Monday, September 20, 2010

Hardcore investigative narrative

I've been reading this series from the L.A. Times called "Project 50: Four walls and a bed" about a program that inverts the usual theory about helping homeless people: Instead of working with the homeless to get them off drugs and help them get a job, then get housing, this program gives the homeless a small apartment in hopes that will help them overcome whatever else is wrong in their lives.

Christopher Goffard clearly did a mammoth amount of on-scene reporting for this, and you can imagine the tower of information (if not literal notebooks) he had when he sat down to write.

I admire a few things he's done here, and I think there are lessons to be taken and applied to many of the enterprise pieces we do or strive to do. These are things that you will hear about in many writing seminars, and I'll bet most if not all of you have heard them before. But it's important to see them in practice, and to try to deconstruct how they came to be the way they are:

1. There is a four-graf nut graf in part 1. But it fits seamlessly into the storytelling because of the transition from the scene, and because part of it is rendered as questions ... the very questions that led to the creation of the program, and the very questions the writer is telling you he's going to explore in the story. He's married investigation and storytelling here.

2. In any part after part 1 of a series, you have to clue the reader in to what's going on -- either to remind someone who read part 1 yesterday, or to introduce the story to a new reader. Look at how Goffard does that in part 2: A two-graf scene to open, a recap graf, then back to the subject in context of the whole project:

 To rescue the 50 people deemed most likely to die on the streets in skid row, Los Angeles County had a pragmatic plan: Give them an apartment and all the help they'd accept, requiring little in return — not sobriety, not meetings, not psychiatric drugs.
 Livingston and a handful of others posed the most extreme test of Project 50's premise. Merely living among others, with a modicum of structure and social rules, was proving a steep demand, considering what accompanied the hardest cases indoors: untreated mental illness and ferociously solitary habits formed by decades in the city's dope dens.
"If we can succeed with him — oh, my goodness," said the program's director, Carrie Bach. "If we can do him, we can do anybody."
 Scene-setting, intro of main character, tie-back to narrative story and establishment of conflict in the current story -- all in five grafs. Pretty good stuff.

     3. This is, as I said before, really an investigative piece at heart, but it never feels like one. It feels like a story. As it should. 

If anyone else reads this (or has read it) let me know what you got out of it.