X-Ray Shows How Narrative Approach Sets This Crime Story Apart

When I like a newspaper story, I really like it. And when I like it, I want other people to like it as much as I do. So I’ll enshrine it in my personal story hall of fame. Because my job is to encourage aspiring writers, I share the stories I like with hundreds, sometimes thousands of others. After a time, a story can take on a life of its own, so that I’ll bump into it on the Internet or in a newsroom in the Dakotas or a classroom in Baton Rouge.

I’ve got another story to share with you, and I really, really like this one.

It appeared in Poynter’s St. Petersburg Timeson Thursday, Feb. 25, on the front of the local section. It described how two women got their expensive cell phones stolen at an amusement park along with their efforts to get them back.

I remember another story about a cell phone that appeared on the front page of The New York Times. That one concerned the fate of a commuter who dropped his cellie in the toilet on a train, reached in to get it, got his hand stuck, and required the jaws of life to free him. Thousands of train commuters suffered significant delays that day because of this clown and his cell phone.

I have read thousands of stories for many years in The New York Times. But if you asked me to recall some, I would probably only be able to remember a handful, and, most likely those stories would fall into the subgenre of “cell phone falls into train toilet.”

Journalist and scholar Robert Darnton noticed this tendency to remember off-beat stories in a 1975 essay titled “Writing News and Telling Stories.” In that piece, Darton described his own apprenticeship at a New Jersey newspaper, where he was tutored by older reporters on how to turn a routine cop report into a tale of the city, akin to a 19th century ballad.

Within this tradition, it was not enough to report that a boy had his new bicycle stolen by a thug in the park. The reporter had to dig for more: that the boy had come from a working class family, that he had received the bike as a Christmas gift, that his father consoled him and told him he’d buy the boy another bike and that Johnny could pay back dad with the money he made from his newspaper route.

I tend to remember such mini-narratives, how a ranger tranquilized a mischievous bear in order to move him to a safe location, but the bear stumbled into a lake, and the ranger had to jump in like a Baywatch lifeguard to save him. I remember the rooster, Rockadoodle Two, who attacked a little girl in a chicken-infested suburban neighborhood. I remember a man who fell in a ditch only to have his arm grabbed by an alligator. Rescuers had to yank him out by the legs, tug-of-war style.

And now I’ll remember “A Wild Ride at Busch Gardens,” written by Kim Wilmath, who, I just discovered, is an intern for the St. Pete Times. (It may be the first story in my hall of fame written by an intern.)

When I find a story I admire, I like to X-ray read it, that is look down beneath the surface of the text to discover the strategies that create the effects that make it admirable. Just click on the button below to find my analysis of Wilmath’s story. (Move your cursor over a highlighted word or phrase and my take will pop up.)

See the X-ray reading by Roy Peter Clark

My friend Stuart Adam, a great Canadian scholar of journalism, likes to say that good reporting and writing come at the intersection of the civic and the literary. The civic realm shows us what is truly important; the literary helps us make it interesting.

This little narrative does have a civic message. Along with the crime and the police response, we learn that the thief, age 25, had been arrested 19 times in the state of Florida for similar offenses. As for the literary, I can think of the standard way this event would have been described in most newspapers, as a three or four paragraph short, with all the good stuff in the first paragraph. Applaud that if you will, but, if we’re choosing sides, I’m picking Kim Wilmath (and her editors) for my team.

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