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) Daily Record/Sunday News These are quotes, story passages and other thoughts compiled from six months of focusing on storytelling at the YDR/SN and learning from brown-bag speakers. They speak to the building blocks and finer points of narrative storytelling: Idea •What’s around you is story. – Conscious, spoken word poet
•“Our job isn’t to know stories, it’s to find stories. The process starts with an idea. Let other
people tell you what the story is. It’s OK not to know how to do everything by yourself.” – Jacqui Banaszynski, University of Missouri •“One of the greatest stories I’ve ever read was a school board meeting where they were deciding when to have their next meeting. You just have to be aware – is there a narrative unfolding in front of me?” – Diane Tennant, Norfolk Virginian-Pilot •Ask yourself, "What's the satisfying resolution to that story that will make readers glad they read to the end?" – Mike Wilson, St. Petersburg Times •“…understand the distinction between traditional news and a good story, and … focus closely on single person or a single interaction.” – Mike Wilson •“I believe the stories I tell have truth (a message). Then, how can I frame it?” – Bob Goodrich, oral storyteller •“Discovering the theme is crucial to the two interested parties at polar ends of the storytelling experience: the reader, viewer or listener; and the writer, both of whom rely on the theme to produce and experience a unified story.” – Chip Scanlan, Poynter •“The best stories are basic: love, hate, greed, envy, etc.” – Ken Fuson, Des Moines Register Reporting Finding the conflict • “You must find the story before you can tell it. It is in the very process of finding the story that it reveals itself to you in all its resonant complexity and suggests to you how best to tell it. There is absolutely no way to skip this part of the process and go straight to writing.” – Mike D’Orso, author, former Norfolk Virginian-Pilot features writer •“…essentially, you’re presenting a little mystery. Something is going to happen. What is it? “Is the team going to win the game? “Is the boy going to get the girl? “Is the family going to be rescued from the burning house?
“Those are the kind of questions people want to know the answers to, so they keep reading. So when I get an assignment or come up with an idea, I generally ask myself if I can follow this structure. “And the first question you need to ask is: Who has the most at stake?” – Ken Fuson, Des Moines Register Character •Pick a character and stick with that character as the focus of the story – the one to whom something happens, and who must deal with it somehow. Interview multiple people for that story but avoid multiple points of view. Diane Tennant of the Virginian-Pilot asks, “Who do I follow? Who gives me the best chance of telling the story?” •“If you really want to see the person, watch them at work; the character is moving through his world and doing things.” – Jon Franklin, University of Maryland •“Description is important to characterization. … (list) the values and motives of your characters. But what about their actual looks and possessions? Do you give readers enough detail to form mental pictures? What about revealing status details?” – Jack Hart, The Oregonian Dialogue •Report what characters say to others to gain dialogue for your story. Otherwise you are left with only what they said to you in an interview. •Listen to “how people speak in their own voice, patois, jargon or rhythm, the distinctive turns of phrase they use,” says Gary Tippett of The Age in Australia. “…Look for dialogue: not people talking to you but your characters talking to each other. All of this intrigues the reader and brings your subjects alive.” Detail questions/deep reporting •“Nothing is too insignificant to ask about.” – Diane Tennant, Norfolk Virginian-Pilot •“Your story is the tip of the iceberg. Research and knowledge gives you the voice of authority.” – Chip Scanlan, Poynter •Sometimes, the problem is not the amount of reporting, it’s the texture and diversity. Sometimes reporters’ notebooks are filled with things officials say, few eyewitnesses, little research. – Roy Peter Clark, Poynter What happened step-by-step •“The question, or difficulty, presented at the outset must be settled, somehow, at the end. How the person resolves this problem/question, what he/she finds along the way, is the gristle of the narrative and what pushes the story forward.” – Lon Wagner, Norfolk Virginian-Pilot Scenes •“In interviews, the object is not to get quotes but to get action and build a situation.” – Jon Franklin, University of Maryland Descriptions
•What gives a story authority is telling detail gleaned from careful observation, says Gary Tippett
of The Age. Sensory writing is the best way to do that. Too much feature writing, he says, “ignores all the other senses but hearing. … These are stories. They need to take the reader to the scene you are describing and give them the fullest possible sensory experience. Paint them a picture full of impressions. Give them a sense of immediacy. And the secret this is careful, greedy reporting.”
