Near the midpoint of the Nieman Narrative Journalism Conference, eight accomplished practitioners of various narrative techniques and styles convened to share their experiences and insights. Curator Bob Giles opened the session by asking, “What does it take to do fine narrative writing?” Excerpts from participants’ responses follow:
Chip Scanlan: What it takes is immersion reporting. It’s just being there, immersing yourself so that the writer inhabits the story and, by taking up residence in the story, it seems to affect everything, including choice of language and, most of all, the sense of authority that a good narrative has. Whether the attribution is clear or not, there is this sense that the writer is inside that story by dint of spending an enormous amount of time. Then it’s also strategic writing, and it’s writers making decisions that are governed by plans of action. And it’s Rick Bragg using metaphorical language, what he calls the icing on the cake of narrative. It’s Tom French using time lines to organize the lives of his characters and the lives of his plots. It’s Bill Blundell of The Wall Street Journal who’s always guided by six points: what’s the scope, what’s the story about; what’s the history of this; what are the central reasons—political, economic, social; what’s the impact; what are the contrary forces for and against, and what’s the future, if this continues. Finally, it’s writers who are using all their senses, using their heads and, most of all, roaming up the ladder of abstraction—a concept that all thought, language and experience could be grouped on a ladder from the concrete to the abstract—and it’s using that, roaming up and down the ladder of abstraction, showing and telling, explaining and exemplifying, and juxtaposing abstractions.
Jacqui Banaszynski: When I think about what makes fine narrative, I see it as a series of moments. A mid-career reporter came to me a few months ago and said, “I want to learn how to write narrative, how do I do that?” And I said “Well, it’s going to be a stretch for you. That’s not your muscle. You tend to look at the world this way.” She came back a few weeks later and said, “I want to learn how to write narrative, how do I do that?” I said, “Well, you’ve got a beat that really doesn’t easily lend itself to that and we’ve got these other issues and so think about that a little more, read a few things.” She came back the third time, third time is always a charm, and she said, “I want to learn how to write narrative, how do I do that?” And I said “Okay, I’ll tell you but you won’t like the answer.” She says, “I really want to learn, how do I do it?” And I said, “One paragraph at a time.”
There are five things that need to be in any piece of narrative, and I believe narrative can be a line, a paragraph, or a whole long piece. You need to have character, there has to be something or someone for the reader to hold on to or for you to build the story around. The trick is character does not have to be a person. It can be a place. It can be a thing. It can be a moment, but you have to have a central character. You need some story or theme. You need some bigger universal sense that this character or story is representing or that it triggers in people’s psyche. You need, quite frankly, a lot of discipline. You need to discipline your writing and your work so it’s not a self-indulgent rant, so it really is honoring the story and the readers out there.
Narrative has to be able to be read aloud, and that’s a functional, reader-focus kind of writing. You need enormous detail, specific, telling detail that illustrates the whole story and that takes me there. And mostly, you need as a reporter to get so close to your subject that you disappear and then, when you turn around and write this story, you disappear once more because you’ve now let your reader get as close as you were. So there’s a transparency to good narrative even if you have a strong voice that comes through when people read it because then they feel they were there.
Tom French: I am a big fan of invisibility. When I immerse myself inside a story and hang out with people and they let me into their lives, I’m always blown away by how generous and brave these people are. There always comes a point where I literally start to lose track of where I end and they begin. It’s kind of a frightening thing sometimes but it’s really powerful and seductive, and I think it’s really important to writing a narrative. I’m also a big fan of joy. You need to open yourself simply to the things around you that spark your attention or that penetrate you and hang with you and the things that make you smile or just make you gasp. Joy, I’m a very, very big fan of joy. Stubbornness really helps, being really, really stubborn. And you really need to have faith in the power and importance of tiny, tiny moments. Newspaper reporters are trained so that we are really good at big moments. But the longer I do this, the more I learn to have faith that in those times when it looks like nothing is happening in front of me something very important is happening. I just need to learn to pay better attention.
