NPR tornado report reveals the elements of vivid newswriting
Driving to work Tuesday, I heard a four-minute NPR report on the massive tornado destruction in Oklahoma. So vivid was the account -- and so visual the writing -- that I pulled over to write down the name of the reporter. It was Wade Goodwyn, a Texas reporter who narrates the news with a husky maturity that manages to be both urgent and reassuring.
I was not alone in my admiration. Later that day I received a message from veteran North Carolina journalist Seth Effron. “It was a transporting description,” he wrote of Goodwyn’s story.
I am about to analyze the elements of Goodwyn’s writing that make his story vivid. I will cite lines and passages, but you may want to experience the story firsthand before I try to undress it.
A weak lead-in by David Greene and Steve Inskeep deserves little attention expect to point out a kind of logical flaw: 1) A tornado can wreck a home; 2) it can devastate a whole neighborhood; 3) it can even smash a school. To which I say, “If it can take out a whole neighborhood, why does it seem strange that it can destroy a school?”
The good stuff begins with Wade Goodwyn’s narration. He dips into a deep supply of cool writing moves to make his work more vivid.
“At 3:01 Monday afternoon, the National Weather Service issued a very rare Tornado Emergency for the Oklahoma City area, a warning that widespread damage and fatalities were likely. A tornado had dropped out of the sky and was bearing down on a suburb south of town.”
It’s a promising lead. A time marker sets the clock ticking for the dramatic action. A “very rare” warning creates a sense of foreboding. Our first look at the tornado is almost cinematic, as if we were seeing the world from its point of view.
Vivid verbs, both active and passive
Storytellers often ascribe evil intent to big storms, which some readers or listeners might find clichéd or unscientific. Goodwyn eventually calls this storm a “monster,” an agent of death and destruction. It is that agency that results in a splendid array of active verbs. Because the tornado controls the action, it also takes control of the vivid verbs. It “dropped” out of the sky and “grew” more than a mile wide. It “plowed” through town. It “slammed” into two schools.
But what happens to the victims of that action? They are rendered appropriately in the passive voice:
- “The Browns' house was destroyed…”
- “dozens of animals were swept up into the horrifying spiral.”
- children “had been evacuated to a nearby church…”
This style of writing suggests a useful rule of thumb when it comes to verbs: Render agency or power (the doers) with active verbs; render victims (the receivers) in the passive voice. It also reveals the paradox that there can be a hell of a lot of activity in passive verbs (as in animals being swept up) -- as long as those verbs are vivid.
Vivid voices and senses
I’ve learned from the experts that public radio stories tend to be organized around a combination of direct narration, actualities (what sources or witnesses say), and tracks of natural sound (the warning siren.) I’ve heard the shorthand “acts and tracks.”
But not all “acts” are created equal. Notice how Goodwyn allows William Brown to serve as not just an eyewitness but as the story’s sub-narrator. Brown is a great source, an Iraq War vet who may never have seen this kind of destruction in a war zone. He turns out to be a vivid storyteller himself, using multiple senses for his narration. He sees the horizontal rain, hears the train sounds and the screeching metal, smells the fumes of gasoline.
In general news stories and metaphors don’t seem to mix (unless they are clichés: as in the “budget ax”). There is a sense that a metaphor -- a comparison -- moves the writing across the line of neutral reporting into opinion. I don’t share that view, especially when the metaphors are used to help the reader see. In this case, the tornado starts out “ropelike,” but turns into a “monster” that “sweeps” and “plows.”
I think of these as tiny stories that can be embedded into reports or longer stories. The best one here describes the terrible events at Plaza Towers Elementary School, where “one teacher saved three students by shielding them with her body from a car that landed on top of them.”
From the Wizard of Oz to our own time, tornadoes and other natural disasters have been rendered with special cinematic effects. By the way, the cinema didn’t invent the effects we now call cinematic. Ancient prose writers did. If you don’t believe me, it’s time to re-read The Odyssey. Writers learned how to describe things from a distance (an establishing shot) and in close proximity (a close up). So we encounter the Edwards family standing together on a pile of rubble that once was their house. Then the camera moves closer: “Molly is covered in pink insulation dust, which glistens like glitter on her skin.” (It’s worth noting that the writer creates some poetic effects with the repetition of vowel and consonant sounds in that last clause.)
Vivid points of view
One reliable method of storytelling is to help us see the world through the eyes of another. In this story, for example, we see the tornado through the eyes of the storm chasers, as it expands from something ropelike to a monster engorged with destruction and debris. The point of view becomes more intimate when the Edwards family escapes the direct path of the storm: “They drove away with the funnel in their rearview mirror.”
The kicker of the story is just as vivid as the rest, describing a spectacular lightning display in the sky, a cautionary moment that reminds us that “the tornado season is just begun.”
Not long ago, I celebrated a genuine scoop out of Boston that unfolded like a story. Now we have another admirable example of breaking news, rendered by a radio news pro who demonstrates that it’s possible to make deadline prose feel compelling, poetic, and, of course, vivid.