Coaches’ Corner: The story behind 'Then the Walls Closed In'
Once upon a time, there were writing coaches in newsrooms across the country, and then, there weren’t. In this new monthly feature, we hope to help writers and editors by sharing advice about storytelling and enterprise. Previous Coaches Corner: 'The story behind 'Chasing Bayla'
The story: Then the Walls Closed In, a four-part series about three families’ struggles with Chinese-made drywall, written by Sarah Kleiner.
From: The Virginian-Pilot
When it ran: June 29-July 2, 2014
What inspired the story: The editor got a tip about a drywall victim’s saga. That woman inspired the series, though ultimately she didn’t make it into the stories.
Time from idea to publication: That first interview was in September 2013. The series ran nine months later. The reporter juggled the work while also covering her business beat.
Questions: Steven Wilmsen, enterprise editor, The Boston Globe
Answers: Maria Carrillo, former managing editor, The Virginian-Pilot
Working with multiple parallel story lines can be tricky. With more story lines, you gain breadth but risk losing some of reader's emotional investment in any one of them. Here, you had three. What was the thought process that led you to use more than one. And having made that decision, how did it shape your structure? What were some ways you managed the flow of the story to maximize impact and minimize common problems like repetition or reader disorientation?
Generally, I would argue for narrowing in and picking one storyline, so you can dig deep and keep readers focused. Here, though, as we cast for characters, we found that while the experiences started similarly, they veered off in varied directions. And they illustrated different tolls wrought by the drywall - a cancer diagnosis, suicidal thoughts, a crumbling marriage. Picking just one might have made readers feel like we went for the most dramatic situation rather than illustrating a problem that had severe consequences for everyone. One other thought that swayed us in the direction of three families was that they represented geographic and economic diversity - this could happen to anyone, anywhere. We tried to get readers invested in each family by taking them to the start of the process, when these guys were unsuspecting, and then letting the twists and turns propel them. One conscious decision we made was not to bounce back and forth between families in each story. Aside from the introduction, you read about one family, then another, then the last one. Same pattern each time. We also worked with the projects designer, so he could pair images with words and have people get familiar with each family.
One of the wonderful things about this story is that it drops us into the middle of people's lives and lets us see the agonizing destruction wrought on all of them, down to and including depression and the dissolution of a marriage. For some readers, that kind of deeply personal detail comes off simply as invasive. Did that enter your minds during the reporting and editing process? Did any of the subjects of the story recoil at disclosing such private details?
Yes, to both questions. We ended up dropping one of the families we had wanted to focus on, because the homeowner was so guarded. Sarah had gone back, again and again, for more probing details, and this lady got more and more agitated. It became clear that we weren't going to be able to show people what they had been through. For the other families, there was clearly a tradeoff in exposing their personal pain. I think they appreciated the fact that we cared enough not only to ask about what happened, but to really try to understand how much of a drain this was financially, emotionally and physically. So much of this intimacy comes down to time and trust. Do you feel as if this reporter will tell your story with respect and fairness? Will she spend the time to understand the complexities of the situation? The one couple's marriage, for instance, didn't fall apart just because of the drywall, but their problems were exacerbated by it.
The deleterious effects of Chinese drywall had been already written about fairly extensively, including by The Pilot, when this story was published. That's something narrative writers often face. How did that figure in your decision-making about how to conceive the story and shape it so that it felt fresh and brought something new.
Here's what we came to: Most folks didn’t know the end of the story. People assumed that these families had been taken care of. We heard that over and over. Well, they must have won a lawsuit. Or their insurance paid. Surely, the government stepped in? We thought that, too. Turns out, no one wanted to take responsibility for what happened, and these people had been through some awful stuff. As we got deeper into it, we realized just how surface our coverage – and everyone else’s – had been.
TTWCI is a series in four parts. The challenge here was to bring readers back again and again. A lot of newspapers have turned against multi-part series because that turns out to be really hard. How did you address that challenge in this story? It's organized in clear thematic chapters, but were there devices you used or decisions you made about the text to draw people back the next day? What convinced you a series was the right way to go?
In 2005, The Pilot published a 14-part series about the yellow fever epidemic of 1855. Yes, that's right, a 14-part series about a 150-year-old happening. It was a serialized narrative, written in installments (30-40" long) that ran every day over the top of the flag on the front page. The circulation folks were horrified when we pitched the idea. They thought for sure it would turn readers away. Quite a few folks in the newsroom thought it was crazy, too. After all, no one had time for something like that. In fact, at that point, we talked a lot about "time-starved" readers. But if I've learned anything over the years - and that series certainly proved the point - it's that people who love a good story are willing to invest the time. That series about the yellow fever epidemic? It inspired such a great response that the circulation director asked me - in the middle of the run - if we could make it longer.
It also inspired 10 years of historical narratives in The Pilot, which were each repurposed and are still sold in the online store. Readers came to look forward to them each year.
We have to continue to invest in long-form journalism, and there are plenty of stories to tell about modern-day issues like drywall that lend themselves to a multi-part treatment. We did plenty of those, too, at The Pilot, and again, reader reaction was always strong, so we felt confident we had an audience with that appetite. The people who will continue to read us and appreciate what we do are the ones who understand what's involved in bringing stories like this one to light. This became a series because we were covering a lot of years and three families, so logistically, there was no other way to go if we wanted to give the topic the depth it deserved, and there were suspenseful moments in the narrative that provided cliffhangers – which is critically important to any series.
Having said all that, at one point in the draft stage, the drywall series was topping out at about 500 inches. It ran at half that length.
You do have to be particular about what you choose to do as a multi-part series. I ask myself: Is there an interesting character/s, people that readers will be drawn to? Is there action? A narrative arc? Suspense? A strong ending? Without all that, you can't sustain a long piece or give people the payoff they need to feel the journey was worth it.
I was struck by the quiet but wrenching drama in that last scene, which is very nicely crafted. I wonder how it came about. Were you looking for an ending and thought it would be good to get those guys out there? Or had that trip already happened and you recognized it?
The couple featured at the end had arranged a meeting with each other at a Starbuck’s to go over paperwork, and Sarah asked if she and the photographer could come along. The couple then agreed to drive over to their house – since it was close by – and show us around. We wrote that into the story. This scene played out long before the reporting was finished, but Sarah said she actually got a lump in her throat while she was out there. She says she kept repeating, “This feels like a funeral.” She wrote the scene out when she got back to the office, and it lingered as a possible ending. To me, given all the heartbreak, it hit just the right note.
Previous Coaches Corner: 'The story behind 'Chasing Bayla'