Pace, the Ultimate Mystery
by Joe Marren
Special to Poynter.org
As newspeople we’re taught (or now teach) never to start a lead with the "who" unless it’s the essence of the story. Rather, we’re taught (or now teach) to tell readers "what happened," or "what’s happening now." Or so the theory goes. But that’s hard to do when the subject is about how to pace a narrative news story and the presenter is is Mark Kramer, the guru, the "500-pound gorilla" of narrative journalism. (He’s the writer-in-residence and director of the Nieman Program on Narrative Journalism at Harvard University.) In such a case, you might as well surrender and admit to readers that you’re covering "the boss."
Okay now, as long as we can be up front about squeamishness, it offers a neat segue into what Kramer said is a squeamishness from newspapers to use narrative stories that include individual emotion.
Actually, Kramer said, newspapers will freely use the device when trying to spark civic emotion -- such as patriotism -– or when showing bad guys are not people. Such newspapers are behind the times, Kramer says, because readers think narratively. As do reporters when they sit around the beer cooler after work and deflate the pompous -– though they know those stories won’t make it into the daily column inches.
Why is this? In a word: chains. Corporate chains bind newsrooms into seeking a one-size-fits-all type of journalism and have forgotten the audience. To fight that, Kramer offers several guidelines to achieve pace in a story.
Before going there, though, let’s define "pace." Kramer thinks it is a sequential emotional experience. Okay, cue the step-by-step guidelines:
Choose topics cunningly. That also means letting detail tell you and the reader the meaning.
Keep a narrative distance. Readers have to trust a writer. Be honest to create that trust and the reader will invest in your work.
Switch approaches is necessary. Put things into a more human context. Seek access to the subjects because that’s the key to good reporting.
Write down everything in your notes, especially sensory detail, and try to include as much as you can in the final story.
Spot and treasure telling incidents that can bring a subject to life.
Get quotes. They give a reader a sense of being with the subject and not using you as a middleman. Quotes "are a taste of personality" for a reader.
Write scene-stealing and personality details down. Remember that people want to read about characters.
In a draft, set down the narrative elements and then revise. "I like to think the first draft is digging down in the clay and subsequent drafts are actually making the sculpture," Kramer said.
Find strong scenes but be prepared to jettison most of that when revising. Remember, a goal is to present characters’ responses.
Handle digressions carefully and consciously. Know where you want to put them -- perhaps in the middle of incidents –- and then, after the digression, the reader will love the narrative all the more because the pace never slowed.
"I like to think of it as touching the reader on the forearm as if to say, ‘Between you and me, this is what I was talking about,’" Kramer said.
Once you have your story, experiment and move paragraphs and scenes around to see if you stopped in time or need to go further.
Use strong verbs. "Active verbs are like little energy pellets," Kramer said.
Storytelling is an act of friendship, Kramer said. So be a friend and help your reader through the story.
Joe Marren is an assistant professor in the communication department at Buffalo State College. He can be reached at email@example.com.