Friday, November 30, 2007

Neat method of storytelling, local connection

In honor of our upcoming oral history project, check out this interactive from the NY Times on people exonerated by DNA testing.

It includes our very own Ray Krone, which is neat, but what's amazing is hearing how many people in this situation were willing to describe their experiences to the Times for broadcast in their own words.

In fact, the companion print pieces in the times were relatively thin slices of the whole project. The online piece is far more detailed.

Pretty cool.

Friday, November 23, 2007

I wonder if ...

Check out this piece by a Florida Times-Union columnist. It's a tongue-in-cheek column about what a "lifestyle" column by Larry King would be like. (You certainly don't have to read very much of it to get the point).

But it got me wondering ... I wonder if the columnist was doing a profile of King, could the story have been written like King writes his columns (annoying as that is)? And that got me wondering, if you were profiling anyone who had a strong or specific style of writing or speaking, could you write the profile in that way, as a way of having your reader learn about the person you're writing about?

When I worked at the Roanoke Times in Virginia I got to know a Va. Tech football booster named Dave 'Mudcat' Saunders, or just 'Mud' (and for trivia-minded football fans, he would give you his phone number as '989-Bruce Smith/Bruce Smith). Anyway, Mud was a real estate developer who talked loud, all the time. A features reporter did a profile on him and when it came out, all of his dialogue was all uppercase throughout the story.

It made me laugh. That was Mud; she'd captured a distinctive part of his personality.

Just got me wondering about next time one of you is doing a profile, look for something distinctive about the person's style and consider how, in the story, you can bring that out.


Thursday, November 22, 2007

First-person complication/resolution with a twist

An L.A. Times investigative reporter searches for his biological parents. What he finds leads to an unexpected ending.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Good story, well-crafted

This Raleigh (N.C.) News & Observer story is about a soldier who promised his soldiers' parents that he would bring them back alive. And then one of them got killed, and he had to face the guy's parents. It's clear they paid attention to crafting the narrative -- the lead, the foreshadowing, the setups, the cliffhangers, the resolution -- all the stuff you want in a strong narrative piece.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Something to ponder

Heard Bob Edwards interviewing Studs Terkel, author, radio host and more, about some of the favorite stories he's come across.

Terkel talked about a Spanish classical guitarist who said he would not "play down" to his audience.

Terkel said the guitarist would not play according to what his audience did know; he would play to what they could know.

That inspired me. It seems like something we can aim for in what we do. Be optimistic about our readers' capabilities. Push them to learn new things. Lead them down a path they haven't been before.

And in order to do that, we have to do it first.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Marion Winik's visit

Couple things struck me:

She kept talking about "voicey" stories, for example, when Joan asked about columns vs. news stories. Reminded me that it's all about picking or recognizing the right story to write a certain way. Some stories can be told funny, some have to be told seriously; some can be told as conflict-resolution, some won't fit that model; some stories can take a little attitude in the writing, some shouldn't. Part of what we've been doing this year is talking about ways of writing stories that we have at our disposal so we can make those decisions.

Someone asked about her hyper-awareness of things around her that allows her to gather the details that appear in her essays. She said it wasn't that she was aware of everything, but that she was aware of certain things -- such as 'story,' i.e., the narrative of what's happening around her, the what happened next part.

And she works on perfecting that ... and you can see how it shows up in her stories. Think of two she read about people who died -- the maid and the soldier. Both stories built up to either an unexpected ending or an ending with a twist that you may or may not have seen coming.

As she said in a somewhat untethered comment: you can learn what the thing is that your mind is really greedy for, and tune in to that thing. Basically ... know yourself, and what you do well, and use that to your advantage as a reporter and writer.

Any other thoughts on Marion's visit?

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Washing machine stunts and "Jungle Hunt"

Ask any of us who attended last night's Stoop Storytelling event at Baltimore's Centerstage what the highlight of their evening was. I'll bet they mention one of the two items in the title of this post.

Or maybe they'll talk about the transsexual who has her own female garage-rock band. Or the former prisoner who is an actress on HBO's "The Wire."

