Sunday, April 3, 2011

Spot news as narrative

We've talked a lot about this over time, but it's worth mentioning again: Spot news doesn't always have to be written in traditional news-story format. A narrative can work as well or, in some cases, better.

The key, of course, is thinking about doing narrative before you get to the scene, so you can do the reporting (including both observation and interviews) that will allow you to write a tight narrative. If you only have a few details and a broad or loose chronology, it's probably not going to work.

 I thought of this after reading a piece by Lauren Fitzpatrick, who did work for us as a Medill correspondent several years ago, in the Southtown Star in Chicago, about rescuers pulling a woman from her car that was submerged in a pond. Things to note:
  • The line that cranks up the tension -- "Then the passer-by calling 911 said the words that set him off: The car is underwater."
  • An observed detail about the cop's injury: "The 33-year-old ran to his own car and tore over to the corner where the Rupari Food Services plant sits, he told reporters late Friday afternoon, shivering in a light jacket, his left hand clinging to his bandaged right one."
  • Action verbs: "Frausto ignored the chilly drizzle. He shucked his coat and his shoes. He stripped off his clothes and threw away his gun. Frausto grabbed a baton, and in briefs and an undershirt, he dove into the water."
Ted Czech often writes a narrative out of spot news, including recently about a man who went into a burning home and helped an elderly lady escape. To note from Ted's piece:
  • He uses a question as the engine to push the story forward: "Sipe often wondered what he would do if there ever were a real fire at the home. Would he get scared and run, or would he stay and help, possibly risking his own safety?"
  • Dialogue, reported from his interview with the man, helps capture the feel of what happened: "Ma'am, are you in here?" he called. "You've got to come out of there. You can't stay in there." He heard her say something but couldn't make out the words. Then he saw her. She stood in front of him, motionless. "My pets, my pets," she said. "I got to get my pets."