Chapter Two: A 12-Step Program for Writers
say that you run into a great story on your beat. Perhaps you are covering immigration and
learn of the mysterious death of a border patrol guard. Or you are an outdoors writer who learns
about a dramatic rescue of fishermen lost at sea. Or someone in your town wins the state's
biggest lottery and decides to use the money to take a group of impoverished
school children on a trip around the world.
It's a big story, all right, by any definition. But how will you cover it? In occasional episodes in conventional news
style? In a long Sunday project? Or perhaps in a serial narrative?
you are working on such a story, apply the elements against these dozen
standards. See if they help clear both
your news sense and your craft opportunities.
The serial narrative focuses on a single character. Most of the story is told
through this character's point of view.
There are a limited number of secondary
or minor characters. If you have multiple characters and multiple story lines,
it is better to choose the one-day story or the saga. As the story advances day
to day, it is difficult for the reader to switch from character to character.
In my serial novel, "Ain't Done Yet," almost every detail is seen
through the eyes of the main character, investigative reporter Max Timlin. Max
appears in every chapter, and the reader sees what Max sees.
serial narrative is best told in a single narrative line or plot, rather than
through multiple threads or subplots.
The saga can sustain multiple threads,
but the serial cannot, with the possible exception of a story that goes back
and forth between two characters to contrast or connect them: A Klansman and a
black preacher; an organ donor and a recipient. This does not mean that the story must be told in
chronological order. Some narratives begin in the middle of things and then
3.) The story
has enough plot twists, switchbacks, or surprises to create cliffhanger endings
The cliffhanger is one of the indispensable tools for
serials and sagas. In the late 1940s, Republic Pictures produced many adventure
serials for the movies, from westerns to science fiction. Each installment
ended with a car plunging off a cliff or a rocket ship colliding with an
asteroid. It was all the incentive needed to return next week to the movie
house. Cliffhangers need not be hyper-dramatic to work effectively. In his saga
about a high school production of the musical "West Side Story," Ken Fuson makes us wait a day to learn which of
the competing girls lands the lead role. Tom French, a master of the form, refers
to this narrative energy as "enforced waiting." In most writing for
newspapers, we give away the ending early. In the serial, we make the reader
4.) The reporter
has a "golden source" from which to draw.
Often this is
the main character, or someone who knows the main character very well. Such a
character may have suspicious motives for becoming an "open book,"
but in many cases good characters are willing to sacrifice their private selves
for a public good. Such characters may permit you to follow along, or to
accompany them during private moments, or to interview them at length many
times. In other cases, the golden source can be a document: a trial transcript,
a police investigation record, a journal or diary, a photo album or set of
videos. The details and scenes and dialogue you'll need to write a serial
narrative require not only a golden source, but the kind of immersive reporting
that lets you see and hear some things with your own eyes and ears.
5.) The narrative train has an engine.
St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times reporter Tom French coined the term
"engine" to describe the overriding question the narrative seeks to
answer: Will the 15-year-old girl be convicted of killing her mother? Will the
transplant operation be successful? Will the painting turn out to be a fake or a priceless work of
art? Will the Mexican man make it across the border safely? Will the old woman
who hits the lottery still be able to attend Wednesday-night bingo? Each one of
these is the engine to an actual serial narrative. As the last one indicates,
serials need not be highly serious, although most are, perhaps to justify their
length. Before you write a word, ask yourself: What question will this serial
answer for the reader?
6.) Narrative energy derives from one of the
following questions: "what happens next?" or "how did that happen?"
or "what is learned or understood next?"
Little Words," the reader is driven by what happens next: Jane learns her
husband has AIDS, she gets tested herself, she gets the results of the test,
etc. In "Sadie's Ring," "the reader follows the author's path of
understanding from the time he was a boy: that people hate others for who they are, not what they do; that such hate can take
ritualistic forms; that families have secrets that when confronted can help
create tolerance and acceptance. Some narratives can be fueled by more than one
CAUTION: If you
have to stop the narrative train numerous times for long explanatory passages,
you may have a series but not a serial. You can explain lots of stuff, with or
without sidebars and graphics, in a series. In a serial, all explanations must
take place in the context of the story.
