How to find details that make a powerful story
I was 11 years old on the November Friday when President Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas. Does anyone else remember what Jackie Kennedy was wearing that day?
A pink suit. Not an important detail at first glance, except that this designer suit bore the bloodstains left behind after the wounded president collapsed into his wife’s lap. When Mrs. Kennedy refused to change her clothes until she returned to the White House the following morning, the suit took its place among America’s most tragic symbols. I remember the picture of Mrs. Kennedy still wearing the suit as she stood with Bobby Kennedy, her hand in his, behind the hearse bearing her dead husband.
(Note: For me to know the color of Mrs. Kennedy’s suit, I needed a reporter to tell me. The newspaper and television coverage in my home was black and white.)
More importantly, telling details. Details that give us insight into a character, a situation, an issue. Details that enable storytellers to elevate their work into sources of meaning for those who experience them.
For several months I’ve been collecting stories from journalists who responded to my invitation to send me good stories they completed in one day. I will share a few of them today that make use of telling detail. But first, here is a report from Bagdhad that hasn’t been published by any news organization; it’s a Facebook post written by Los Angeles Times Correspondent David Zucchino:
I was inside my bedroom in Baghdad last night when the windows were rattled by an explosion. I walked out onto the balcony and saw a plume of black smoke against the dull night sky. A car bomb had just detonated, killing 14 Iraqis who were enjoying free tea, bottled water and biscuits on the street as part of Ashura, the 10-day Shiite period of mourning. As sirens wailed, the security guards below did not stir from their cigarettes and tea. Children continued to play in the courtyard. A family in the next building watched a TV comedy. Another car bomb. Nothing new. I sat and smoked a cigar as I listened to the faint shouts of rescuers trying to save the dead and dying. Red ambulance lights glowed against the buildings. In my journalist's heart, I knew that even though 14 human beings had just been slaughtered a few hundred yards from me, it didn't qualify as a news story. There are several car bombs a day in Baghdad. Another day, another car bomb. This one exploded just a few blocks from a similar Ashura refreshment table I had visited the day before to interview Shiites commemorating Ashura. A gun-toting Shiite militiaman guarding the table was courteous, but he warned me to wrap up my interviews quickly and leave. A car bomb could strike at any time, he said. As I watched the latest atrocity play out from my balcony, I thought about how impassively the militiaman had described what Iraqis have come to accept as a fact of life. He seemed resigned, almost fatalistic. And now another fourteen people had just been blown apart and burned alive. Each one had a life story, a personality, a mother, a father, a family that loved him. I went back inside. No story here.
Zucchino’s dispatch reminds me of at least three important lessons:
- Keen observation allows the writer to speak with authority. For nearly all of the details in his post, Zucchino does not quote police authorities, government officials or neighbors. He knows what happened, because he saw and heard it: “As sirens wailed, the security guards below did not stir from their cigarettes and tea. Children continued to play in the courtyard. A family in the next building watched a TV comedy.” That same authority causes us to give him license to share his feelings about the impact of ongoing violence in Baghdad.
- Well-chosen details place me in the story. They show me instead of telling me. When I read “the security guards did not stir from their cigarettes and tea,” I not only know something about the guards; I see them relaxing – because that’s what you do with a cup of tea and a smoke. And I see them much more clearly than if Zucchino simply had told me they were relaxing. With one detail, the writer made his point that car bombings in Baghdad are routine. Even those responsible for protecting the citizenry see no cause to interrupt their rest.
- No matter what length the story, details pack a punch. This Facebook post is 303 words. Zucchino has written his share of long-form narratives, and used telling details in them to tell riveting, sometimes heart-wrenching stories. But this short dispatch from Iraq also engages my emotions. How? By using details to remind me that people who do many of the same things I do are living with horrors I’ve been blessed never to experience.
In his coverage of gun violence in Chicago, Peter Nickeas of the Chicago Tribune also demonstrates effective use of detail. Here he takes us to the scene of the murder of a boy, just 14. Give it a read.
Thanks to Nickeas and visual journalist E. Jason Wambsgans, who made the photographs and video, we are standing on South Francisco Avenue, watching and listening.
Christine Barakat was yelling. Her eyes were wide and her hands were shaking as she forced her 13-year-old son and 16-year-old nephew to look down the block at their dead friend.
Just that one sentence—“Her eyes were wide and her hands were shaking…” communicates anger—no, it’s rage. And I am there.
But the detail that stays with me—this story’s “pink suit,” if you will—is this phrase:
While one of the beat cops used a hose to wash blood from the grass into the gutter…
Sparsely written, no embellishment. A policeman hosing the last reminder of a dead boy—his name was Kevin—into the gutter.
I am there. I can see it. I, too, have a son. I want to cry.
I asked Nickeas to tell me about his coverage:
“Anyone, I think, can write a short story off the script that the police department reads after a shooting. But what we're trying to do with these—and to do one of these is the goal whenever I would go out at night—is expand on shootings as ways of looking at things that shootings touch. The neighborhood, the family, etc. These things ripple out.
