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Home > Publications > Quill > Narrative Writing Toolbox


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Tuesday, December 15, 2015
Narrative Writing Toolbox

A simple philosophy in approaching stories

By Tom Hallman Jr.

My storytelling philosophy is simple: Look at every story, whether it’s breaking news, an assignment or something off the beat, as a way to practice narrative reporting, structuring and writing.

Doing so gets you familiar with the art and craft of what it takes to tell a compelling story. Covering a beat? How do you learn how to control the interview? Got an assignment? How do you take the idea and make it yours? Routine story? Is there a chance to use dialogue, scene, transition, foreshowing, complication and resolution?

Here are two examples from stories I wrote within 24 hours of each other, both with varying degrees of narrative techniques.

Story 1: My assignment was to be one of about 20 reporters asked to go into the community on the first day it became legal to sell marijuana in Oregon. I was there to do what I was told, and the paper’s expert on the beat suggested I be sent to a specific marijuana dispensary where I was supposed to talk to a “budtender,” the person who’d advise customers on what to purchase, and capture the mood in the place.

There was a clear news hook, and my story would be part of a much larger package. I’d be in a crowded store with no time for long interviews. The word count was firm, as was the deadline. This wasn’t my chance to be a “writer.” But that didn’t mean that I stopped thinking about storytelling.

I talked with the staff, looking for one who would not only consent to an interview, but offer enough of a character for the story. I found one, asked him questions that would reveal who he was beyond more than a name and title. And I immediately looked for opportunities to use narrative techniques. It became clear that dialogue served the best purpose and allowed me to end the story with a clear impact.

The story:

A year ago, Philip Ramirez was pumping gas at a Sandy service station with no future plans.

On Thursday, he said he'd found a career as a "budtender," working as a salesman at a Southeast Portland marijuana dispensary.

"I'm here to help customers figure out what kind of marijuana they want to buy," said Ramirez, 24, who said he's been smoking marijuana since he was 18.

That’s about as straightforward as it gets. Nothing fancy. Just the facts. But I started asking him about the kind of marijuana for sale, and his quotes were funny and revealing.

He said Sativa, a specific type of marijuana, produces a "high in the head, behind the eyes and gets you going."

Indica, another variety, gives the kind of high "where you sit on the couch and want to eat a lot of food."

While wandering the aisle I spotted a woman there with her daughter. I introduced myself and stood close to them, watching the scene unfold while using narrative dialogue to not only end the story but reveal something about the people there that day.

On Thursday, she brought her daughter, now 24, with her to the dispensary.

"This is like being in a candy store," Suzann told Ramirez. "I'm so confused."

"What are you looking for?" Ramirez asked. "What kind of high."

"I'm not sure," Suzann said. "Something laid back."

Ramirez suggested a hybrid called Miss Universe.

Her daughter, Rebecca stepped forward.

"And you?" Ramirez asked her.

"I want to be stoned out of my head."

He suggested Night Terror.

Packages in hand, they headed for home.

An award-winning tale? No, but looking for ways to use some narrative techniques made it a fun assignment. More importantly, it served as a reminder to always be on alert for story moments.

Story 2: Another assignment, but one I made my own. It came the same afternoon I turned in the budtender story. A gunman opened fire at Umpqua Community College in southern Oregon. An assistant professor and eight students were shot to death in a classroom. Nine other students were wounded.

That night I got a message from an editor who wanted me to drive to Roseburg and do a story about how the local hospitals responded to the incident. Not only have I read that kind of story many times, I knew it would be difficult to report, given privacy rules and regulations.

At best, I’d get a public information officer. I offered to come up with my own idea. As soon as I hung up the phone, I started thinking like a storyteller. What could I do that would be different and have meaning? I came up with an idea, but I had to work quickly because the story had to be written the next day.

Another complication: I’d be doing the interview on the phone. That meant I would need to find the right person to build the story around and use my narrator’s voice within the piece.

The clock ticking, I got to work the next morning by making phone calls. I got no comments, or I got people who said they couldn’t talk until the following week. I kept looking. Finally, I reached David Hopkins. He was perfect.

What I want you to look at here with the opening, the excerpts and the ending is how I weave in my voice as a narrator to elevate this piece from a news story to a feature to a story that I hoped resonated with readers.

The calls will start Friday afternoon, the kind David Hopkins didn't learn how to deal with in mortuary school.

This afternoon, the paperwork will be complete, signatures affixed to page after page of documents that will tell what happened in Roseburg this week — but not why. Lives cut short will be summed up matter-of-factly: Weight, height, manner of death.

And then the bodies will be released from official custody and turned over to grieving families.

All funerals are a moment to reflect on loss, love and the meaning of life. But, in most cases, there is time to prepare and plan.

Not here.

"This is a raw tragedy," said Hopkins.

The toughest question he expects to be asked is one so simple and so brutal, a reminder of what happened on that campus.

"Is the body viewable or not?" he said. "I have to give an honest assessment."

After all the years in the business, this will be something new, something that will leave fingerprints on his heart and soul, making him part of a terrible club of funeral directors: Columbine, Sandy Hook, Charleston, Aurora.

And now, Roseburg.

"I'm not sure how it will work," he said. "The medical examiner will find the next of kin and release the body."

He considers his chosen profession spiritual, but he does not impose that on the families who come to him.

"I respect everyone," he said. "It does not matter what they believe, or do not believe."

What he says he will seek in the coming days and months is a shared humanity.

"Goodbye," he said.

He wants to keep the line clear.

The calls will start soon.

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