I have always loved stories. I was one of these kids who, when I was a boy, would stay up under my covers with a flashlight and read comic books. I especially loved, from the time I was young, serialized stories. To me, the three most beautiful words in the English language are not “I love you.” They are “to be continued.” I just love serialized stories. I love the feeling of them.
A lot of the most powerful and popular stories around us are serialized stories. The Bible is a serialized story. The “Iliad” and the “Odyssey” are serialized stories. “The Sopranos” is a serialized narrative. “Harry Potter” is a fabulous serialized narrative. “Survivor,” God help us, is a serialized narrative. The comic books, the comic strips in our newspapers, are all serialized narratives. To me, if it’s a continuing story that you want to come back to for more than one day, that’s a serial. And they’re very popular.
They really have a wonderfully powerful pull on all of us. And I think that power for a serialized narrative has to do with that delicious sense of enforced waiting. You cannot find out what’s going to happen next right away. You have to wait. And I think it’s powerful because we live in a world that seems to be accelerating all the time. Lots of people want to get to the bottom line right away. They want to know right away, and a lot of them are city editors.
“What Happens Next?”
– Mike LenehanAnd the faster and more insane everything else moves, the more powerful it is when the writer or the director or whoever says, “No, we’re going to slow down. We’re going to wait. We’re going to make you wait.” It becomes extra powerful. It’s really helpful to learn how to speed up and slow down. The paradox is that when you’re in the boring stuff, that’s when you need to speed up and when you’re in the best stuff where things are really moving rapidly, you slow down. The reason you slow down is so that the reader can really feel and process and really enter that scene. And the reason you speed up, usually, is because you have a lot of ground to cover, and it’s not necessarily going to be that interesting to cover every inch of that ground in great detail. So at that point, your average distance per sentence really goes up.
And how do you slow down? You allow more space on the page. You allow more sentences. You literally write in shorter sentences. You get more paragraph breaks. You use space. You find pauses inside the scene that occur naturally that you would normally skip over. Pauses are really, really helpful.
We all long for completion of the cycle, which is what narrative is all about—wanting the cycle to be completed. And serial narratives force us to wait. And there’s great, great pleasure in that unfolding.
I’ve been doing serials now for 15 years at the St. Petersburg Times, and when I started, there were only a couple of other people that I knew of who were doing them. Now a lot of papers are doing them, which I’m really excited about, and there’s a lot of people who do them. At our newspaper alone, 10 to 15 people have done serials over the years. I’m not the only person who does them there. I just do them more obsessively than anyone else.
My first piece of advice would be to study the stories that are all around you. A lot of the newspaper writers I know, at night when they go home from the newsroom, they’re carrying reports and books related to their beats, which I think is a terrible, terrible mistake. The best writers I know, when they go home, they read something else. They read fiction, they read a nonfiction book. They go watch a trashy movie, they go watch whatever. They really enjoy stories of all kinds.
I really encourage you all to read “Harry Potter.” I read the four of them. But as I read them, I realized there was a lot to learn from J.K. Rowling. She really understands how to hold a reader by her side. And that’s a skill, by the way, which with serials is absolutely essential. The first and most essential quality of a serial narrative is that it has to be immensely and intensely and inescapably readable. Other stories in the newspaper are not judged by their readability. But serials are judged almost entirely on whether they get read, and that is a very, very hard standard.
It’s really instructive to watch people read what you write and to see how hard it is to get someone to stick with you to the end. And in a narrative, it’s absolutely essential. So it really helps to watch what works, to learn from what works.
One of the reasons for a serial’s power is it unfolds gradually. You have to go to sleep at night with the story unresolved, and these characters in these situations seep into your dreams and into your waking hours and your sleeping hours. You live with them. Most of the things that are important to us do not begin and end in a single day. Serial narratives have more of the rhythms of life. So that gradual unfolding is helpful. And it really helps if there’s somebody whom the reader cares about and wonders what’s going to happen to them. Again, that sounds obvious but you’d be surprised how many times we ignore that.
It also helps if there’s movement. If the story begins at point A, and you get to the end and you’re really only at A, your readers are going to be really pissed off. I need some movement. I may not need things to blow up, but I need some movement. I need something to happen. And most readers, I think, feel the same way, at least for a newspaper serial.
It also helps if, at the end, there’s a shred of hope, or if not hope at least some new understanding that the reader takes away from it so they do not feel it’s a waste of their time. The worst thing, and readers get really, really pissed, is if at the end there’s nothing they take away from it but bleakness. But they don’t have time for days and days of that. And if you write a story, a serial, and it ends like that, just be aware you’re going to bother some people. I’m not trying to say that you have to have a happy ending, but there has to be something at the end that makes the reader feel it wasn’t just a waste of their time.