“These vignettes are designed to bring people into the scene. They need photos and they need observations. They're strengthened by context and other things we can draw in to give people a better understanding of violence. So, the longer we're outside (we're talking months and years, not in a single shift), the better we get at this. Same as any other beat. But we can do these scenes, these 40 or 50 vignettes, because we've been to 10 or 12 or 15 times as many scenes where we observe but don't turn them into vignettes.”
Nickeas said he trusts his observations to tell the story.
“As a writer, I want the copy to be sober. I want to state things as plainly as possible. Some things require a lot of description but I feel like if we just tell people what we see overnight, there's enough drama and pain and sorrow for anyone to see without us having to use those words to describe the scene.”
He recalled how that night unfolded:
“When I'm out, I keep my eyes open and often my mouth shut and just watch… I saw the two moms come out and run back to their house and I got a weird vibe from it, because they were moving quickly and for your own personal safety you watch for volatile personalities at crime scenes. But they came back with their kids. And all of it was so powerful to watch—it was like, you get there and a kid is on the ground, and his brother is there trying to convince his family that yes, that is my little brother who’s on the ground; then you see these two moms bringing their shirtless kids who are still foggy from sleeping out of bed ... I had no idea it was going to present that way. You just see everything happen and see how it fits together later.”
Remember, this was a daily story. Well-chosen details made it powerful.
Finally, here is a different type of daily story, a feature story, about a summertime block party. It was reported, written and photographed by John R. Roby from the Press & Sun Bulletin in Binghamton, NY. Take a read.
Perhaps this story resonated with me because since I was a teenager back in Baltimore, I have been involved in a summertime party—we call it “The Fourth” because it started on the Fourth of July, 55 years ago. (I started attending a bit later.)
Two next-door-neighbor-dads, having just returned from watching their kids march in the local parade, agreed to spend the afternoon sharing a pot of homemade Maryland crab soup (red, of course) and iced-cold National Bohemian beer.
The most important detail for that party, which has grown to more than 100 guests, is the pot of soup. It’s the centerpiece of the gathering and a symbol of friendship and traditions that matter. But for me to actually "take you" to the party, I need to tell you that the soup is "red" (never "white"); that modern times have dictated the preparation of a vegetarian pot (sans fatback); and that there is a secret ingredient (just don't expect me to reveal what it is.)
Roby’s party in Endwell, N.Y.—you’ve got to love that town’s name—is built around a Whiffle Ball game. Roby wisely frames the story around the game and then takes me there with details that help me experience both the spirit of competition and its role in building the tradition.
“I had gotten an email the day before,” Roby told me, “saying this event was a neighborhood tradition, and inviting me to come cover it. I wanted to make it more than just a series of vignettes that most readers, by definition, couldn’t take part in.
“Instead, my impression was this event grew from what could have been a one-off afternoon into something that the people consider a defining part of their neighborhood. So I tried to focus on the personalities of the players and show how the two teams had a rivalry that started at the first event and continued to the present, and is starting to cross generations.”
Throughout the story, Roby sprinkles details. We learn about the origins of the team names—not all of them, just the ones that help me understand the role of rivalry in this tradition. Roby lets one of the participants provide the detail:
“The street is Colonial, so (the street’s team) calls themselves the Colonial Lobsterbacks, after the British, so they were kind of like the evil ones on July Fourth,” he said. “And then we’re the Knolls, like Country Knoll, and we’ve got the red, white and blue, so it was a patriotic clash.”
We also learn about the role of uniforms in this tradition. Now I’m beginning to appreciate how seriously these folks take their Whiffle Ball:
Other teams got into the spirit, with custom-made or DIY uniforms. The Bad News Bears, a team of senior girls from Maine-Endwell High School, sported vivid yellow T-shirts with rips — like claw marks — on the back. One year, Cole said, the Camo Cronks team took it to another level.
“They made their entrance on four-wheelers, all dressed in camo, wives and little kids all came in camo, so you looked up and it looked like the Army was coming down on their four-wheelers and pickup trucks,” he said.
And finally, because he knows we’re dying to know, Roby shares one more important detail—who won the game:
This year, the tournament ended with a rematch of 2013’s final, the Country Knolls and Lobsterbacks again facing off for the trophy. Final score: 2-0, with Cole knocking a two-run homer for the Knolls on a pitch delivered by Ketchoyian. The rivalry, and the tradition, continues.
Telling details. They can make your daily work much more compelling, elevating your stories to engage me on an emotional as well as intellectual level.
- Learn to watch. Paraphrasing Nickeas, keep your eyes open and your mouth shut. Be patient. If you’re interviewing someone, take note of what’s on the desk, on the bookshelves, hanging on the wall. If an event is unfolding, stay until the end. And longer if you can.
- Be selective. Fill your notebook with details but only use the most telling ones. Just because you know the color of the suit, only use it if it matters. Remember, your goal is to take me there, to show me.
- Sprinkle them. Don’t place all of your best details in one paragraph of description near the top of the story. Telling details can propel me to the end of your story. Make it worth my journey.