Overview: Aboard the Narrative Train

By Bill Kirtz
Special to Poynter Online

As news executives trim training and travel budgets, most of the 900 journalists from across the U.S. and abroad paid their own way to Cambridge, Mass., Nov. 8-10. They were told to embrace complexity, to remember that intensive reporting triggers great writing, to mentor themselves. Underscoring the ongoing challenges of craft, they saw Pulitzer Prize-winning speakers cram into conference rooms for more tips.

Some city room diehards may still deem narrative journalism’s concern with voice and theme, protagonists and story arcs, mere staff-draining, news hole-eating incursions onto fiction’s traditional turf.

But Mark Kramer, who brought his annual conference to Harvard’s Nieman Foundation last year, said tough economic times have made editorial management more receptive to some aspects of narrative because they see it as a way to attract and hold readers.
       
Does narrative teeter on the maudlin – endless evocations of suffering victims? Micro reporting is a defense against mawkishness, Kramer replies. “The truth will carry you past sentimentality.”

“Declutter Your Work”

Reiterating his plea for taut, suspenseful writing, he told reporters, “Declutter your work with strong verbs and a ‘to be’ diet. Active verbs are energy pellets…. Tumble (readers) into a story with intrigue. They like to be teased, to feel they’re in the capable hands of a playful friend.”

Katherine Boo, Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post investigative reporter, expanded on Kramer’s statement that “complexity is a gift to the reader.” Boo, who writes compellingly about the poor and disadvantaged, doesn’t seek heroes and villains. “An imperfect character is real. Give subjects complexity and flaws, and readers will trust you.”

While probing systemic failures, she gives bad guys early and frequent chances to tell their side of the story. “You can get some key information from them. They may blame someone else, and they’re as important guides (to your story) as victims.”

Boo rejects the notion that narrative needs to be soft and explanatory.  “Its greatest unrealized potential is to communicate the hardest news — the crucial questions of social justice. Grim subjects, destitute characters, complicated wrongs need narrative so people will read them and give half a damn.”

She said, “Stories aren’t lifted up by verbs and structure but by fact – the stuff you didn’t know before — facts earned through engaging with the subject, that nail the complexities. Don’t write around them. Think about what real reporting is and isn’t.”

Write as You Go

To keep the immediacy of the experience, Boo writes as she reports. “Get the details down. It doesn’t have to be pretty. It just has to be there. These are your building blocks for the final draft.”

Immersing herself in her subject’s world has meant using a Memphis bus station as “my Hyatt-Regency…. It’s difficult, lonely journalism (but) mind-enhancing, slapup fun.”

Oregonian managing editor Jack Hart made a similar point.  He said the narrative form has helped business and circulation “tremendously” as well as sparking the “resurgence of excitement that brought many of us into journalism in the first place.”

Hart, who has edited two Pulitzer-winning stories and contributed to a third, heads the Oregonian’s efforts to use narrative throughout the paper, even on deadline. How? Through frequent and early conferences with writers and planning stories in terms of scenes, not topics. “Look for focus,” he said. “The core idea in narrative is what it means about the human condition.”

He coached one district reporter over the phone to produce a front-pager about a fatal fire. More recently, the Oregonian in three days turned out a complex reconstruction of a fatal mountain accident and failed rescue mission.

“Be Your Own Mentor”

Hart was one of many who reminded aspiring narrative writers that they have to develop those stories on their own time. Oregonian senior writer Richard Read, a Pulitzer winner for explanatory writing, said reporters must generate their own ideas. “You have to be your own mentor, teacher, supporter and critic,” added his newsroom colleague Tom Hallman, a Pulitzer winner last year.

Hallman said he honed the techniques he used in his prize-winning series on complex surgery during 12 years of police reporting. “There are no fancy words. If you think, ‘I could do that,’ that’s good, This is about believing in yourself.  It looks simple; that’s the beauty of it.”

To develop narrative skills, Hallman suggests reporters try just one technique on their next story. “Set one scene. Use some dialogue.”  But he stressed that good writing can’t happen without great reporting details, citing the old-school editor’s traditional question, “Was it a pistol or a revolver?”

Before starting to write any narrative — 12 inches on deadline or 300 inches after months of immersion — Hallman tries to define what it’s about in two or three sentences. “What does it mean? You have to have some kind of theme. If not, there’s no story?

