Boston Globe reporter shows how news writing can unfold ‘like a story in a book’

A story from the Boston Globe has been getting a lot of buzz, and rightly so. It was written by Eric Moskowitz, and describes the harrowing experience of a young Chinese man carjacked by the two Boston Marathon bombers.

The man is called “Danny” in the story (more about that later), and his capture, dangerous odyssey, and eventual escape has the feel of a “Tarantino movie” (more about that later, too).

When a story rings a bell — for both the public and professionals — my inclination is to read it several times, study it, talk with others about it and then engage in a process of X-ray reading. The goal is to reverse-engineer the work, describing for other writers and editors not just why it works, but how it works.

If you haven’t yet read the story, I would suggest you do so now. I quote from it several times in my analysis, but it might help you to experience it uninterrupted from start to finish. Or, if you prefer, read my commentary as a guide to experiencing the piece at a deeper level. You’re the boss.

Let’s stipulate certain recurring practical truths about news writing that certainly apply to this story. The first is that great news writing occurs at the intersection of accident and craft — something significant happens and, given the chance, the reporter does something special with it. It also occurs at the intersection of reporting and writing — the dogged gathering of facts, expressed in graceful and efficient prose.

On the reporting side, access becomes crucial. The fact the Globe gained “exclusive” (a word I’ve come to hate) access to the “golden source” makes everything that follows possible. (Without such access, other news organizations, such as NPR, resorted to interviews with the reporter, which is a good thing to do.)

Here, then, are my dozen reasons why this story works:

1. It begins, like the ancient epics, in medias res – in the middle of things. There is no background information on where Danny was when the bombing took place. What we get instead is action, followed by more action:

“The 26-year-old Chinese entrepreneur had just pulled his new Mercedes to the curb on Brighton Avenue to answer a text when an old sedan swerved behind him, slamming on the brakes. A man in dark clothes got out and approached the passenger window. It was nearly 11 p.m. last Thursday.” (I can’t help feel a digital-age irony here, that Danny drives into mortal danger by doing the right thing — pulling over to text.)

2. It is almost impossible to construct a news story out of pure narrative, but this one comes close. It may help to remember a distinction between reports and stories. A report may point you in a direction, but a story puts you there. A report is about information, but a story is about experience, a form of transportation that places us on the scene to experience events as if we were there. Using a rough calculation, this work is about 75 percent narrative, the rest devoted to set-up, background, and sourcing.

3. The construction of narrative journalism depends upon certain strategies associated traditionally with fiction, and we get all of them here: scene, dialogue, character details, point of view. The fact that the events tick-tock in a block of time (about 90 minutes) and inside the confines of an automobile, create what classical critics might call a unity of time, place and action that intensifies the experience of the reader.

4. By now, most news writers and editors understand the value of the nut paragraph, and this story supplies it and then some. I’ve argued that we should no longer call this tool a “nut graph” because it could just as well be tightened to a nut word, a nut phrase, a nut clause — or, expanded into what Chip Scanlan calls a “nut zone.”

That is what we get here: not one but three consecutive paragraphs of orientation. (Paragraphs six, seven, and eight, to be exact.) The nut begins with the declaration that Danny’s account “filled in some of the last missing pieces in the time line” between the murder of the police officer and the arrest of the second bomber.

The next paragraph summarizes the events, including a catalog of subjects the young men talked about: girls, music and technology. The final paragraph in the nut zone offers evidence of what the bombers might have been thinking and planning, including references to New York City.

5. This story should remind us of how rarely dialogue appears in breaking news, with reporters depending more often on quotes gathered after the fact. Even though he is using a single source (the bombers being unavailable, one dead, one arrested), the writer chooses to re-create the dialogue in the car based on Danny’s recollection. I count at least 12 paragraphs containing dialogue such as: “Don’t look at me!” Tamerlan shouted at one point. “Do you remember my face?” / “No, no, I don’t remember anything,” [Danny] said.

6. This story flirts with another taboo, rendering the thoughts of the protagonist. Without access to the bombers, there can be no sense of what they were thinking, except through words and actions described by the source. But in Danny’s case, he is carrying on an internal monologue, which he shares with the reporter, who renders it as a series of credible quotations: “Death is so close to me,” Danny recalled thinking. Or “I don’t want to die. I have a lot of dreams that haven’t come true yet.”

