Endings: How to get there without pushing your readers off a cliff

Between drafting and editing and graphics-ing and, you know, living, it’s been a busy first week post-spring break.

On Tuesday, we talked about story structure, specifically as it pertained to the ending of the story “Netherland” by Rachel Aviv.

While many of us agreed that the subject matter was fascinating and her access brought about stories from compelling characters, we talked a lot about how she ended the story and how the whole piece was structured. The ending showed a scene where a formerly homeless young woman was comforting a friend by telling him everything would work out and be OK. Generally, my classmates had three views of it:

  1. It was ironic given the fact that not much had worked out for her.
  2. It was a glimpse into her new role as the caretaker of her street “family.”
  3. It was abrupt and felt resolution-less.

The third one was where I set up camp. Although I can see the problem with ending every story tied with a nice bow, in a piece wrought so full of problems, I wanted some more closure, or at least more time to adjust to the character’s new life before we left her.

Jacqui imparted this writing adage to address closure and how to take your subjects gently to the end: Long sentences read fast, and short sentences read slow. Basically, be aware of your pacing when you write and develop your structure. Don’t plop readers down in front of a cliff and expect them to walk off happily into the sunset. Approach the edge carefully, being mindful of words and phrasing and sentence length, so that when you leave your readers, they understand how they got to that point and why.

Generally, she advised, longer stories should pick up the pace in the last third or so. This can happen with more “muscular” and quicker scenes and action, but that should not change the fact that a good, satisfying ending still needs a lead-up.

From there, we moved on to overall structure and how to lay out a road map before you write. Somethings to think about:

  • What are the topics and sub-issues that need to be included?
  • How might they group together to form a natural structure, or at least, bigger sections?
  • How can I juxtapose scenes against the issues I need to illustrate?
  • How can I include multiple characters?
  • What pegs or mile-markers do I need to leave my readers so they can follow along comfortably?
  • What do I need to be reporting on so I have options if my structure needs to change?

All of these questions can help guide you toward an understanding of how to start placing parts of your story. For more complicated narratives, Jacqui introduced us to the braided narrative, which looks something like this:

  • Lede with all your characters, quickly and concisely.
  • Give a strong nut and summary section.
  • Drop back in with each character in scenes, showing one aspect of an issue they need to illustrate especially well.
  • Go back and forth with the characters, showing where they meet and connect with each other.
  • All throughout, weave in summary information and general or background information that works with the scenes.

Two of my favorite books, “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” and “The Devil in the White City,” make use of this structure. In the former title, the exploitation of Henrietta Lacks, a young black woman whose cancer cells spawned a tidal wave of change in the medical field, is juxtaposed against Rebecca Skloot, the reporter who wants to finally get the real story about HeLa cells and where they came from. In the latter book, the professional trials of Daniel Burnham, an architect who organized the building of the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893, is juxtaposed against the sinister life of Dr. H. H. Holmes, a man who became notorious after the fair for killing as many as 100 women in the hotel he built.

I’ve found just through my own recreational reading that the braided narrative makes for a very exciting, slightly suspenseful story. Because you’re usually always taking parts from one subject’s point of view or set of experiences, it can make what is usually drier information captivating because it is highly relevant to the character it’s connected to. Braided narratives with multiple characters work so well because our lives are little more than the connections we have with other people. What better way to tell a story than through those connections?

In the vague way we try to quickly sift through the hundreds of books we’ve read, I get the sense that I’ve happened across the braided narrative many times, but I never considered using it for my own stories. I suppose part of that is subject matter; there’s usually no “gotcha!” at the end of a school board story. However, I could try using the technique to reveal telling details and connections even if they don’t have that element of surprise. It doesn’t hurt to practice for when that “gotcha!” moment finally does arrive.

Up next!

Stay tuned for my post next week on my first editing session (took place this past Friday) and my rewrite experience (second draft due this coming Friday). The tentative title: My first editing session: In which I realize I might not be nearly as boring a writer as my journalism would have everyone believe.

How will I fix ALL the problems?

How can I eliminate ALL the jargon??

How should I rewrite ALL the nut sections???

Excited? Good, me too.

What matters in writing a ‘moment’ is whether it feels real

This week our class was cancelled because of (more) snow. So while I can’t draw on class discussions for this post, I have been thinking a lot about how to write “moments,” or small, descriptive narrative scenes.