Rick Bragg: I think exactly the same way that you live life, you write narrative. It doesn’t have to be a formulaic thing where you start with a formula. And it doesn’t have to lead methodically through conflict to resolution and that kind of thing. To me, narrative has always been a pretty or telling passage, a strong, violent, tense three or four paragraphs, if it’s done right, and it’s not any more complicated than that. I remember in an intensive care ward for children in St. Petersburg I was writing about two Siamese twin babies and how you would walk one day into the intensive care ward and you would see this incredible attention focused on these babies. But all around them were babies that you could hold in the palm of your hand and they were tiny. And I kept noticing, as I would walk in there, that one day there would be a baby in a crib, and the next day there would not be, and it occurred to me that those babies just disappeared without any fanfare, without any drama. And as I sat down to write about this I wanted to use language that would make people see the sadness, or at least see the consequence of their passion. And I thought of how, when I was a little kid, my mama would wear these dimestore pearls on her neck and I would invariably reach up and grab hold of the strand and, as babies do, pull on it and the pearls would go rolling across the floor in the kitchen. And you never find them all. Some of them roll under the refrigerator, some of them drop in the cracks in the floor, and it occurred to me that that is precisely how those babies disappeared, without any real consequence. That one day there were 18, and the next day there were 15. So I wrote that the babies disappeared from the intensive care ward like pearls off a broken string. And I thought that conveyed the sadness. And I think that one line was narrative. It painted a picture. It told somebody something that was stronger than a statistic. A few years later, I was reading some Faulkner, and Faulkner said that “beautiful women disappear from southern towns like beads off a broken strand.” And I thought to myself, “That son of a bitch has plagiarized me.” Three words can be narrative.
Isabel Wilkerson: Because we’re journalists we’re writing nonfiction and we can’t make it up. We need people, ultimately. We need a sympathetic protagonist, who is flawed and hopefully recognizes it since that will make it easier in the end, who is caught up in the sweep of something bigger than him or herself. That’s ultimately what I am always looking for in the work that I do. It’s our responsibility to make the readers see the fullness of the character that we’ve come up with and to see themselves in him or her and to make them care about what happens to him or her whether we get to that in the end of the narrative or not. I prefer to write about ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. We need credible, plausible characters who will allow us into their lives and into their minds so that we can get the ingredients that we all want to have in our narratives, meaning the metaphors and the details that will make it come alive. We finally need patience, patience to find the right person through which to tell the story and faith that this person will emerge somehow out of all of the work that we do. We need the patience and the faith to find these individuals who will make these narratives come alive.
Mark Kramer: I issue my students on the first day of class a big carton of periods, and I hereby issue everybody here a big carton of periods. It’s a lifetime supply, even if used lavishly. Beyond that, go for mostly short sentences and active verbs. Nearly eliminate “to be” and vague abstract verbs and rich vocabulary so you can shed adjectives and adverbs. Almost ban “as” and “when.” Dump clichés. Simple as that. Narrative pieces want sentences strung banjo-taut then backed-off a bit to ease comprehension. These sentences are preconditioned to quality because readers open up to such clean, controlled, straight words for nuanced information about narrator’s voice and any topic’s layered meanings. Such sentences best transmit the human touch, human contact, writer-to-reader, and that’s excellence.
Character. Journalism as a civic mission is about an address to citizens on bureaucratic forms. But beyond that, readers are people, and there’s a world of real life people beyond newspapers. Reporters of narrative may now include the style of a subject, the flavor, motivation, longings, angers, loyalties, irrationalities. That’s when you’re in a position to do what the gods do, to breath life into the clay citizen. Give us the gift an artist does of making people come alive. That’s excellence.
Structure. Installing in your text set scenes with spatial volume and sensory detail through which pass beguiling characters in the midst of apt, meaningful activity who inspire our concern, engagement, interest and discovery, and reaching a destination that serves a poised, sensible, civic, emotional and intellectual purpose. Apt structure enchants readers, and enchantment is a pre-condition of narrative excellence.
Context. For narrative, key moments in the story, the ones worth portraying, are best identified or selected by reporters steeped in context through immersion and study. The writer gets us into the midst of action and then can swoop away, digress, mentioning just the right background information at the right time during which readers deepen concern and comprehension, then back to the story. This back and forth by-play between incident and context leads toward centrality, relevance, proportion, all elements of excellence.
But beyond sentence, character, structure and context, quality narrative requires the writer or editor to understand and surmount a practical tension that is intrinsic to the news business. Narrative hugs and holds readers, which is just what is wanted in these times of dropping newspaper circulation and wandering audience attention. With well-developed craft skills, good narratives have kept readers glued to sagas about crucial education issues, electoral issues, race issues, and oil regulation and pollution deregulation issues. Narrative is remarkably well-suited to transforming tedious topics by offering revealing moments in the lives of people involved and affected.
But, so far, narrative has been mostly used at quarter strength. Editors have brought it in from the cold to grip readers of the sagas of endangered babies, the frightened football coach’s bout with cancer, adoptees’ searches for mothers, alcoholics and addicts tumbling then climbing back to redemption, good topics all, but not the highest use of narrative. A good tale always has merit, but the potential for luridness, for mawkishness, for absorbing readers’ interest without informing them as citizens, is what has kept the old guard of journalist suspicious of narrative. Narrative can easily titillate without reporting. Titillating narrative is the easiest to write.