7. I see something unusual in the structure of this story, but I don’t have a name for it. We can say what it is not. It is not a pure linear narrative. It is not a pyramid of information. It is not a broken line of narrative and explanation. It is not anecdote/nut graph/analysis. It is not what I described years ago as an hourglass, which has a news top and a narrative bottom. So what is it?

The best description I can give you is two overlapping tiles of narrative, grouted together with background and context. Think, if you will, of a style of home decoration called the “subway tile.” You don’t just stack the tiles end to end in parallel lines. Instead, they overlap. The tile on the bottom begins about halfway to the right of the one above it. In our case, the top tile of narrative begins with Danny pulling his car over and ends about 13 paragraphs later with his escape.

What follows is the grout, information about how his quick thinking led to the end for the bombers. Three paragraphs step outside the narrative to describe the circumstances of the interview and Danny as a reluctant hero. But hold on. Here comes the next line of narrative: a return to the action, a retelling of what we already know in outline, but with more detail, more dialogue, and fewer interruptions of the narrative.

8. There is always a tension in news writing between narrative and attribution. We live and write in an age of growing transparency, where we say that readers want to know not only what we know, but also how we know it. Yet we still refrain from clotting news stories with footnotes.

I’ll argue here, perhaps controversially, that nonfiction narratives, like magic tricks, are hurt by excessive transparency. The suspension of disbelief required of the experience of all literature requires a degree of trust by readers, which can be achieved, I’ll argue, with neither opacity nor transparency, but with translucence.

For example, we do not know who Danny is. That is a nickname (not made up, I assume, by the reporter). He is reluctant to use his Chinese name. What grounds the story in reality is a fabric of other details: his school, for example, and the name of a trusted professor present at the interview, the cop who gives him a bagel and a cup of coffee.

9. I’m reading a book titled “Hit Lit,” a cagey analysis by James W. Hall of a dozen famous American blockbuster novels and what makes them tick. One of the many common features is an intense personal drama against the backdrop of sweeping historical events and movements. Think of Scout in “To Kill a Mockingbird” against the backdrop of the Jim Crow South. Think of Scarlett O’Hara and her search for love and happiness against the backdrop of the Civil War.

Now think of a young man named Danny. He pulls his car over to receive a text message. There is a knock on his window, a classic example of Robert McKee’s “inciting incident,” and suddenly he becomes a character in the continuing saga of American security in the age of international terrorism, a story that spreads from Boston and Manhattan all the way to Russia and China and beyond.

10. There is a literary theory called “intertexuality.” It means that the stories we tell not only reflect the world, but also refer to other stories. When we watch “The Sopranos” it reminds us of “The Godfather.”

So it interested me that the writer uses this line as a summary of what happened to Danny: “The story of that night unfolds like a Tarantino movie, bursts of harrowing action laced with dark humor and dialogue absurd for its ordinariness, reminders of just how young the men in the car were.”

When I first read that comparison, I thought of the scene in “Pulp Fiction” where the two hit men inadvertently shoot an associate sitting in the back seat of their car. While the pop culture reference worked for me, it was deleted in the version that appeared in Poynter’s Tampa Bay Times.

Dumping the nod to Tarantino, my local version proceeds: “The story of that night unfolds with….” While I find that deletion unnecessary, I understand it. The action can advance without metaphor or analogy. There is so much great “showing” in this story that “telling” us how to think about it may turn out to be counterproductive. Different strokes.

11. One important literary effect is embodied in the ending or “kicker,” which seems to have delighted many readers. Think of it as a payoff for both Danny and the reader: “When news of the capture broke, Danny’s roommate called out to him from in front of the living room television. Danny was on the phone at the time, talking to the girl in New York.”

Tragedy ends classically with the death of the hero. Comedy ends with his marriage, the fulfillment of love, with the promise of procreation. In tragedy, death is the conqueror. In comedy, love conquers death. Surely there is some of that here with our reluctant hero escaping from the vise of death to reach out to the girl he dreamed of when he was facing his darkest hour.