I’ll start with some moments I stumbled across this week in leisure and schoolwork that I found especially moving. I have taken out some block quotes from the stories, but please read them in their entirety with the links provided:

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From an August 8, 2012, New York Times story by Ruth Padawer about boys who fall somewhere in the middle on the gender spectrum:

“Toward the end of the first week of kindergarten, Alex showed up in class wearing hot-pink socks — a mere inch of a forbidden color. A boy in his class taunted, “Are you a girl?” Alex told his parents his feelings were so hurt that he couldn’t even respond. In solidarity, his father bought a pair of pink Converse sneakers to wear when he dropped Alex off at school.”

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A reference to “My Struggle,” a book by Karl Ove Knausgaard From a February 28, 2013, New Yorker story by Sasha Weiss about those who criticize Anne Hathaway’s unapologetically cheerful demeanor:

“Karl takes his little daughter, Vanje, to a classmate’s birthday party. She is a shy and introverted child, but she longs to play with other children, and looks forward to the party with a mix of trepidation and eagerness. She chooses to wear a new pair of sparkling golden shoes. When she arrives, she is thrust into a room with other children, who are all playing wildly. Karl watches her as she tries to figure out how to break in:

For a while she stood observing them. Then it was as if she had decided to take the plunge.

‘I’ve got golden shoes!’ she said.

She bent forward and took off one shoe, held it up in the air in case anyone wanted to see. But no one did. When she realized that, she put it back on.”

♦♦♦♦

I saw a film called “The Garden of Eden” that made its North American debut during the True/False Film Fest yesterday evening. The film’s director is Ran Tal, a native Israeli who grew up near the Gan Shlosha, a state park known as “Sakhne.” (Trailer from the film’s website, linked above. See its facebook page here.)

I can’t show you this moment, but in one scene an older man told the story about how he left his home in Germany during World War II to move to Israel. He talks while we see him calmly swimming and bobbing in the rock-surrounded waters Sakhne. Right at the end of his monologue, the man tells us that he knows his brother worked in the crematorium at the concentration camp Bergen Belsen. Having this job meant his brother knew the day his father had died, and by passing on that information the man can observe his father’s yahrtzeit (memorial of the day of his death).

I can’t do this moment justice with such a plain description, but watching it brought me close to tears. (I highly recommend you see this film if you get the chance.)

Tal talked about how he got the scenes for his documentary. In some cases, he filmed the swimming scenes before he did the personal interviews (often at the interviewees’ homes), but sometimes it was the other way around. In every case, the “action” was separate from the interviews.

It was done this way, Tal said, so that he could have more personal conversations with each subject. He wanted them to open up to him about their lives and stories of separation, which could be best accomplished when they trusted and liked him and felt comfortable.

Tal said he had to sometimes go back to an interviewee for further information. The stories were edited together in a monologue format, but nonetheless, they felt genuine.

♦♦♦♦

What I’m learning about moments is that what makes them special isn’t some kind of extraordinary action or especially powerful prose. When we include these moments or “scenes” in our writing, we’re giving the reader a taste of honest, human feeling.

I don’t relate to the little girl with the gold shoes because she’s a fascinating character study or a tragic hero; I relate to her because I know what it feels like to be unabashedly happy about something and have that joy met with uncaring stares from others. I know how it feels to have my feelings hurt in such a way that I can’t bring myself to even tell anyone else. And I know how much it means to be able to properly mourn a loved one.

When I go about my reporting, I want to capture these moments that will resonate with my readers and make them remember how they’ve felt in similar situations. They can be long and full of dialogue, or short, sweet glimpses into someone’s day. I’m telling myself to be open and focus more on the quality of what I find, rather than the quantity.

My observations (should) begin soon, and having come across such beautiful examples of scenes this week, I’m more excited than ever to get the chance to practice.

Journalism & muscle memory

I had a bit of an epiphany about becoming a better writer in Intermediate Writing this week. 

Jacqui told us how a friend of hers holds workshops where each participant brings in a few pages of their favorite writing. Then, instead of talking about the writing styles of each author or reading them, her friend has the participants sit down and retype each page.

At first, this confused me — how could that possibly help? But then, I remembered one of my dance teacher’s oft-repeated terms during class: muscle memory.

And suddenly, it all clicked.

As Jacqui went on to explain, we don’t learn to play good music by playing solely original works. And I didn’t learn ballet by choreographing my own pieces. We learn through copying the great works of others.

That’s why I spent summers at my dance studio learning Coppelia and Giselle variations, even though my teachers knew we were unable to do them at a professional level. Your body just learns to remember and make connections, and through that, you can improve your technique and artistry, bit by bit. Writing, it turns out, is no different. 

By feeling the cadence of sentences and experiencing someone else’s word use and style, you as a writer have more to draw from. In that moment in class, I wondered why we’d never had to do that exercise before in any of my journalism classes. It made so much sense and seemed so natural. Once I have time away from tons of schoolwork, I want to try it.