Gripping narrative—that portrays the subtleties, the life-corresponding quick of social issues, of poverty, political anger, the bureaucratic class, sectarian, regional, race and gender-related fences inside which we dwell—takes high-level craft skills, and then it’s exciting narrative journalism. Much is revealed, only as actors walk about among the facts. And that’s also why we’re here. Narrative journalism has grown up, it’s no longer a feature lead, it’s no longer even an experiment to try in your paper. Its magic is that it can grip readers all at the same time, fulfilling and broadening the essential work of journalism.
Questions from audience members elicited additional comments from the panel members. Czerina Patel, a radio producer in New York, wanted to know, “How do you merge creativity and accuracy so that the audience, as well, can be accepting your work as truth and seeing that even though the style is the style of fiction, the work that you are producing is still nonfiction and as true as the he-said, she-said boring style of newspaper journalism?”
Gay Talese: There should never be any distinction made between narrative journalism and the kind of he-said, she-said boring stuff that you seem to be comparing it to. There is no excuse for any inaccuracy that is the result of someone wishing to make the story a little bit more readable. We are fact gatherers. If we can do something with the facts that make them as a story more easily understood, more interesting, that’s great. But there’s no, no deviation from the hard, old-fashioned belief that the newspaper must be telling you the truth. No composite characters, no changing names.
Jacqui Banaszynski: In investigative journalism they do line-by-line editing where you have to go through each line and say where you got this information. How do you know it? How many sources do you have? The same thing should be true of any good narrative piece or any really good piece of journalism. You go through it line-by-line and you ask yourself, “How do you know, how well sourced is it, and could you defend it?” If somebody called you and said, “How do you know?” could you answer the question? And if you can’t do that with a narrative piece, if it’s not that well reported, then you better not write it. There is an internal integrity that shows in stories, that shines through whether or not you’re doing direct attribution, that the reader can usually tell is there and that is built by detail.
Curtis Krueger, a staff writer with the St. Petersburg Times, asked if the panelists would talk about narrative stories that are reported in one day “when you don’t have time to go out and search the best example and everything.” He wondered what techniques work best.
Isabel Wilkerson: You basically compress everything that you would do if you had more time. You get there early and you stay as long as you can in the field. I end up often taking time away from the time I have for writing. I also have techniques in which I basically give people whom I am interviewing very little time to prove themselves as potential sources. I have no sentimentality about cutting a person off, because I don’t have the time to waste if a person is pontificating and that’s not going to be giving me the narrative detail I need. It’s not easy, but it’s exhilarating at the same time, because when you do that you know that you basically can write any kind of story in a very limited amount of time.
Tom French: When you’re doing this in a daily context, I think it really helps for you to move as quickly as possible toward where you think the story is going to be, then to slow down, and then to hold still. On September 14, after the attacks, I was assigned to go to a labor and delivery unit, and I was profiling a Muslim woman who answered the phones at this front desk in this labor and delivery unit in a little county hospital. And I was asking her a lot of questions. But the best stuff came during the day when I just shut my mouth and watched and listened. I needed to be quiet and hold still and let it happen and recognize what’s happening in front of me and then put it down on a page.
Jacqui Banaszynski: If you have two hours and you’ve got the phone, then you have to learn how to be a really good interviewer and ask the person on the other end to give you information and details that may sound silly, but you have to turn them into a storyteller. So instead of just asking them what happened, you ask them, “What were you wearing?” “What did the sky look like?” “What did it smell like?” “What did you have for breakfast?” “What was going on around you?” And you turn them into your narrator and you pull all that out of them. And you do that on the phone in 20 minutes of peeling that onion. You just stay with it.
Mark Kramer: Even one setting, even one piece of behavior, changes the whole aspect of it. Instead of saying “A new mall was approved after years of difficult legal struggle,” if you write something as mundane as “The gavel banged down, the crowd murmured, Attorney Jane Smith smiled, Attorney Harry Jackson frowned,” it doesn’t take any longer to report.
Daniel Wood, a staff writer at The Christian Science Monitor, wanted to know the signs that tell them they’ve gotten themselves into a really bad narrative.
Rick Bragg: The first sign is your good editor will tell you, “This doesn’t quite get it.” A good editor will tell you when you’ve written a bad narrative. Pay attention to what the editor says. If he says, “It stinks,” it probably stinks a little.