7.) The story is character-driven as well as
This excellent distinction is drawn by Jan Winburn, now an editor
at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and
one of the experts on serial narratives. Jan argues that serials driven only by
plot, where characterization is weak or thin, are much less satisfying than
ones in which a character grows and develops. I agree. In fact, plot-driven
narratives often lack the "golden source" that helps reveal
CAUTION: I have
seen serials "fail" because the main character was not sufficiently
sympathetic. A well-written serial about two sisters using artificial
insemination flopped when many readers in the community found them
CAUTION: Just because you like a character does not mean all
The story lends itself to chapters, parts, or segments.
authors strive for "seamless" narratives, most long stories lend
themselves to division into parts. Mark Bowden wrote one of the most successful
serial narratives for The Philadelphia Inquirer.
Down" told the story of the war in Somalia, and Bowden wrote
it in the form of a book it eventually became. It was left to his editor, David
Zucchino, to help the author divide it into the 29 parts that would serve the
newspaper and its readers. The number 29 is not arbitrary, although some
divisions seem to be. The number 29 means that the serial can run for a month and begin and end on a Sunday. Think of the
length of serials in these units: 8, 15, 22, 29. Each of these allows you to
begin and end on a Sunday. Most serials will comprise fewer chapters than
eight, and that's a good thing. Remember: A newspaper can choose to run more
than one chapter on a single day. The chapter breaks give the editor the
A place or habitat can be created for the story in the publication.
Serial narratives run in the newspaper every day. They are called comic strips. They have
a "habitat" in the paper, a reliable place where readers can find
them. Over time, readers develop the "habit" of visiting their favorite characters as part of their daily
routines. The editor helps in this process of habituation by creating a home
for the serial. For "Three Little Words," a 350-word prologue and
photo appeared on the front page, and the first
850-word chapter appeared at the top of page 3A. Each
subsequent chapter appeared in the same place, where readers could easily find it, and where it could be insulated
from the unpredictable rhythms of breaking news. Serial chapters always work
best when they don't jump pages, but many times
that is impossible.
The daily installments can be measured by ART: Approximate Reading Time.
In my professional life as a writer, I've
been asked to measure my story in words, picas, column inches and pages. Why not,
instead, measure a story, or a chapter, according to the time it takes to read?
This will vary with the reader's ability and circumstances, but a rule of thumb
is that a reader can read 100 words in 33 seconds. We can round it off to 200 a
minute. A well-written 1,000 chapter can be read in five minutes. All stories
should justify their lengths, but one of the unspoken secrets in American
newsrooms is that many journalists don't bother to read the longest stories in
their own newspapers. They're busy. They don't have the time. They, too, get
their news online.
The theme of the story touches on something important: public service,
community interest, social relevance, war and its effects.
I've chosen to write
my serials about big themes: AIDS (the plague of the 20th century); the
Holocaust (the crime of the 20th century); and the millennium (the end of the
20th century). These big themes must be communicated through the lives and
stories of specific people. It's hard, but not impossible, to justify
publication of a serial narrative that lacks an imposing social purpose. You
should try to state that purpose early in the process, share it with your
editor, and, if it works, exemplify it in your story.
12.) There's a payoff at the end.
insisting on a sappy, happy ending, the usual stuff of television dramas. I am
insisting on a "satisfying" ending, one that rewards the reader for the effort
of having stuck with the serial. As two-time Pulitzer Prize winner Jon Franklin has noted many
times, it is not necessary for the woman to have survived the brain operation.
But if she dies, it's important to know that the doctor tried his best and will
keep trying to save lives. If your story is, in the end, dark, bleak, about
barbarism and despair, the serial will magnify those effects.
OK. So you think you may have a serial. What now?
Your newspaper has never published a story like that before. What are the arguments that the serial is
good for the reader and good for the newspaper?
Tomorrow: Chapter Three -- A Story Form with Benefits