Sunday, November 30, 2008

Now see this

Couple neat examples of visual storytelling, one on an unusual subject, one on a subject we all know and love (though no one loves it more than Jason):

  • Here's a Washington Post slideshow on a girl born with dwarfism who undergoes a procedure to lengthen her legs.
  • And here's Jason's take on overnight Black Friday. He spent the night out there, had tons of video, and edited down to this sharp piece. I'll ask Jason how he did that and have his thoughts in a future post:

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Well, here's a story from India

Figures the New York Times would be among the first to knit the story together:

MUMBAI, India — As Prasan Dhanur prepared his 13-foot boat on Wednesday evening for a hard night of fishing, he saw something strange.

A black inflatable lifeboat equipped with a brand new Yamaha outboard motor threaded its way among the small, wooden fishing boats at anchor and pulled up to the slum’s concrete pier.

Ten men, all apparently in their early 20s, jumped out.

Here's the rest.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Stories from India?

I spent some time today looking for good narratives out of the terrorist attacks in Mumbai. Couldn't find any. Anyone else come across something good?

I have found, meanwhile, a couple interesting things. The Mumbai Mirror, for example, is running at least two separate moment-by-moment timelines of what happened. They're under headlines ("Night of terror," for example) that might lead you to believe a narrative lurked there.

I also checked Twitter feeds for Mumbai, to see if any storytelling could be found there. Not really, although some news organizations are doing what now seems to be the obligatory "social networking feeds cover (fill in the blank tragedy)" story. And here's a blog post about it. But I don't think they're really getting what's on Twitter, at least in the case of the Mumbai attacks; or they're hyping it; or I'm really missing something.

What I found on Twitter the night of the attacks was no first-person victim accounts (might have been too soon, although if you're barricaded in a hotel with your cell phone ...), and very few if any first-person eyewitness accounts. I found a lot of Twitters that linked to CNN and other major news outlets. (Someone's 'tweet' crowed, Covering Mumbai on Twitter. Who needs traditional media? They apparently hadn't figured out what people were linking to.)

It appeared to me that Twitter was not breaking news as much as it was spreading news, or connecting people with the news -- which is still a pretty cool thing, and has promise, but it's a good step or two removed from storytelling or covering the story in any original way. I'm still trying to figure out if/how we can do some sort of productive, valuable, fresh storytelling with a service like Twitter. Jury's out. Thoughts welcomed.

In checking the Mumbai Twitter feed, I also found a 'tweet' that something like, Hung out with a friend and shopped at Target all day. Tired. Just got home and heard about the attacks. Oh, that's terrible.

Now there's something we needed to know.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

One path to great stories

The Contra Costa Times reports Bob Woodward gave a talk in California with Carl Bernstein, who noted that they were just kids when they were doing all the Watergate reporting.

"We're still kids," Woodward said. "Being a kid has to do with what's in your head, and there's a certain extent to which we still both get up in the morning and ask the question, 'What are the bastards hiding?' Because they're always hiding something."

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Another fascinating take on micro-storytelling

Joan spotted "One sentence: True stories, told in one sentence."

I think I'm of two minds about this.

One, as many of you know, I like short, spare storytelling and I like to try to see if we can do it well. I think doing it can be fun, is a treat for readers and sharpens skills we need to be effective reporters and writers -- like distilling the focus of a story, choosing words carefully, making every sentence count.


Lately, I'm a little worried that so much focus on micro-writing -- and by this I mean Facebook, Twitter, story-commenting and other ways people communicate these days -- will create generations of people for whom a story is, "OMG! That bank that was robbed -- I was there 5 minutes before that! I'll never be able to go there again!" Or: "Scott Blanchard is enjoying playing Legos with his son."

Those are statements, not stories. There are, however, engaging stories behind each of those statements. But will people -- our future storytelling subjects -- be willing to tell those stories, so we can share them with our community? Or will they say, "I already told you what happened. It was on my Facebook entry."?