This is important in all stories; it’s especially important in a serial. Find a frame. You have to find a really good, simple frame. You need a simple frame to get at the complexity of your issue. Sometimes we think that for a complex story or for a complex theme, we have to have a very complex setup. And actually it’s the opposite. The more complexity you’re after, the simpler your frame needs to be. The more macroscopic your themes are, the more microscopic you need to go in your frame.
Every single story we write, every single story there is, has an engine inside of it. And it’s a question, an unanswered question that the reader wants to know the answer to. And all these questions are very simple questions, and they’re all a version of “What happens next?” Those three words are what make all narrative go. And it’s really useful to look at the stories around you and understand, what are their engines?
Pay attention to what are the engines of the stories around you. Pay attention to what is the engine of your story. I want to say on this thing of engines, your engine is not what your story’s about. Your engine is just what’s under the hood making the story go. It’s this raw power. Whatever road you turn onto with that engine and the destination that you choose is up to you. What it’s going to be about, what are the themes you’re going to describe? What are the things you’re going to focus on? Those are up to you. But when you pick your story, there is an engine inside of it already, and you have to identify it and understand it so you can use it and harness it.
Think cinematically. Think in terms of very specific human detail. Think in terms of scene detail. Think in terms of anything that allows the reader to literally disappear inside whatever you’re describing. And to do that, you need details. You need scenes and scene details. You need dialogue. You need people talking to each other and not to you. Newspaper journalists love to interview people and have people give them great quotes. But it’s much more powerful if you can have people when they’re screaming, whispering, cursing, flirting, whatever they do to each other. You want dialogue.
Emotion. Emotion’s another part of thinking cinematically. Movies are a very emotional medium, and in newspapers, we’re trained to distrust emotion. We’re trained to think only about what the facts are. But the fact is that one of the reasons we care so much about certain facts is because there is a river of emotion beneath them. And it’s worth understanding and paying attention to what are the emotions underneath what you’re writing.
These are probably the three most important words I’m going to say: Let it unfold. Tape those to the top of your computer screen. Let it unfold. The conditioning in newspapers is so deep to not let anything unfold, to sum up, to get to the bottom line, to cut to the chase, to hurry to the end, to whatever. But unfolding is just absolutely subversive in newsrooms, but it’s absolutely at the heart of narrative. You have to let the scene unfold.
A year ago myself and two other reporters, Anne Hull and Sue Carlton, did a serial narrative live on a daily murder story. We were covering a murder trial. And we got to the next to the last day of the trial, and there was no action, according to newspaper standards. All day, the jury was out deliberating. The defendant, this 15-year-old girl who was accused of killing her mother, was sitting in a holding cell. And the only thing that happened in terms of official action was that around five o’clock the jury sent out a little note saying, “Can we go home for the night?” That’s it. And the editors back in St. Pete said, “So today’s story is going to be really short, right?”
No. No! All that waiting. That is power there. So we spent that day writing about what the families were doing and where they were and what they were saying to each other and what the lawyers were doing. Most importantly, what the defendant was doing. We found out she’s in this little cell. She’s not allowed to bring in there anything to read. It’s cold in there. There’s a metal toilet in there that has been used by dozens of inmates in recent weeks and has not been cleaned, so the place stinks. And all she has to do is to think and wait and look at the walls. And the walls, according to her lawyers, were covered with graffiti.
So we asked her lawyers, “When you go in to talk to her, please write down what some of the graffiti says for us.” And they did. And that becomes this detail where we quoted, “Lonnie loves Laura. God bless you. Fuck you very much.” And that unfolding of her waiting and everyone else waiting, that’s powerful. Let it unfold.
This one I learned from Roy Peter Clark from The Poynter Institute. It’s a term he uses. He says, “Scatter the gold coins.” What he means by that is make sure that you reward the reader for going down the path with you. Especially if you’re writing a long story, you want them to feel like it’s worth their while. So make sure that as you go, you reward them. You give them really great details or really great moments, or a great quote or a surprise turn. Something funny and unexpected happens. Whatever. But there has to be something that says to the reader, “This is good. If I keep reading it’s going to be worth my time, and I’m going to keep reading.”
Create a recognizable world. We tend to write in this very sort of formal, detached, odd way where we really, really struggle to create a world that feels like the world we know. And you know when you get to a detail in a newspaper that feels right and is true, it almost jumps off the page at you. And I look for those details really hard. The ones that are going to make it clear: This one isn’t just a name and a face, this person is real.
The last one is gain altitude. This is another one from Roy. Most of the time in a narrative, you’re at ground level with your story. You’re in the middle of it, in the thick of it. But it helps at certain points to rise up above the action, to be able to see it clearly and describe what’s really happened with some authority.