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Home > Publications > Quill > Narrative Writing Toolbox



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Wednesday, April 9, 2014
Narrative Writing Toolbox

Before writing, find the story’s theme

By Tom Hallman Jr

With this column, I’m launching something that will be an added feature. Yes, I’m going to continue discussing specific writing techniques and thoughts writers can use to improve their narrative attempts. But I’ve heard from many new writers who want to get started. They need encouragement and a chance to hear how others in their situation are learning, growing and writing stories that move beyond the five W’s.

So each month I am going to focus on a specific question from one of these journalists, or share an experience that you can use to help find your way.

First of all — and this applies to everyone — it’s important to know what the story is about before you start writing. Seems obvious, but some people mistakenly believe they’ll “discover” the story in the writing.

This story thinking is what allows you to report and structure efficiently because you have a theme that serves as a guide.

That might not seem necessary when you’re churning out quick breaking-news stories. But if you want to write longer — magazines and books — you have to master this technique. I’ll explain why when I introduce you later in this column to a police officer — someone who never considered himself a writer — who is going to have his first book published in September.

What the story is about does not mean what the “news” is, or even the few sentences that make up the editor’s note for the daily budget.

What you need to focus on is the meaning of the story. Let me share an example from one of my stories, a feature on a woman who works in a high school cafeteria. I was at the school on another assignment when I opened the cafeteria doors and saw the crew getting ready for the day.

I knew I wanted to do a story. But what kind of story; what was it about?

Take a look at this opening, and you’ll see that the questions I asked the woman were guided by a feeling I wanted to capture. It reads much differently than a profile about a woman who works in the school cafeteria.

She arrives before sunrise. The halls are empty and the classrooms dark as she makes her way to the cafeteria to start preparing the day’s lunch.

Ask adults to name a teacher from their past, and you might hear about one who explained Shakespeare, unraveled the mysteries of algebra or patiently listened to mangled attempts to speak Spanish.

But ask about the cafeteria staff, and you’ll probably get only hazy memories of wiener wraps or ice cream cups with wooden spoons.

So it’s natural that only a handful of the 1,575 students at Southeast Portland’s Cleveland High School know the name of the woman who comes to work so early. Though she’s been at the school for 23 years, longer than the principal and all but a couple of the teachers, the students see only a middle-aged woman in a blue apron.

Her name is Leslie Anderson.

“I was once a high school student,” she says. “I had dreams.”

That opening tells readers they’re going to get a story — one that will make them think and feel.

Again, ask yourself, what is this story about?

That leads me to Dan Willis, a captain with the Le Mesa (Calif.) Police Department. He’s a former homicide detective and now a commander in an agency near San Diego.

We met more than two years ago when I interviewed him while working on my last book. We’d wrapped up an interview in his office when he mentioned something about the emotional trauma cops face.

I told him I thought there was a book in that subject, and I encouraged him to think about. That afternoon, he got out a pad of paper and began outlining an idea for a book. He’s written police reports and an article for a professional magazine, but he didn’t consider himself a “professional writer.” We talked on the phone afterward, and I told him he had to have a theme: What was the book about, the meaning of it, and why did it matter?

“I learned it had to have an emotional center,” Willis told me recently. “I knew it couldn’t just be a bunch of information. I decided I wanted it to be an emotional guide for all first responders, all the police, firefighters and paramedics.”

Having a theme served two purposes:

“It kept me focused,” he said. “Whenever I got off track, I remembered what the book was about. It also forced me to write with the heart and not just the head. It gave me an emotional connection to the work, and I knew readers needed that, too.”

He spent eight months writing the book, while holding down a full-time job. The theme — what the book was about — allowed him to use his time efficiently, just the way a news writer needs to focus.

Did what he write or learn play into the book’s theme?

Great, keep it.

If not, let it go.

“Having a theme also helped with the editing,” Willis said. “I ended up hiring a professional editor, and I had to re-write that manuscript 50 times. I was always paring down and taking things out so the meaning would be clear.”

He had to learn how to write a book proposal, but he knew so clearly what the book was about that he made a strong pitch. He sent the proposal out to 28 agents, found one who was interested and got a deal with New World Library, which is publishing the book in September.

Look at this book description, and you know exactly what it is about: “‘Bulletproof Spirit’ describes emotional survival training and wellness initiatives to nurture, protect, and heal their mind, body, and spirit.”

Tom Hallman Jr., a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter with The Oregonian, is considered one of the nation’s premier narrative writers. During his career, he has won every major feature-writing award, some for stories that took months to report, others less than a couple of hours. The stories range from the drama of life and death in a neo-natal unit, to the quiet pride of a man graduating from college. You can reach him at tbhbook@aol.com, on Twitter @thallmanjr or on his website, tomhallman.com.

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