Coaches’ Corner: How The New York Times told the story of a man adrift at sea

Once upon a time, there were writing coaches in newsrooms across the country. Then, they began disappearing. In this monthly feature, we hope to help writers and editors by sharing advice about storytelling and enterprise.


The story: “A Speck in the Sea,” by Paul Tough

From: The New York Times

When it ran: January 2014

Questions: Steven Wilmsen, enterprise editor of The Boston Globe

Answers: Joel Lovell, an editor at "This American Life" and The Atavist Magazine. He was deputy editor at the New York Times Magazine.

What inspired the story: John Aldridge’s rescue had passed without much notice in New York papers. The writer, who lives in Montauk, New York, was looking for a break from the education writing he specialized in. He and Lovell talked. “It occurred to us there was a great human drama right outside his door.”

Time from idea to publication: About four months.

One thing this story does so successfully is grab you and not let go. From sentence to sentence, we want to find out what happens next, which is, of course, a goal of most good storytelling. So I have a lot of questions about that. To begin with, I would have thought this is a story driven by our desire to learn the outcome — did the guy live or did he die? But you give it away in the very first phrase of the piece. Somehow, we're gripped anyway. Tell us the reasoning behind the decision to reveal that part of the outcome up front, and how did you think about the sources of tension in the story?

Well, we did a little thought experiment to see if it were actually possible, mechanically speaking, to tell the story without revealing whether he survived, and after about half a minute of that experiment, we realized that there are a bunch of details that could only come from John (not to mention a cover photo of him), so any attempts to maintain suspense might feel patently false and a little insulting to readers’ intelligence.

Once that was clear, it seemed best to dispense right away with the question of whether he survived, and then try to tell the story in such a way that the central tension would be generated from the question of how he could possibly survive — what did he do at this moment; what was Anthony thinking here; holy crap, those guys are looking in the wrong place. How are they going to realize that in time to save him…and so on.

We ride ups and downs of expectation through the piece. For example, at the top, after Aldridge falls overboard, he thinks, This is how I'm going to die. A bit later, in a flashback, we hear an old declaration he made to his sister, that if anything ever happened to him out on the water, he'd do everything he could to survive. Later still, as the rescue operation is getting underway, we read this:

"The Coast Guard search was off to an excellent start. It was a clear day with good visibility, and they had plenty of assets in place. The only problem, of course, was that everyone involved was searching in entirely the wrong place."

These feel almost like signposts that set us up to expect something and, just as often, to sow doubt. Tell us the role these play in building tension. Did you deliberately look for elements like this to use as fulcrum points? How did you then think about their placement through the story?

Right, this is related to the question above, of course. Once it became a story not about whether he survived but how he survived, then there were lots of little dramas to consider within that overarching narrative.

What does a guy who falls into the ocean in the middle of the night do to get himself to sunrise? How does the Coast Guard actually go about trying to rescue someone lost at sea? What do you do if you’re his best friend and you’re feeling helpless on your boat — how do you try to think your way through the problem? So you want the reader to be following along with each of those dramas, but you also want to let them know that there are twists within twists that are still to come.

It’s pretty dramatic to have: Guy falls in ocean in middle of night, Coast Guard learns about it in morning, Coast Guard kicks into action to try to rescue the guy. But (I think) you plant the hook even deeper if it’s: guy falls in ocean, Coast Guard begins rescue procedures…guess what? They’re looking in the wrong place! As for the question regarding John thinking he’s going to die and his sister remembering that he made that pledge to her—those were just amazing moments that came up in the interviews, and we wanted to plant them in such a way that they both raised the emotional stakes of the story and, in John’s case, helped the reader understand the level of despair he was fighting off.

The piece switches point of view several times. We start with Aldridge, then cut to the other guys on the boat, then to the Coast Guard etc. How did you and the writer decide where to cut away and where to pick up with each new setting and character?

This was the biggest puzzle to solve, I think. Everything needed to swirl around Aldridge’s experience, but except for a few key decisions on his part, most of the action takes place away from him. He’s doing a lot of bobbing in the ocean or holding onto a buoy and waiting to be found. So the trick was to lay out his story and find the natural suspenseful breaks, which were pretty evident, and then look at Anthony’s story and the search-and-rescue story and figure out where they fit in chronologically, and where the natural dramatic breaks were in those storylines.