Aside from craft issues, we talked this week about exploratory and pre-reporting. I’ve already started doing this for my stories, and it was really helpful to break down some of the questions I should be asking myself going forward.

When pre-reporting, look for these things:

  • What’s already been published
  • Where the story idea came from (context)
  • Thinking about access to sources (Who’s out there, who hasn’t been talked to?)
  • Finding a “pocket expert” to give the story more context and background
  • Verifying basic facts

Awesomely enough, I got a great tip from a classmate about a pocket expert to contact. This person, Jacqui explained, should be your go-to for background and significance for a specific topic. They might not be a source or even really quoted in your story, but they’d definitely be the first stop for learning and trying to figure out where the story is.

Unfortunately, my pocket expert isn’t local, so I’m counting on remote methods of communication to get in touch. But, I’m very excited to talk to her and get a broad take from a master on what I should be thinking about and looking for as I begin talking to sources.

When conducting exploratory interviews, think about these things:

  • Finding your focus and possibly a fresh take on the story
  • What might tank the story or turn it into another story altogether
  • Challenges or obstacles you might face
  • Finding people, and not just direct sources (who to talk to)
  • What’ is the most important thing to understand?
  • What documents should I read/have?
  • What is it that people need to know when reading this story?
  • What do I need to know to report this correctly, and who can tell me?
  • What do I want to know, and who can tell me?

Above all, Jacqui said that journalism is problem-solving, and that’s a take I really relate to. When something comes up in your personal life to deter your reporting, you have to find a way to fix it. When stories veer in another direction, you have to gather your reporting and reassess what your focus is.

And when a winter storm dumps 11 inches of snow on your city and you have to cancel all your preliminary interviews, setting you even further behind, you have to dig out your car and reschedule (welcome to my week).

ImageSo now, thanks to the snow, I have been spending some quality time with the research of my potential sources, trying to learn their history and philosophies so I can ask better questions. I’m going to try, this time, not to over-research as much as I did for my Common Core stories (no promises). I want to do just enough to get a solid background going in.

Next week, I’ll have my basic research and interviewing done, and I can hopefully start setting up observation time and having more in-depth discussions with teachers. Keep your fingers crossed for mild weather!

 

A New Kind of Writing

The end of last semester was jam-packed with life events:

  • I finished my undergraduate degrees in journalism and economics
  • I turned 22
  • I completed my last semester on the Missourian’s education beat, where I’ve been for almost 2 years.

It might not seem like much, but it felt like a lot, especially for only 24 hours or so. Now, I’m finishing up my first week of graduate school back at the Missouri School of Journalism, and starting a whole new set of classes and goals.

For my Intermediate Writing class, I’ll be keeping a blog about my experiences learning about in-depth immersion writing. This is somewhat new territory for me — while I’ve made it a goal in the past to improve my feature and descriptive writing, I’m really a more break-it-all-down kind of girl. I’m trying to use my time as a graduate student to explore the areas I think will serve me best as I move on to my career, and first and foremost of those is writing.

So far, I’ve only had one class session, but I can already see where I’ll find welcome changes and where I’ll find challenges.

The notion of storytelling isn’t new to me. I’ve always loved reading and talking and socializing, and on occasion, I think I can spin a decently amusing yarn. Some of my favorite books are narrative non-fiction written by journalists or with a more journalistic style, including Lynn Povich’s “The Good Girls Revolt,” Nick Kristoff’s “Half The Sky,” Erik Larson’s “The Devil in the White City,” Rebecca Skloot’s “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” Siddhartha Mukherjee’s “The Emperor of All Maladies,” and Laurence Rees’ “Auschwitz: A New History.”

I’m drawn to narrative writing, like most humans, and can relate to the authors’ desires to bring some part of history or the unknown world alive to readers. It’s how to integrate that with reporting that makes me freeze up, especially when it comes to what my professor Jacqui Banaszynski calls “telling or revelatory detail.”

I love writing that allows me to infuse my own personality in it, which is why, in large part, I’ve been writing this blog on and off for four years. It’s a way to express myself in writing that isn’t quite as restricted as journalistic articles can be, at least as far as humor and sarcasm are concerned. Journalistic writing can be humorous and amusing and beautiful without compromising it’s elements of accuracy, ethics and public service, but it doesn’t feel nearly as free as writing this blog does. Yet.

In our first class, we focused on the elements of a good story — elements traditional, inverted-pyramid style hard news can lack.