12. I’ll leave the last comment to the writer and reporter, Eric Moskowitz, who sent me this email message:

“I thought you might be interested in this – my brother (a sociology grad student who studies China and is fluent in Mandarin) has been checking out Weibo and other Chinese-language sites to see what people are saying about the Marathon bombing coverage, the Globe, and the story about Danny in particular. One of the cool things is that some people have apparently remarked on the style of the story – that it unfolds like a story in a book, with dialogue, a tick-tock narrative, even a subplot about a crush on a girl. According to my brother at least, Chinese-language dailies in China pretty much stick to inverted pyramid – though there is apparently a growing tabloid-style niche – and don’t do narrative.”

Maybe now they will.

Join us for a free live chat with Moskowitz this Thursday, May 2, at 3 p.m. ET. You can visit this page Thursday morning for more details.

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  • Roy Peter Clark

    Bill, I think transparency and narrative do exist in some creative tension. The key, I think, is not to wreck the experience for the reader. That’s why I am playing with an alternate word: translucence. You don’t need to see everything behind the text, but you need to have the light shine through it enough so that you trust what the writer is doing.

  • Roy Peter Clark

    I think a lot of writers of our generation (maybe of every generation) come to thinking cinematically. I teach this myself, asking students to use their notebooks as cameras. What is the textual equivalent to an “establishing shot” or a “close up”? The first usually establishes setting. The second identifies details of character.

  • Roy Peter Clark

    Matthew, I had not heard the term “braided” before, but I like it. It solves several problems and helps the writer think about the individual strands, which will be eventually braided together.

  • Roy Peter Clark

    I will be interested in knowing how Eric’s story works in a classroom discussion. I plan on using it myself for the first time at a public writing conference held at the Washington Post on May 18. Trying to figure out how the less should “unfold.”

  • Bill Marvel

    i’m getting into this conversation a little late, but I want to raise one question. Roy writes: “We live and write in an age of growing transparency, where we say that readers want to know not only what we know, but also how we know it”

    We DO say that, but I doubt very much it’s true. Putting aside those obvious instances when a reader is going to be brought up short — “How in the world could the writer know THAT?” — I think most attribution gums up a story. Editors want to know — and the writer better be ready to supply answers — and we writers have our professional curiosity. The general reader, once trust is established, just wants to move on though the story as briskly as possible.
    if somebody up or down the chain is a stickler for micro-attribution, put it in a separate editor’s note.

  • Daniel R. Pearce

    I thought it was interesting that Eric raised the spectre of Tarantino directly and then proceeded to structure his story like one of his films: it circled around, or passed by, the same ground a couple of times. The story is told out of chronological order — that’s what gives it impact. Remember the 1950s movie All About Eve.It opens with the Anne Baxter character receiving a Tony award for acting while her friends sit and stare in disgust. How did this come to pass, we the viewers ask ourselves? The rest of the movie answers the question, taking us through the events that lead to the Tony ceremony — and right back to the start of the film. It is brilliant storytelling that produced an unforgettable experience. Can journalists learn from Hollywood?

  • Matthew G. Miller

    You said you weren’t sure what to call this structure. It reminds me of what instructors of mine have called the “braided essay.” This story is a tightly woven trio of strands, moving between the exciting narrative of the events, the internal monologue of Danny, and the background context of the story.

  • fernglazer

    Thank you so much for this, Roy. And, of course, thanks to Eric for being lucky enough to have been available at the right time and talented enough to write about it all so compellingly. I teach Documentary Journalism (read: longform, narrative, multimedia journalism) at Temple University and will be sharing this with my graduate class tonight. They are struggling with the exact things this article does so well. It will be useful to them to see strategies and examples spelled out.

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  • Prof. Me

    Nice, Roy, will use in my Intro to Journalism class this week. My students will love this.

  • Roy Peter Clark

    Danielle, thanks for your thanks. I think all aspiring writers — students and professionals — are looking for specific strategies and revealing examples. Cheers to you and your students.

  • Danielle Gamble

    I’m saving this right now so I can use it for a narrative news writing workshop at our college paper. Thank you, thank you, thank you for this great analysis and for showcasing this creative piece!

  • Roy Peter Clark

    Thanks, Roy. This is very much a story worth our collective attention. And, by the way, did you know that guys named Roy rule?

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  • Roy Harris

    Great job of breaking down this amazing story. I saved it, and now have a reason to go back into it and look deeper. Thanks.