In Birmingham, Alabama, I had a senior editor named Clarke Stallworth who had one basic rule of good writing: Show me, don’t tell me. Let me see what you see. Paint me a picture. Then, I’ll follow you anywhere, even past the jump.
But when you hear people talk about good narrative writing, they usually talk about year-long opuses and long Sunday features and soft features on section fronts, but in breaking news, in hard stories that must be riveted together on deadline with the telephones jangling and a red-faced editor leaning over you, worried about your word count and his hypertension, it seems less appropriate, somehow.
And the readers suffer.
Narrative is not just a pretty lead that can be cobbled onto a hard news story, or a way to get into a sidebar that appears on page A46—far enough back in the paper that it will not embarrass the city editor.
It can be the most effective way to tell even a hard news story.
All you have to do is convince your boss of that and, while you’re at it, see if he wants to buy a crate or two of snake oil.
But as the reporting of news becomes more and more a 24-hour process, and the consumption of the facts becomes so arbitrary, it seems like the way to present that news in more traditional mediums would be through powerful, descriptive language.
Because is it really breaking news when it broke at breakfast, yesterday?
In perhaps the hardest breaking news story I have ever worked on, the Oklahoma City bombing, The New York Times allowed me to do a front-page story on the scene. The story was written in less than two hours, because it had to be.
It is not the best story I ever wrote or the prettiest, but it was the most important, perhaps.
As I sat there in front of my laptop, I had no time to craft pretty sentences. I just had to reach into my mind for the sadness I had seen and the irony of the situation, and it wrote itself:
OKLAHOMA CITY—Before the dust and the rage had a chance to settle, a chilly rain started to fall on the blasted-out wreck of what had once been an office building, and on the shoulders of the small army of police, firefighters and medical technicians that surrounded it.They were not used to this, if anyone is. On any other day, they would have answered calls to kitchen fires, domestic disputes, or even a cat up a tree. Oklahoma City is still, in some ways, a small town, said the people who live here.
This morning, as the blast trembled the morning coffee in cups miles away, the outside world came crashing hard onto Oklahoma City.
“I just took part in a surgery where a little boy had part of his brain hanging out of his head,” said Terry Jones, a medical technician, as he searched in his pocket for a cigarette. Behind him, firefighters picked carefully through the skeleton of the building, still searching for the living and the dead. “You tell me,” he said, “how can anyone have so little respect for human life.”
The shock of what the rescuers found in the rubble had long since worn off, replaced with a loathing for the people who had planted the bomb that killed their friends, neighbors and children.
One by one they said the same thing: this does not happen here.
I don’t even know if that is what pure narrative is supposed to be, but it was the best I could do. I found the images, the detail, the grim, dark color of it, to be just as much a part of hard news reporting as the body count.
Some time later, on the same story, I waited in a hotel in Oklahoma City for a jury in Denver to decide the guilt or innocence of Timothy McVeigh.
I don’t get shook very easy, on breaking news. I have done it more than half my life. But I was nervous then because of the terrible import the story held. This was a man who had wrecked a city, wrecked lives. My story had to carry that import. It would have failed, otherwise. But I also did not want to overwrite it, to lend drama to a story already so dramatic. It would have been like putting a scary mask on a face already horribly disfigured.
So I thought the best thing to do was borrow a snippet, a snapshot, from every tale of great sadness I had heard since covering the story. Let that be the picture the reader saw:
OKLAHOMA CITY—After the explosion, people learned to write left-handed, to tie just one shoe. They learned to endure the pieces of metal and glass embedded in their flesh, to smile with faces that made them want to cry, to cry with glass eyes. They learned, in homes where children had played, to stand the quiet. They learned to sleep with pills, to sleep alone. Today, with the conviction of Timothy J. McVeigh in a Denver Federal court, with cheers and sobs of relief at the lot where a building once stood in downtown Oklahoma City, the survivors and families of the victims of the most deadly attack of domestic terrorism in United States history learned what they had suspected all along: That justice in a faraway courtroom is not satisfaction. That healing might come only at Mr. McVeigh’s grave.“I want the death penalty,” said Aren Almon-Kok, whose daughter, Baylee, was killed by the bomb one day after her first birthday. Pictures of the baby, bleeding and limp in the arms of a firefighter, became a symbol of that crime, of its cruelty. “An eye for eye. You don’t take lives and get to keep your own.”