Paul did such an amazing reporting job, getting everyone to walk through their individual stories in such dramatic detail, and also drawing out their emotional experiences, that the real chore, once we had everything in its proper place, was to trim and trim so that the pace of the story didn’t flag too much and so that, as a reader, you never felt like you were getting too deep into any one storyline at the expense of others. I wish I had some sophisticated editor lingo to throw around, or a Greek term or something, but mostly it was a lot of us going, “Eh, maybe sags a little here?” “Yeah, I think so.” “Huh, maybe too thin now?” “Yeah, let’s add some stuff back,” until it just kind of “felt” right.

The story is extremely taut. There's very little in the piece that doesn't feed a feeling of suspense. Seeing it on the page, it's hard to imagine writing it another way. But what did it take to arrive there? Did the structure change as it was refined? What material did you discard, and how did you decide?

Picking up on the answer above, it was definitely an exercise in painful but worthwhile cutting. There was a bit more “telling” in the early drafts, for lack of a better way of putting it — more of the kind of signposting you mentioned before. But Paul and I stripped out more and more of that with each pass, getting as close as we could to a story that felt pretty purely plot-driven — this happened and then this happened and then he arrived at this dilemma…page break…meanwhile the search teams were doing…

There were definitely a bunch of small structural changes that then presented themselves with all the cuts, mostly around where to put the characters’ backstories, how to slip them into the unfolding narrative so that they didn’t slow down the action too much and so that, ideally, they helped readers connect to the characters a little more.

There was a lot of fascinating material about both John’s and Anthony’s lives that we ended up cutting in the interest of speed. Ditto the search-and-rescue stuff. You could write a whole book on the mechanics of Coast Guard search-and-rescue operations, and Paul had so much more material than we used, totally compelling stuff about different strategies and when they’re employed. It would be a great John McPhee-ish piece. But here the key was to give enough context that readers understood what was happening, but not so much that we lost sight of the guy floating out there in the sea.

One of the nice things about having space constraints in a printed magazine is that you’re forced to make decisions about what serves the story and what might be really interesting but expendable. In my million years as an editor, there aren’t very many cuts I’ve made that I didn’t ultimately think made the story stronger in addition to making it fit.

There are lots of rescues in the world. I guess you could also say there are a lot of situations that, on their face, seem to involve similar kinds of drama. What do you look for when evaluating such stories? What, to you, are the elements that elevate one over another?

That’s such a good question. I don’t know that I have any hard-and-fast rules, though I think in this case the story had a few things going for it beyond the actual drama of the rescue. It had a writer who lived in Montauk year-round and felt a personal investment in the story.

He’s not going out on a lobster boat every morning, but it’s a small place, especially in the off-season, and Paul was aware of the scare people in town felt when they learned Aldridge had disappeared, and more largely he’s pretty tuned in to the pressures on this community of people who spend their lives going out on boats every day — the ways it’s getting harder for them to make a living, the ways in which they feel increasingly alienated in their own town as it transforms into something they don’t recognize and even resent. We ended up not writing much about that, but I think Paul’s empathy and curiosity about these guys who live in his town informs the piece in important ways.

This story also has two great characters at its center — these lifelong friends who are so temperamentally different, so that really raises the emotional stakes of the piece and, for me, anyway, really elevates it over other kinds of rescue stories. He does it really economically, but Paul captures who these guys are so effectively, I think, and that just makes you care so much more about their fate, even when your brain already knows how the story’s going to end.

The last thing I’d say is that in a great rescue story there’s always something, or ideally something, that you can take away from it and imagine applying to your own life. I don’t mean, Hey, when I fall into the ocean in the middle of the night I’ll know what to do. I mean, this guy, he didn’t panic, he found himself in a place that is about as existentially despairing as I can imagine — alone in the ocean in the middle of the night — and then he just methodically worked the problem. That’s my favorite thing about this story, all the very, very smart decisions this guy made to save his own life.

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