“Stress is Good”

Hallman said “stress is good (because) I want each story to be better than the last.” For Pulitzer Prize-winning feature writer Lisa Pollak, of the Baltimore Sun, that’s not easy. “I’m still trying to figure out how to do this job,” she said. “It’s a struggle every day.”

After weeks of fact-gathering, she gives her editor, Jan Winburn, a 30-minute debriefing — as you would to a friend – “not just what’s in the notebook.”  While she talks, she listens to herself for angles to prune or pursue.

During that session, Winburn believes editors should never say, “’Get to the point.’ They should just listen without a barrage of factual questions. Maybe you could ask, ‘What surprised you? What are you still concerned about?’” To move from content to meaning, she finds it helps to have reporters describe the story in six words, then three, then one.

If Pollak hates her first draft, she free-writes — setting notes aside, not censoring herself, writing down her freshest impressions.

Saying, “News is what you don’t know, not necessarily what just happened,” Winburn tries to tell the stories behind the crime statistics. “Remember the power of going back,” she added — which the Sun did after a fatal fire to show a widow rebuilding her home and her life.

A fresh take on enduring subjects, such as the death penalty, guarantees a good story, she said. So the Sun profiled one of the first people freed from death row because of DNA. The theme: “What would you do with your second life” was the engine that powered that story.
       
To achieve such narrative coups, Winburn remembers Jon Franklin’s axiom: If you don’t spend 80 percent of the time looking for the right subject, you’ll spend 80 percent of your time trying to fix what you’ve got.

Report for Meaning

Franklin, a two-time Pulitzer winner, said, “Reporters shouldn’t fear evoking emotion. “Report for meaning,” he continued. “’Show, don’t tell’ is a good rule, but sometimes you have to tell the reader what it means. Detail makes stories come alive. Details are always action, making readers laugh or cry. Without them, it’s just another love story or lost dog story. Reporting is truth, not superficiality, so the reader realizes this story is not like all other lost dog or love stories.”
       
Ted Conover powers his participatory journalism accounts of riding the rails, traveling with illegal aliens and working as a prison guard by showing readers the mistakes he makes trying to break into a strange culture. “Being dumb makes the reader root for you,” he’s found.  “‘Exploit’ stories are tiresome.”

Amid continuing newsroom debate over using the first person singular, Conover said first person can be an essentially third person story, with ‘I’ substituting for ‘this reporter.’ Always, he says, “I want to be a witness (and) keep myself in the background.”

Mitchell Zuckoff and Adrian Nicole LeBlanc reiterated that point.
 
Reviewing the transcripts of months of conversations with a couple deciding whether to abort a Down syndrome fetus, Zuckoff noted that “My own voice grated and (eventually) dropped off.” The prize-winning Boston Globe reporter seeks “transparency” and dislikes “filtering” his subjects’ views through his own value system.
       
LeBlanc, who spent years researching magazine articles and books about teenage prostitutes and drug dealers, said, “I love losing myself in a story. I’m not that interested in what I think. The ego returns in the writing process.”

Although they agree that narrative journalism draws “enormous reader feedback,” Zuckoff and LeBlanc told beat reporters that they’ll have to do the first one or two of those pieces on their own time. Then, with luck, newsroom bosses will see, in Zuckoff’s words, that “They work. Drag editors into the 21st century.”

Madeleine Blais, Pulitzer Prize-winning feature writer, said good writers engage in “one long process of reading, writing and ‘being at bat.’”
       
Be “counter-intuitive,” she said.  “Make big subjects small (as John Hersey did in Hiroshima). Find the story lurking in the subject. The bigger the topic, the more writers take us home.” You can also transform tiny topics into epics, she said, citing the ability of New Yorker writers Susan Orlean (The Orchid Thief) and Joseph Mitchell (Up In The Old Hotel) to turn oddball stories into gems.

Blais said great non-fiction writing has the vision and passion of great literature. “Nothing happens nowhere,” she said, noting that the  first sentences of Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood” and Norman Mailer’s “The Executioner’s Song” evoke tragedy and Eden respectively.

For passion, she quotes Tennessee Williams: “The heart is an instrument.”

She said great nonfiction writers are part of the story — neither above nor below it. To do such work, she suggests reporters try a first-person story as a breakthrough from the daily grind. “It shows how much fun it is to care about every word you write.”

Bill Kirtz teaches at Northeastern University’s School of Journalism in Boston, Mass.

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