Learning to Think Like a Storyteller
By Joanna Kakissis
Special to Poynter Online
Before I launch into an analysis of Lisa's fine presentation, let me note that I am one of her fans. I have read nearly all the stories she wrote for The (Raleigh) News & Observer, when she worked there in the mid-1990s. I have also read many of her stories for the Sun, where she has continued to tell compelling, well-reported and utterly beautiful stories in her distinctive voice.
I have studied the stories many times, looking for insights on structure, language use, reporting detail and finding the essential theme that binds everything together. Her presentation on Sunday also hit these themes.
She started the presentation off by noting that narrative journalists look at something more than the ending of a story, which is what most daily newspaper journalists focus on. Narrative journalists should look to the ending as a beginning and reconstruct, through reporting, a story with a definitive structure (beginning, middle and end) that will take the reader on a complete journey.
What could that journey be? It could be an elderly man learning to read. It could be someone on the last day of work. It could be a girl who lost the Oreo-stacking contest (and a $20,000 bond as a prize).
As you take the reader on the journey, you should retain an element of tension in the story as long as possible. That's how you keep the reader with you.
How do you find stories with narrative potential when you work for a daily newspaper? Look to the news, where stories with complications abound in briefs and other small stories in the back pages. Also, in bigger, breaking stories, ask yourself: Who is being forgotten? Who is being ignored? Why? And how can you tell a story about them?
For example, a New York Times reporter focused on a rough part of the Chicago ghetto when writing about Sept. 11 in order to show that fear (of death or destruction or apocalyptic conditions) wasn't a stranger to all parts of this fairly pristine country after the terrorist attacks.
Lisa herself focused on the town near southwestern Pennsylvania ("the other ground zero") to tell the story of the townspeople who lived near where the fourth Sept. 11 plane crashed.
Also, more recently, Tamara Jones of the Washington Post chose to focus on a forgotten victim of the sniper attacks: a 13-year-old boy who almost died from his injuries but was nursed to health by his aunt.
The story showed the impact of the sniper shooting on the entire family and gave the reader a sense of what both the boy and the family had lost because of this ordeal.
Also, ask yourself if the story if compelling — if it moves you personally. If it doesn't, then find an angle or a story that does, because it will be difficult to move your reader if you aren't moved personally.
For example, Lisa wrote a short and lovely story about a girl who lost a national Oreo-stacking contest and a $20,000 bond that she hoped would help her get her own room. (The girl was sharing a room with her younger siblings and had grown weary of it.) Lisa didn't focus on the winner, a proper boy named Ian, because his story just wasn't compelling to her. When she found out the girl's story and longing for a room (and her hard-earned grown-up independence), it moved her to write a funny, exciting piece that gave the Oreo-stacking contest some meaning and depth. (WOW!)
My favorite part of the presentation was Lisa's reading of this piece. By reading, she showed how well she had structured and written the piece for drama, humor and story. It was great.
Finally, a suggestion from Lisa on where to go for inspiration on narratives: Sports writing has some of the best writers who focus on both the Everyman characters and unexpected angles (such as how does someone who gets fourth place in the Olympics feel?)
Also, look to established narrative writers for inspiration: David Finkel of the Washington Post, Walt Harrington (formerly of the Washington Post Magazine, now a professor at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign), Rick Reilly of Sports Illustrated, Jon Franklin (who wrote the seminal book "Writing for Story"), and (in Joanna's inserted opinion) the speaker Lisa Pollak herself. If you have access to the N&O archives, I highly recommend three Pollak stories that she wrote fairly early in her career as a narrative journalist: The mother's day story about the weeping cherry tree planted in memory of a boy who died of cancer, the profile of the AIDS case worker named Ducky, and the day in the life of a learning disabled girl on her bat mitzvah.
Trust me, you'll be inspired.
Joanna Kakissis covers arts news and general features for the News & Observer in Raleigh, N.C.