7 common pitfalls of newspaper narratives

Daniel Defoe -- pioneer novelist, pioneer journalist, probably not a fan of the nut graf.

Daniel Defoe — pioneer novelist, pioneer journalist, probably not a fan of the nut graf.

I spent the last few days reading over many pieces of narrative non-fiction, to talk to a creative writing workshop about the mutually parasitic relationship between literature and journalism. I found myself stumbling over the same things, mostly in newspaper narratives.

1. Dialogues with the unseen, unheard extra character

You’re used to filtering your interviews to distill a few quotes, so you pepper your narrative with the same thing. It has the effect of letting the actors in a scene turn and talk directly to the audience — but, of course, your characters are speaking to you, the reporter. The quotes that come from this tend to be expository, explanatory or descriptive: “This happened,” “This happened because,” and “I was shocked.” A narrative is fragile; breaking the scene to address the reader takes her out of the story. Sure, Hunter S. Thompson could talk with his characters — but Thompson was one of his own characters, hardly unseen and unheard. If you’re going to take part in the story, write yourself into it. If not, don’t even whisper questions from the wings, just show us what happened in front of you.

You say you weren’t there for the scenes so you can’t quote actual dialogue? Then perhaps you can’t write a narrative. Or, maybe, restrict yourself to summary and indirect dialogue.

2. Too many characters

Real life is messier than fiction, crowded with people who appear only for a few moments. It’s the writer’s job to reduce the clutter of real life when producing a narrative. Newspaper editors are going to frown on cold-bloodedly combining characters into a composite, but there are other ways to deal with the throng. For example, make the minor characters recede by reducing them to job titles, not names; if you describe them at all, use plain adjectives.

3. Too many facts

You’ve been told that details are key to narrative. But those should be details that add something to the story. Don’t describe the plants on the outside of a building unless a) something happens out there, and b) the plants are connected to what happens, or add some symbolism. Some specifics, carefully chosen, reinforce the reader’s belief in the truth of the tale. Too many and, again, you’re taking the reader out of the story.

I like what these paragraphs from an early Plain Dealer narrative accomplish, but could this passage lose some details and sharpen its impact?

Lisa was shy as a child, a real homebody who rarely went to sleepovers. She sobbed when she left home for college in the fall of 1974. She blossomed, though, at Mary Washington University in Fredericksburg, Va., where she pursued a major in history, only 50 miles from her parents’ home in Vienna, Va.

As her confidence grew, Lisa became more outgoing and eager to get out into the world. By the time she graduated in 1978, she decided to pursue a career in business, starting out at a mortgage loan company in Washington, D.C.

Lisa loved clothes. She used her first paycheck to buy a fur coat, and spent many after that on expensive, classic designer clothes. At 5-feet-6, 115 pounds, she looked as elegant in blue jeans as evening dresses, and she loved getting dolled up to go out.

4. Failure to zoom

Reporters writing narrative tend to act like amateurs with cameras: Every shot is taken from the same perspective. Watch your average tourist and he’ll take every photo or video standing up, camera or smartphone at eye level. You give the same effect if your writing has the same focus throughout. When reporters are told to think of themselves as movie cameras, they generally can get the idea of pulling back, providing an overall view, like a crane shot. And they can figure out how to zoom back to their usual perspective. Missing often, though, is the close-up: narrowing the scene to a craftsman’s hands, or a character’s eyes. Pulling back provides context; zooming in focuses the reader’s attention.

5. Consistent pace

Zooming in and out also are ways to control the speed at which time passes. It’s easier to chew up weeks in a paragraph or two when you’re writing from a wide-angle view; clock ticks come further apart when you’re describining a tear trickling down a cheek. There are other ways to control time within a scene. What hurts most is when the pace moves too fast, so you can use the bullet-time effect, freezing your characters in place and swinging the camera around to each of them in turn. Or stall with description: What did you hear in the silence? Lack of pacing control bothers me most when we reach a critical moment — say, someone is told they have a fatal disease — and the story keeps clopping along. Slowing down can focus readers’ attention, making sure they don’t miss something important. It can also be used to give them time to absorb the news. If your story is written well enough to pull at the readers’ emotions, you owe it to them to treat those mood swings gently.

6. Over-reliance on curtains

Breaking books up into chapters gives the readers mileposts to aim for, but it also gives the authors a natural way to change scenes. There’s still the problem of letting the reader know where and when each new scene occurs, but the chapter breaks at least warn the readers to expect something. In shorter newspaper narratives, subheads are often used for the same effect. But the shorter a story gets, the more jarring those breaks, and the greater the temptation for the writer to let the subhead do all the work of transition. The subheads become theater curtains that drop down and shoot up again and again, breaking the readers’ concentration.

7. The nut graf

After decades of believing in the nut graf and preaching it to reporters, I am here to repent. The nut graf is the wart on the face of so many otherwise excellent newspaper narratives (and other forms, too, but one sacrilege at a time). I may, at one time or another, have even told reporters that the nut graf “tells the reader why he’s reading the story.” If I had a pica pole at hand, I would now flagellate myself with it as a penance. Shouldn’t the reader read the story because it’s interesting? Why don’t short story writers use nut grafs?

I’ve come to believe that the nut graf is the embodiment of the journalist’s greatest fear: aphiemiphobia. (I just made up that word, and if it’s linguistically challenged don’t blame me; I had four years of Latin, not Greek). Newspaper reporters and editors have been trained to worry that readers won’t read all the way to the end, that they will abandon us. I blame the inverted pyramid, which made it easier to trim stories in the back shop, but ended up training readers that newspaper stories get duller and less valuable as they go on. That, in turn, encouraged them not to read past the jumps of long stories, leading to readership surveys that led to editors insisting on cramming the essence of every story somewhere into the first few grafs.

It’s bad enough that so many newspaper narratives end up like mystery novels that say in the fifth paragraph, “The butler did it, but it took many interviews and assiduous investigation to discover that. Word to the wise: Keep an eye on the candlestick.” Even worse, I now realize, is our determination to make the titles of our narrative series as anticlimactic as possible. One of The Plain Dealer’s early experiments in narrative was titled “Losing Lisa.” There’s a reason Disney didn’t name a movie “Losing Bambi’s Mom.”

This vicious circle has to end. Journalists need to ease their fears and learn to trust that readers will read a good story all the way to the end. Look at it this way: For decades we’ve worried that too many readers weren’t reading us to the end, and built story structures around that belief. With web statistics, we now know that they weren’t reading most of our stories at all. Maybe there’s a connection?

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