Short and Sweet: Storytelling in 300 Words

[EDITOR'S NOTE: This is an edited version of an article that ran in The Write Stuff, the monthly newsletter of The Charlotte Observer's writing group. Observer features editor Michael Weinstein, along with assistant metro editor Michael Gordon, is co-editor of the newsletter.]

Brady Dennis was a night cops reporter in the Tampa bureau of Poynter’s St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times when he started writing “300 Words,” a series of short stories about ordinary people, in 2004. This year, he won the Ernie Pyle Award for human interest writing for his series. The “300 Words” stories have been running, alongside pictures by Times photographer Chris Zuppa, on the front page of the paper’s local-news section, about once a month. To find their stories, Zuppa and Dennis think of a moment they want to capture, then find the subject who best defines that moment. Dennis is now a general-assignment reporter in the Times‘ Tampa bureau. I interviewed him, via e-mail, to find out what he’s learned about storytelling in small doses.

MICHAEL WEINSTEIN: How did you come up with the idea of writing 300-word stories?

BRADY DENNIS: I first dreamed up “300 Words” while working as a night cops reporter in Tampa. For starters, I wanted a project that offered a break from the usual murder and mayhem that I typically covered (and enjoyed covering). But more importantly, I wanted to take a chance and offer something in the metro section that readers weren’t used to seeing, something different that would make them slow down and take a breath and view the people they passed each day a little differently. I knew I wanted the pieces to be short — they never jump from 1B — and to highlight people that otherwise never would make the newspaper. Luckily, I [worked with] a photographer who shared this vision and a brave editor willing to try new approaches and fend off the skeptics.

A big inspiration for the series, by the way, were the “People” columns that Charles Kuralt had written for the Charlotte News back in the early 1950s [see www.charleskuraltspeople.com].

What was the easiest thing about doing them?

The easiest thing was my complete confidence in the people we would find. I believe that each person not only has a story to tell, but that each person has a story that matters. I’ve always felt humbled in the presence of everyday, “ordinary” people who are willing to share their lives with us. Give me them any day over politicians and celebrities.

What was hardest?

The hardest thing, I suppose, was finding a theme in each piece that was universal — love, loss, death, change, new beginnings. Something everyone could relate to on a human level. I didn’t think it was enough to say, “Look, here’s an interesting person.” I wanted to capture that person in a moment when readers could say, “I understand. I’ve been there.”

What did you learn about writing short stories with a beginning, middle and end?

I learned it doesn’t take 3,000 words to put together a beginning, middle and end. A good story is a good story, no matter the length. And sometimes the shorter ones turn out [to be] more powerful than the windy ones.

That said, there’s a risk of sounding like I’m advocating super-short stories with no traditional nut graph. Not so. I believe no matter how long or short the story, people should know why it is important and worth their time. It’s not enough just to paint a pretty picture. We must strive to tell them something about the world that matters, to be journalists and not simply storytellers. Hopefully, in a non-traditional way, “300 Words” does that.

Has it made you a better reporter? Better writer?

Absolutely. “300 Words” made me a better reporter by forcing me to rely almost primarily on observation. Notice that most pieces contain almost no quotes. I didn’t interview people as much as I simply shut my mouth and watched and listened. We don’t do that enough.

It also made me a more economical writer. With only 300 words to spare, each one had to matter. I’ve tried to apply that rule to the other stories I do, even the long ones. The idea is to cut away the fat and leave only the muscle. As my editor, Neville Green, repeated again and again: “Less is more.” It’s true for most stories we write.

How did your editor help you?

Neville
Green
helped in so many ways. He wrote most of the headlines. He helped
me trim many unnecessary sentences, greatly improving the stories with
each change. And sometimes, he simply put that universal theme I was
searching for in perspective. “Isn’t this story about…” he would
start, and he’d always be dead-on.

Anything else I should ask?

One thing I would offer is my opinion that, now, more than ever, we should be willing to take risks and make reading the paper an unpredictable and interesting exercise. “300 Words” was an effort at that. But there are a million other possibilities, and journalists are pretty bright folks. All it takes is the willingness to risk something new.

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