You may have noticed the increasing proliferation of narrative articles in big and little daily newspapers, and even weeklies. Rather than just the facts, Ma’am reportage we see real stories. There are colorful images, lots of detail on the people, scenes and objects related to the article. The good guys, and the bad guys too, get verbal portraits to tell by showing and entertain us as well as inform us.
At last weekend’s Nieman Foundation Making the Most of Your Local Advantage seminar, two sessions addressed aspects of this. I had a conflict with the St. Petersburg Times’ Lane DeGregory’s Ordinary people, extraordinary profiles. However, I did get to her co-worker Ben Montgomery’s Writing the short narrative on a deadline.
He had good stuff for bloggers as well as weekly reporters. Many of us bloggers don’t have time for a lot of reporting and many don’t have experience at it. We can be shy about intruding and interviewing. Montgomery is young but has gotten over any of that he felt.
He has quickly adjusted to being a pro at what he needs to do to educe and observe enough and well enough to create that narrative from what most people would miss or forget. He chock full of tricks and techniques.
The notebook. His slim reporter’s notebook is more of a tool for him than for most of his peers. Montgomery leaves it in the back pocket of his jeans or in his jacket when he starts talking to a source, which avoids seeming pushy or in too much of a hurry. Then when he hears a remark he’s sure he’ll quote, he whips the notebook out, says, “That’s great. I’d like to use that,” and puts the notebook back. He says that often the source becomes increasingly eager to say something good to make him pull out the notebook again.
Across the table. Montgomery says he never eats with a source. He eats before he goes. He then buys the meal, but keeps his hands free, his mind focused and his mouth filled with words instead of food.
Pulling out a story. He aims to get the source to tell a story, not just sketch basic facts. He likes to ask questions that get them to connect to the situation as it happened. Moreover, he says a key to the narrative is to keep an eye out for any real emotion that the source shows and follow up on that. The hardest aspect would be if the source is hesitant and wants to avoid talking about something. There again, gentle questions asking for details on that subject often yield the best images and recollections.
Framing. Montgomery suggests visualizing the people and scene as you might be doing a video. Literally looking with that kind of cold eye can help frame the article and provide the best details and insights at writing time. He even suggests reporting the scene just as you would the source or other characters. Use observable detail to develop the city or the specific scene as though it is a character.
One in the audience asked how we can avoid a narrative becoming a formula. Montgomery didn’t see that as a problem. His pretty contagious enthusiasm suggests that so far, he is not in a writing rut.
I confess to a negative connotation from a previous professional life. Formulaic writing is often a sort of hand clasp between writer and reader. The readers know what to expect and have come to like it.
I think specifically of my time as a writer (senior editor on the biz card read) at Inc. Magazine. Its feature-article formula has been humming along for three decades. It works, but many of the writers got real tired of it.
The basics run like this:
- Start with a sensory image, like the protagonist walking through a field of hops or sitting on a sailboat deck on a sweltering day. Image is all.
- Jump into a business crisis. Ideally the protagonist was one of those who caused the problem.
- Detail the situation and show how the company was on the edge of bankruptcy or having to sell to a competitor or such humiliation.
- The protagonist (usually the company founder) explains how an analysis or insight produced the innovative solution.
- Ta da! The protagonist saves the company and shares the technique with readers.
Inc. founder Bernie Goldhirsh used to tell us he wanted it to be an MBA inside the covers. By the end of the year, the reader will be smarter and more capable than at the beginning. That attitude from my boss’ boss’ boss was pervasive. We writers churn them out. It’s not difficult to tailor a non-fiction piece that way, but while the readers continue to love these entrepreneur-as-Superman tales, the formula can wear on the writers.
More from the seminar: Coverage of finding the time to do the meaningful stories is here. Also, more general talk about bloggers as reporters is here. Finally, a personal tale of white folk at Black papers is here.