Writing Lead Tell us, pretty quickly, that something’s going to happen. Avoid long anecdotes that test a reader’s patience; be spare and get into the story. •Nine years of healing. Six months of training. It comes down to this cold October morning, and a stopwatch set at zero. Michael Kelley throws open the car door and takes off running. – Tommy Tomlinson, Charlotte Observer, “Michael Kelley’s obstacle course” •Catherine Whitehead woke her husband after midnight. “I thought they said the hurricane was over,” she said, “that there wasn’t going to be any wind.” Nelson County Sheriff Bill Whitehead stirred. The weather reports he’d heard throughout the day had been unanimous: Camille had withered after its Gulf Coast landfall. The storm was all but dead. “That’s what they were saying,” he agreed. “Well, listen to that wind.” – Earl Swift, Norfolk Virginian-Pilot, “When the rain came” Establish character •“It has to be about real people that people care about. This is the universal thing about writing anything. You have to have specific things everyone can identify with, that’s gonna mean something. Once you’ve got identification, they want to find out what happens.” – Diane Crews, DreamWrights playwright
Establish conflict •“The first question you need to ask is: Who has the most at stake? Who cares the most? Who has the most to win or lose? If you can identify that person, then you can focus on answering the question -- What do they want? Are they going to get it? You set that up early and then tell the story of whether they do or don't get it.” – Ken Fuson, Des Moines Register •“In a news story (the nut graf) is up high. In a narrative you want to make people read to the end. ‘The tease’ – (tell people) I’m gonna tell you a great story. Set up the mystery. Reveal a little bit but not too much. Tease the meaning without giving stuff away.” – Lon Wagner, Norfolk VirginianPilot
Set the hook You have your character and your conflict, and you want to set up the real action, to tell the reader: And here we go. It’s the line that, when you read it, you know you’re in for a ride. Some good examples of what can be a crucial line in a narrative: •Khan told his wife to call 911. He put the Infiniti in gear. – Ted Czech, “It felt like a movie.” •Better to chance drowning, one said, than to stay on the ship and face certain death. – Lon Wagner, Norfolk Virginian-Pilot, “The Fever.” •The last thing Melinda Cole remembers is seeing the white Toyota tray truck coming round the bend towards her and slipping into the wrong lane. And thinking: "I hope he's back on his own side of the road before he gets to me." – Gary Tippett, The Age, “Anatomy of a Car Crash”
•They had never met. But the minutes were counting down that cold, dark morning. Wednesday’s child was waiting. – Diane Tennant, Norfolk Virginian-Pilot, “A morning they can’t forget.” Cliffhangers (internal within one story; in serial narratives) Use them to build suspense and lead to payoffs for the reader. Internal From part one of “Attacked by a grizzly,” by Tom Curwen, L.A. Times. All of these end a section of the story: •He turned, swung to his right and let himself go. Only this time there wasn't a thimbleberry patch to break his fall. It was a straight drop to where Jenna had landed, and instead of taking the bear away from her, as he had hoped, he was taking the bear to her. •They passed through Thunderbird Falls, a landmark on the trail where a stream often pours from the cliff above onto a platform of flat stones. Today it was only wet and slippery, but the drop-off was unforgiving. •She tried to stay tucked in, but when the bear got close to her face, she had to push it away. It nipped at the right corner of her mouth, at her hair, her right shoulder. Each bite was quick, followed by a slight jostle. Her screams split the morning silence like an ax. •Together, unprompted, they began to call out. "Helllp." "Helllp." •He simply wanted to sit up, have a drink of water and then maybe lie down again. But he was fading. •"Do you need anything?" they yelled. "More jackets." Someone tucked one under Johan's head. His neck felt broken. In a serial narrative From Roy Peter Clark’s “Three Little Words,” about a woman whose husband mysteriously contracted AIDS. All of these end a chapter of the 29-part series: •In the darkness of her bedroom, Jane found herself bolt upright in bed, her body shaking and her nightgown soaked in sweat. Number one: her husband would die. Number two: their relationship was a lie. But now the third revelation hit her so hard that she heard herself speaking the three little words aloud: "What about me?" • The door opened. It was Dr. Gil again, and Jane could tell by the look on her face that the results of her AIDS test were in. •What she saw next almost made her heart stop. David, his face lathered for a shave, was holding his father's razor to his throat. •Their kisses were hotter, their touching more eager. Then Jane moved away from him. "I think something is going to happen here," said Jane, her heart still pounding, "and I want it to happen." John looked puzzled. "But first," she said, "there's something important I have to tell you." •Jane was folding her laundry, chatting with her cousin Jeff. She looked up. A car was parked across the street. About 50 feet away. She did not recognize the car, or the driver, an old, old man. He did not move. He just sat, and stared at Jane. "Jeff," she said, "who is that old man staring at us?" And then, "Oh my God. It's Mick." Words
•“…sometimes I will try to think of a word that actually will work better – it means basically the same thing, but it’s got a flow. A lot of it has to do with the interest in poetry. Great poets know exactly how to command you – how you’re going to read those words.” –Tony Ryder of the band Wayne Supergenius •“Word order is one of the primary methods of emphasis. What comes at the end is very important (as is what’s at the beginning). What ends the paragraph has special importance.” – Roy Peter Clark, Poynter
Dialogue •“Good dialogue gives us the sense that we are eavesdropping, that the author is not getting in the way. Good dialogue encompasses both what is said and what is not said.” – Anne Lamott, “Bird by Bird” Action •What makes a good story? “Active verbs – precise, pointed, punchy; nouns – use specifics. Not a dog, but a Doberman.” – Nancy Springer, children’s book author •Don’t fall prey to the “infinitive action thief,” says Mark Kramer, director of the Neiman Program on Narrative Writing. When you write ‘She stopped to eat,’ it kills the action of eating. When you write ‘She stopped and ate,’ it gives you the action. Breaks for back story •“I never take readers for granted, and for better or worse, I believe they have extremely short attention spans. Therefore, any step back has to be written like haiku, no single word wasted.” – Tom Curwen, L.A. Times •“Show more than tell, though most stories do both at different points. ‘Telling’ can simply be the writer, rising above the fray of the story for a paragraph or two, putting it all in perspective.” – Lon Wagner, Norfolk Virginian-Pilot Resolution •“Drama is the way of holding the reader’s attention. The basic formula for drama is setup, buildup, payoff.” – Anne Lamott, “Bird by Bird” •A narrative story must “end, not just stop. A good ending leaves the reader thinking, not perplexed and wondering. It should make the reader smile, or feel sad, or offer a feeling of poignancy.” – Lon Wagner, Norfolk Virginian-Pilot
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