Yes, a few of us have become addicted to this event that brings ordinary folks onstage to tell their extraordinary stories. The only rule is the stories must have something to do with the evening's theme (last night it was "My Theme Song: The Ditties That Define Us") and they must keep their stories to about seven minutes each.

Several of us went to September's "Corpus: Stories of the Body" and at least two of us (Melissa and I) plan to attend "Holidays from Hell" on Monday, Dec. 10 (mark your calendars and plan to join us!)

The stories showcase a great crossection of society, diverse voices, perspectives, subjects. I think they're generally inspiring for anyone who feels like they're getting in a rut as a writer or storyteller. The participants use colorful language, anecdotes, snippets of dialouge, description, and any number of other important devices (probably without even realizing it).

Here are some memorable lines from last night's show, which I scribbled down in my notebook because I'm a dork:

A stunt woman (from Lithuania, I think) told us she got her start in the business by creating "an astronaut training center for neighborhood children" using discarded washers and dryers as spacecraft -- what a great line, juxtaposing two things you'd never think to put together. Toward the end of her story, she brought the image back, telling us that during one jump, she faced a concrete pad below "that did not inspire confidence, no matter how many hills you've rolled down in washing machines."

Then there was the indie rocker/ filmmaker/skateboard-company owner who started his story by telling us "I grew up the youngest of five children in a house of, I guess 7? people." When we laughed, he said "That wasn't supposed to be funny." He finished by taking us through the music to the video game "Jungle Hunt" and telling us what was happening at each spot, with phrases like: "So, what you're hearing now are the vines swinging. And -- just wait -- you're gonna hear me go under water. There it is!"

These lines don't begin to sum up how funny and/or touching each story was, but, hopefully they tempt you enough to join us next month to learn more about how ordinary people find ways to tell stories about regular life in extraordinary ways that not only hold our attention, but make us want to come back for more.

Saturday, November 3, 2007


From Jacqui Banaszynski, Pulitzer Prize winner, former Seattle Times senior editor, now teaching with Poynter and at U. of Missouri:

"Stories are our prayers. Write and edit them with due reverence, even when the stories themselves are irreverent.

"Stories are parables. Write and edit and tell yours with meaning, so each tale stands in for a larger message, each story a guidepost on our collective journey.

"Stories are history. Write and edit and tell yours with accuracy and understanding and context and with unwavering devotion to the truth.

"Stories are music. Write and edit and tell yours with pace and rhythm and flow. Throw in the dips and twirls that make them exciting, but stay true to the core beat. Readers hear stories with their inner ear.

"Stories are our soul. Write and edit and tell yours with your whole selves. Tell them as if they are all that matters. It matters that you do it as if that's all there is."

-From "Telling True Stories," edited by Mark Kramer and Wendy Call.

Storytelling and hard news

I've talked with some of you, including those at the writers' group meeting last month, about something I want us to continue to work on, and that is marrying storytelling with hard news.

In broad terms I'm talking about a story in which you are breaking news and for which you could easily write a classic, traditional hard-news lead and story, but instead you tell a story while unmistakeably delivering the news. We've consciously tried this twice (there may be other examples out there) with both of the enterprise pieces on military death investigations. They are here (Melissa Nann Burke's "Fatal Flight") and here (Michele Canty's "Marine's death was avoidable.").

In these cases, the lede, as well as the first 3-6 grafs, are crucial, because you have to engage the reader in a story, but you are not writing an anecdotal lead, so you must also deliver the hard news without softening its edges or waiting too long to deliver.

But the body of these stories is also crucial. Ideally these stories do not, after the first few grafs, become recitations of facts contained in the report or gleaned from interviews. The facts are delivered as story, as something that is unfolding in front of the reader; they should have a sense that they are not reading an after-action report, but are watching the action happen. We tried to do that, in part, with beginnings and endings to sections and with transitions.

A focus on marrying storytelling and hard news does not mean we're abandoning the idea of a well-crafted hard-news lead and story. But I do think telling a story while delivering hard news is a high calling and a great way to engage readers on important stories.

Any thoughts on this approach from anyone? We can surely refine our efforts here. Check out these stories and let us know what works and what doesn't, and how we can do this better.