So -- this is admittedly picky, maybe a reflection of my mood right now -- my first thought when I looked at the "One Sentence" site was, these are one-sentence facts, or situations, or maybe even set-up lines for a standup comedian, but mostly, they are not stories.

For example, not a story: "When he said, 'Hey, beautiful,' I thought he was talking to me, until I saw the Bluetooth in his ear.'"

This, however, is a one-sentence story, I think: "I got married at 16 because I was pregnant, at 21 because I was rebounding, at 29 because I was in love, and at 45 because I was an idiot, but this time, at 56, I'm marrying for money." It has character, plot, even a little tension. Something happens in that one sentence -- the writer shows us that something is different.

We've been talking about Felix Feneon's three-line stories and doing some of our own this year. Doing that is tough enough. To take a real story down to one sentence is a challenge that isn't easily met, as I think this site shows.

And it's worth our while to remember that many people might think that's all there is to their story. We're the ones who have to understand there's more, and assemble the thinking and interviewing skills it will take to draw out those stories.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Just for fun: Cutline contest

OK, look at the guy on the right. Study him. (Look at the guy on the left and study him a little, too.)

Now write a cutline that says what the heck is going on here.

*Photo: Bruno Bebert/European Pressphoto Agency

A good, quick read, plus ...

... a couple of extras:

--Note how the writer made the first four grafs their own little conflict/resolution tale. (Which, of course, is fleshed out later in the story).

--I really like how the big payoff line is a two-word sentence.

Badly injured Iraqi boy fit with artificial leg at Portland hospital - Breaking News From Oregon & Portland -

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Oral histories from the Great Depression

So "This American Life" had another great show this week you should check out if you don't already listen to the show.
One segment of the show was devoted to remembering Studs Turkel, a Chicago reporter who spent time recording the oral histories of regular Americans. The interviews featured on the show were from a series he did for radio called "Hard Times," focusing on stories from the Great Depression.
One woman's recollection in particular gave me goose bumps. While it's more than a six word story, it really does an incredible job at summing up the emotions and anger of this era in a short amount of space. I thought I'd share:
"And then of course the war came and the Depression was cured by a war. Which was one hell of a note. And all these kids that I had, who were growing up, disappeared. And it was very, very quiet. The young were gone and some of them came back, and some of them didn't."

Monday, November 10, 2008

A continued discussion

As promised, this is an open thread for discussion of advanced suspense techniques -- the stuff that goes beyond the typical dime-store murder mystery.

We talked in Wednesday's bagger about an Esquire story that recounted a prison break. If you couldn't come to the bagger, but would like to join the discussion you can read the story here.

Even if you were at the bagger, the online version has features like clickable footnotes. I hate footnotes, but if you like them you can find them online or in the magazine version. If you don't like to read from a computer screen but are a footnote lover, come see me and I will lend you my copy of Esquire.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Imagery and meaning

Here's a passage from a piece titled "Ramadi nights," by Neil Shea, who's a staffer at National Geographic, though this story ran in Virginia Quarterly magazine. What caught my eye was the way he used the rhythms of day turning to night to capture the state of the city, and what it meant.

"It is strange, looking back. At the time I didn’t feel any shift in the balance of things, though I’m told success was unfolding around me. Zarqawi had recently been killed, but that seemed to have little effect on the violent streets of Baghdad or anywhere else. There were only a few moments when it was possible to sense or grasp anything beyond the details of getting by. In the evenings, as the orange sun fell away and bats emerged from towers of the old palaces, you could feel the precariousness of the larger story, of the battle for Ramadi. It was as though, in the softening of the light and heat, a hidden view of the landscape was revealed. Perhaps it was that with dusk came a momentary peace. But then the acid night poured in, dissolving the edges of the city and reducing everything once more to small, irreversible moments of fear and action and inaction. It was in these moments that Ramadi was won, if it has really been won at all."

Writing and editing for energy

I was going through some writing stuff from the Nieman narrative editors conference and came across a handout from Connie Hale.*

She writes about editing out 'is' and other static verbs and offers this good before/after example of a story from Wired magazine.

