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Home > Publications > Quill > Narrative Writing Toolbox



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Thursday, June 6, 2013
Narrative Writing Toolbox

When writing, don't forget to think

By Tom Hallman Jr.

When you sit down to finally write, it’s natural to plunge in and think of the story in terms of reporting — flipping through your notebook for a great quote — and working to craft a snappy lead. That’s fine when it comes to breaking news and briefs, but for a feature you need to think differently.

Scenes and transitions are important, but what’s overlooked is context. Reporters think that way instinctively when they cover a news story or a piece off a beat: How big is the budget? What’s the name of the person arrested? During the past three months how many crimes were committed in a certain area of town?

But too often we don’t apply that same diligence to features. Those stories don’t depend on statistics, but on theme and meaning, the writer trying to find a way to weave the past and the present into a story that not only doesn’t bog down, but also resonates with the readers.

Here are some questions to ask yourself before writing a feature/narrative:

WHAT DOES THE READER NEED TO KNOW AT THIS EXACT MOMENT IN THE STORY?

If you tell readers too much of the character’s past without making it relevant, you bore them. Does a reader really need to know what school the defense attorney attended? If so, why? If you can’t provide yourself a good reason — story reason — it doesn’t need to be in the story.

Thinking about the past in terms of context isn’t always easy. Some writers take the easy way out by putting the past into one section and then shoving it into the story. That can lead to more problems. The tone can shift when we move from story to back story. Instead of dramatic storytelling — showing and not telling — a writer ends up dumping the notebook, rattling off the character’s bio in a hurry to get back to the real story.

Then, sensing flaws, a writer tries to inject false drama into history. You’re writing about a character once in a terrible car accident. If you open with the character in the present and then move to the back story involving the accident, you can’t structure that section to make the reader believe the character might die. The reader knows he’s alive because of that first section. To work effectively, past events must be connected to the present.

Again, ask yourself what the reader needs to know at that moment in the story. The answer allows you to weave bits of back story into the present. Your character gets in the car, buckles his seat-belt — an act that always makes him remember the accident. He drives from home and turns right at the light, two blocks away from where he once nearly died. He pulls into the school’s parking lot to wait for his daughter. While waiting, he leans forward to look in the rearview mirror to study the scar that runs from his right eye to his chin, a visible reminder of what happened.

WHAT’S THE MEANING OF THE STORY? WHAT’S THE MEANING OF THIS SECTION?

A story builds to a moment that we call an ending. But a story is made up of a series of smaller moments that reveal the theme and meaning to the reader. That meaning is revealed through structure. Each scene should reveal something about the character, the character’s world and the deeper purpose behind the story.

An example:

Last month I got a call from a woman who had a tale about murder and her desire to see the victim memorialized.

Here’s my opening:

As her thoughts turned to renewal and hope each spring, Cherrie Letter would call the funeral home to ask about the murdered prostitute. For 26 years the answer remained the same. The young woman’s family never claimed her ashes. They languished in a simple urn stored on a shelf.

But Letter couldn’t forget Jennifer Lisa Smith. The two were forever connected by what happened one night in 1987.

At this point the past — the murder, Letter’s reaction to it and what happened next — are critical to the story’s theme. I was able to keep the past in a three-paragraph section. The past was the reason for the present.

Not less than a week later, the story took an amazing turn. The dead woman’s daughter read my story and came forward to claim the ashes.

When I sat down to write it, I violated the very rule I’ve written about in this column. I approached it as a news story and wrote this:

A painful family secret not discussed for nearly 30 years was revealed when a Seattle-area woman read an Oregonian story and finally learned what happened to the remains of her mother, a Portland prostitute who was the final victim of Oregon’s most prolific serial killer.

Serviceable, but not a story. Give me context. This was my re-worked opening:

For nearly 30 years, family members guarded the secret, one so painful that they believed it best to let the past be. In time, the daughter accepted that she’d never know what happened to the remains of her mother, a Portland prostitute who was the last victim of Oregon’s most prolific serial killer.

And then late Tuesday night, Sharmel Smith-Cason received a voicemail from her estranged father. He said only that there was “news” about her mother, who in 1987 was stabbed in an Oak Grove restaurant parking lot by Dayton Leroy Rogers.

Instead of calling back, Smith-Cason — just 6 when her mother died — jumped on the Internet, typed in her mom’s name and found a March 29 Oregonian story revealing what everyone had wanted hidden: No one in the family had ever picked up Jennifer Lisa Smith’s ashes.


Remember: Don't just write. You also need to think.

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