  • Suspense
  • Conflict
  • Rising tension/action
  • Universal themes and relevance
  • Irony
  • Repetition and cadence
  • A sense of timelessness
  • Characters and their relationships
  • Dialog
  • Emotion
  • Telling or revelatory detail
  • Setting and scene, and the plot that happens there
  • A beginning, middle and end.

It’s a long list, and I don’t expect to hit every item. I want to start with the basics: a narrative arc structure (beginning, middle, end), scene, detail and dialog. I tried to do that in my first assignment, a first draft of a personal essay about my connection with reading and writing.

I’ll be posting at least once a week as the semester continues, sharing my work, class insights and discussions and outside materials that relate to what I’m learning or reflecting on. Feel free to chime in at any point!

Small shifts, big changes

Re-blogged from my advanced reporting class blog.

Something that a fellow reporter said in our lecture this week really struck me. She talked about how small shifts in our habits and actions can lead to big changes in how we report and think about journalism.

I realized that this is something I did unknowingly this semester, and it really paved the way for the big changes I’ve seen in my work.

At the beginning of the semester, I set goals for how I’d improve and change during advanced reporting. Each goal was a small shift in how I normally go about reporting, and it will soon result in me publishing my semester-long project. I’ve never done this kind of long-term reporting before, and it has really surprised me in some ways. I didn’t realize I had the ability to stick to one topic for so long, despite my love and dedication for my beat work on education. It’s been eye-opening, to say the least.

For my final post, I’d like to reflect a little on my goals for the semester.

Dig deeper:  I want to focus on depth, not breadth. I want to do is spend more time with sources and subjects and try to let my reporting find the story instead of my story finding the reporting.

I definitely went for depth this semester. I spent months with one topic, trying to get at it from many different angles. Every interview that I geographically could, I held in person. I wanted to try to get to know my sources and be more personally invested in my interviews. I also did what I set out to do: I found my story organically, from my own reporting, and it makes me so incredibly proud.

Details, Details, Details: I want to try to pay more attention to what’s around me and observe so I can add those details to make my reporting come more alive. I need to remind myself to look, take better more specific notes on what I see, hear, smell and feel.

This was harder, but I still think I made progress. While i think my storytelling could use more practice, I made a concentrated effort to pay attention to my surroundings and try to incorporate that where appropriate in my stories.

Write stronger nut grafs:  I want to take the time to write more cohesive, complete and concise nut grafs, and I want to nail them more often than not.

I think this was a rousing success. Not every nut graf is a hit from the start, but I’ve become so much better at drafting stronger ones and being able to edit them more purposefully. Of course I’m still working on this, but I notice a very big improvement from this time last year.

Use more dialogue: Dialogue has that way of making an article feel like a narrative. It gives a much more intimate look at the characters in a story.

I’ve increase my use of dialogue some, but not as much as I would’ve liked or imagined. Part of that, realistically, is the subjects I’ve been reporting on. I think if I’d done more traditional storytelling with a master narrative and single subject, things might’ve gone differently. Nevertheless, I’m paying attention to it now, and awareness is the first step.

Focus on learning: I want to explore how we learn, why we learn the way we do, how teachers and schools manage and support different learning styles, and why there is pressure sometimes to learn in a certain way at a certain level.

This was my initial idea for my project, and although it’s changed and morphed and turned into something different, it was this first thought that got me to that point. The more I talked to sources, the more research and reflecting and questioning I did, the more it became possible to arrive at my central question.

Overall, I’m happy with how my advanced reporting semester went. Between instances of breaking news in education and crime and beat reporting, I set out to have a completely different experience from beginning reporting, and I did. While I still try to play to my strengths of writing clear, break-it-down types of stories, I now know I can do more than that. I want to branch out and become a better storyteller, and little by little, I have.

And even though every aspect of my original goals weren’t completed in their entirety, here’s what I did accomplish aside from what already has been mentioned:

  • I learned I can pick up stories at the drop of a hat. I’m no longer intimidated by writing on deadline or dealing with breaking news. It’s still stressful and exciting, but not paralyzing like it once was.
  • I’ve figured out how I best report: with lots and lots and LOTS of notes. I might go through stages of drafting and note-taking and rewriting, but it works for me.
  • I’m becoming a much more confident interviewer. I have more strategies and tools at my disposal, and I know how to keep sources talking and on-track better than I used to.
  • I’ve also realized the benefit of just having a good conversation and how that can contribute to and work well alongside an interview.

I was able to strike out on my own and come up with my own ideas and ways of covering them. I got more experience juggling the moving parts of any story assignment (graphics, photos, interviews, etc) and I feel like I know where I need to go from here to continue to improve my writing and reporting.