Before: "It is nearly noon on a cool (temperature 66 degrees), dry (humidity 21 degrees), high-desert day. The azurescent New Mexican sky hangs languidly over a flat, antediluvian landscape. It is broken to the East by the glowering granite of the Sandia Mountains and off to the North by the shimmering hills that lie past the Rio Grande River, and mount up to the Jemez Mountains and Los Alamos beyond."

After: "At noon on a cool, high-desert day, the azure New Mexican sky hangs languidly over a low, antediluvian landscape. To the east, the granite of the Sandia Mountains flower darkly; to the north, the hills past the Rio Grande shimmer as they rise to meet the Jemez Mountains and Los Alamos beyond."

I wouldn't point to the 'after' version as an example of great writing necessarily. But focus on what happened to the verbs, and thus to the energy of the paragraph, when the two uses of 'It is' came out.

Writers, you can learn to catch yourselves using 'is' and other static verbs, which will you write less imperially and more vividly, more in the moment. Editors, you can keep an eye and an ear out for those sluggish passages and help bring life to a sentence, graf or story.

*head of narrative program at Nieman, author of "Sin & Syntax: How to Craft Wickedly Effective Prose."

Monday, November 3, 2008

In praise of ordinary stories

This is a couple days late, but Studs Terkel died Friday.

He was 96. He requested his epitaph read "Curiosity did not kill this cat."

His writing is the sort I enjoy the most. Stories of ordinary people. He called it guerrilla journalism.

Here's an except from how he went about writing Division Street.
“Although there is a Division Street in Chicago, the title of this book is metaphorical … I was on the prowl for a cross-section of urban thought, using no one method or technique. I was aware it would take me to suburbs, upper, lower, and middle income, as well as to the inner city itself and its outlying sections … It finally came down to individuals, no matter where in the city or its environs they lived. Being neither a sociologist, nor a research man, motivational or otherwise, I followed no blueprint or set of statistics … It was the man of inchoate thought I was seeking rather than the consciously articulate … In no instance did I deliberately seek out the bizarre in people … Each has pertinent comments to make on urban life in the twentieth century.”

And here he explains his interviewing technique.
“It isn’t an inquisition; it’s an exploration, usually an exploration into the past. So I think the gentlest question is the best one, and the gentlest is, ‘And what happened then?'"

Saturday, November 1, 2008

On writing short

Here is an interesting piece on Poynter's web site by a New York Times editorial writer on writing short. There are two things in this piece that really interest me:

One is that the writer, Maura Casey, quotes a fellow NYT writer, Tara Parker-Pope, saying, ""Kitchen sink stories do too much. If you take on a big, unwieldy topic, you can wind up with a big, unwieldy story. Our writing improves when we try to do a little less, but do it better."

She doesn't say it, but to me, she's really talking about story focus -- something we talk about a lot in here and should probably talk about more. Your focus can move a story from mediocre to good, or from good to great.

Another is Casey quoting an NYT editorial writer, Verlyn Klinkenborg, as saying a key to writing short (and doing it well) is no transitions. I had never thought of it that way. Klinkenborg seems to say they're not really necessary in any kind of newspaper writing:

Klinkenborg, who is in the midst of writing a book called, "Several Short Sentences About Writing," believes that the need for transitions is greatly exaggerated.

"They're almost never necessary, not if all the rest of your sentences -- and your sense of velocity and rhythm and your ability to know exactly what you have and haven't said -- are functioning properly," he said in an e-mail. "Many writers (and all newspapers) think readers are stupid, and they treat them that way. They assume that readers will get lost without carefully elaborated transitions between paragraphs. Most writers are taught to worry endlessly about transition. They've been taught the art of the flying trapeze, not how to write."

I'm not sure I agree. I think you can make a strong case for well-executed transitions to help knit a story together, reinforce theme, etc. What do you think?

What does good narrative do?

Good conflict/resolution narrative asks, and answers, a central question. In this case, it is: Can the soldiers save the Afghan cook? This is an example of a true narrative that does its job.