Mrs. Almon-Kok saw the announcement of the verdict on television at her mother’s house, then went immediately to the site of her daughter’s death, where she was joined by some people who had lost children in the bombing, by others who had just felt drawn there. She said how happy she was with the verdict, but her face was stricken, haunted.
“I cried, and I cheered,” Mrs. Almon-Kok said.
That story was not a pure narrative, certainly, but it married the styles, and it was written in just a few hours. The narrative actually made the writing faster, because it created a rhythm for the story. And it was powerful. The so-called nut graf was in the second graph, which should have pleased even the most narrative-hating editor.
And sometimes, the narrative makes the difference between a story that is read and one that is merely glanced at.
JACKSON, MISSISSIPPI—The legend was that if you touched Robert Johnson you could feel the talent running through him, like heat, put there by the devil on a dark Delta crossroad in exchange for his soul. It is why Claud Johnson’s grandparents would not let him out of the house that day in 1937 when Robert Johnson, his father, strolled into the yard. Robert Johnson, the famous, almost mythical blues man, had come to Lincoln County, Miss., to see Virgie Jane Smith, a young woman he had been intimate with, and a son he had never seen.“We were living in my granddaddy’s and grandmama’s house,” Claud Johnson said. “They were religious people, and they thought that the blues was the devil’s music. People back then believed that.
“They told my daddy they didn’t want no part of him. They said he was working for the devil, and they wouldn’t even let me go out and touch him. I stood in the door, and he stood on the ground, and that is as close as I ever got to him. Finally, he said, ‘Well, I might as well go on.’ He wandered off, and I never saw him again.”
Mr. Johnson has always wondered what would have happened if he had run across that porch to him, so that everyone would know he was Robert Johnson’s son. Now, the Mississippi Supreme Court ruled that he is the son and legal heir of….
I don’t know if I would have read that story if it had begun: Today, the Mississippi Supreme Court ruled….
A little bit of narrative, like sugar, just makes everything better. Narrative conveys emotion. Narrative shows, not tells.
Sometimes, of course, the editors simply will not let you weave that color into a straight news story.
When I was covering the Susan Smith trial, a massive thunderburst came just as the jury announced its verdict, and a hot, dry spell vanished in a torrential rain.
Got my lead, I thought.
But the lead story in the Times will probably never have a lead that uses that metaphor—the washing away of sin, and so on—and the editors insisted on a straight lead. This is what they got.
UNION, S.C.—A jury today decided that Susan Smith should not be put to death for the drowning of her two young sons, and instead should spend the rest of her life in prison, to remember. It took the jury two and one-half hours to reject the prosecution’s request for the death penalty and settle on the life sentence. The jury’s unanimous decision saved Mrs. Smith, 23, from death row, but left her alone in a tiny cell with the ghosts of her dead children, for at least the next 30 years, her lawyer said.“This young woman is in a lake of fire,” said the lawyer, David Bruck. “That’s her punishment.”
Mr. Bruck had argued that Mrs. Smith was so distraught over the deaths of her children, Michael, 3, and Alex, 14 months, that she did not want to live. But as the jury’s verdict was read, she gasped, and slipped her arm around Mr. Bruck’s waist to give him a quick, firm, hug.
Mrs. Smith, at the center of a murder case that first drew the sympathy and later the loathing of the nation, was convicted last Saturday of murder.
To reclaim a lover who said he did not want a relationship with a woman who had children, the prosecutor contended, Mrs. Smith drove to a dark lake on the night of Oct. 25 and sent her car rolling into the water with the two little boys strapped inside in their car seats.
It was the phrase, “to remember,” that added a tiny something, a mental image, I hope, of that woman sitting in her cell, thinking of her dead children. But that is more hoping than writing.
The thunderburst made the story. After the jump.
Rick Bragg, a 1993 Nieman Fellow, is the Miami bureau chief for The New York Times. He is the author of “All Over But the Shouting” and “Somebody Told Me.”