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Home > Publications > Quill > Narrative Writing Toolbox


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Thursday, October 22, 2015
Narrative Writing Toolbox

Recipe for sharable stories online

By Tom Hallman Jr.

The idea bounced around the newsroom and ended up in my in-box: A family of a terminally ill girl was going to throw a birthday party for her in one week. I was assigned to the story.

I want to use my approach to the story to discuss story thinking and structure, as it relates to both reporting and writing. Having an idea of what you want to write, and why, accomplishes three things: Your reporting is more efficient; you structure for maximum impact; and you write more quickly because you know what the story is about.

Here were the story basics: The girl, 4, has cancer. She and her family live in a community about 50 miles from Portland. The party was going to be in that community on Friday night. Oh, and the story could be no longer than 700 words.

That meant no in-depth narrative, no monthlong project documenting the last stages of this girl’s life. I had to turn it around quickly, too.

Here were my choices: Go to the Friday party and write a story about the event that would run on Sunday. Or travel to the family’s home, interview them and write a story that would run before the event.

The weakness of the first approach was I knew that television stations and the newspaper in the town where the family lived would cover the party. That caused two problems. How was I going to get access to the family at the event? And I’d be duplicating coverage.

So I thought about what most intrigued me about the story. Was it the cancer? Was it the party? No, it was this: How do parents handle throwing what they know will be a child’s last birthday party? My focus then would be on the parents.

I called the mother and learned she and her daughter would be at a Portland hospital on Tuesday; the party would be at the end of the week. I’d meet them at the hospital.

Because I knew what I wanted to write about, I made efficient use of my time at the hospital. The girl was undergoing a blood transfusion, and the mother was helping nurses. She didn’t have two hours to waste talking with me. My questions were tightly focused on the story theme — the story question. That led to her telling me about a telephone call she’d received a day earlier.

Instantly, I knew how to start the story.

Take a look at the opening and see how I blend narrator’s voice and the universal question, and end with two powerful words. Also notice that I didn’t name the girl or her mother. I wanted any parent to read this and imagine facing this situation.

The hope was for a perfect bookend to the week. Good news from a team of medical specialists this past Monday followed by a Friday evening birthday party in Hood River.

(The “news,” time element and place were established. A powerful word, too, in “hope.”)

But when the call came, the doctor said there was nothing they could do.

(Leads readers to the next two questions.)

How do you tell your 4-year-old daughter she's dying? How do you pack a lifetime of hopes and dreams and love into one evening, for a party you know will be her last?

You get angry. You cry. You pray. You hold onto every precious second.

Happy Birthday.

(The remainder of the opening is narrator’s voice, framing the emotional theme of the story.)

The middle section became the backstory, but I wanted to move through it quickly and yet maintain a sense of drama along with an emotional impact. After explaining the type of cancer, I used a narrator’s voice to get quickly to where things now stood. You don’t need to be a doctor to understand the power of “stage 4 cancer.” In this way I let the reader do the work for me. They get it. Don’t overwrite.

Stage 1. Stage 2. Stage 4. There was one last chance.

Michigan specialists had developed an experimental protocol that showed promise. After examining Lila, reading volumes of medical records and running a series of tests, the team said they'd reach a decision Monday afternoon on whether Lila could be admitted for treatment.

Heidi recognized their number on her cellphone.

She prayed for a miracle.It was not to be.

The next part of the story was dealing with the prognosis, the party and how the community came together to make the event special. If I had written this as a news story, or covered it as an event on Friday, this would have been my lede. But it would have lacked the power and emotion needed to make this story resonate with readers.

Here’s the ending. Look again at how I blend the narrator’s voice. In a sense, I take over the story. No quotes, just me picking out concrete examples of what will be lost, and a final scene — not yet taken place, but one that every reader can visualize and feel. Also, take a look at the final two words, how they echo the end of the opening passage.

What haunts Lila's parents are the moments that make a life, the moments their daughter will never experience: A boyfriend. High heels. Learning how to drive. The list does not end.

But on Friday night, Lila will get to experience an adult moment. In front of more than a thousand friends and strangers, a little girl who is dying will marry the first man she ever loved: Her father.

He will get down on one knee and propose, promising to love and honor her for all time.

And then he will slip a small ring on her finger.

Happy Birthday.

Word count: 662. Page: A1. Online: Most read story of the day with 32,000 views. Facebook: 7,400 shares.

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