

He sits quietly, listening to carols coming from a sound system somewhere in the Beaverton care center. He closes his eyes, remembering the week when he was 15 and she 14. They were growing up in New Jersey, lived about a mile from each other and met when a snowstorm brought all the kids together to play. When the night ended, she surprised him by asking if he wanted to come to her parent’s house for a cup of hot chocolate.

He did. And that was that. Tom and Claire.

See? No fancy writing.

Just a story that ended up on page one.

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