Storytelling

As if it isn’t cool enough that I’m actually getting paid to work at the Seattle Times for the summer, I also get daily sage advice from the best in the business, advice I’m sure I’ll remember throughout my journalistic career. Aside from the small gems I get from editors daily (I call them “gems,” they call it “bashing”), I also get hour-long, noncritical advice from people from all over the newsroom once a week.

Every Thursday at noon, the interns come into the Fishbowl–the large meeting room in the middle of the metro department so named because its walls are all glass–for brown-bag lunches. Every week, there are two or three employees from various departments waiting to tell us all their secrets and give us amazing tips. My first week, two of the most lauded investigative reporters here told us all about how to get the big scoop and do meticulous research on watchdog stories. The next week, we heard from the online desk and learned about how the Times website works.

The talks come at a good time during the week. For three and a half days, we’ve been slaving away working on daily stories and getting ripped apart by our editors, and we start to wonder–briefly, mind you–why we like doing this. Then Thursday afternoon comes, and I come away from the brown bag lunches totally refreshed and inspired, wondering  how I ever doubted my career choice.

This week’s brown bag was particularly inspiring. It was all about how to tell a story differently than you’ve been trained to do–how to get attention with unconventional but entertaining prose. Staff writer Eric Lacitis got stuck covering a mundane story about a black bear that was spotted in Seattle. The typical approach, boring as it is, would be to capture the shock factor: “Oh my gosh! A bear! In the city!” You’d proabably talk to people who were surprised or scared for their lives and quote them. But Eric, brilliant writer that he is, took a different tack. He sided with the bear.

“Give this teenager a lot of credit,” read the first graph. “He’s a black bear, estimated to be 2 years old. He’s lost, confused, lonely, scared and likely was kicked out of his home by his mother.”

Genius!

Here’s another one. The reporter was assigned to write about a woman who faced trial for homicide-by-abuse for the death of her adoptive son. Rather than use a newsy lead, like “The trial begins next Wednesday in the case of Carole DeLeon, who was charged….”, she painted a startling picture based on a one-sentence line hidden in the police report.

The lead: “The night before Tyler DeLeon turned 7, he was so thirsty he ripped a hole in the screen of his bedroom window to eat snow.

“By the next evening, Tyler was dead. He weighed just 28 pounds, the size of an average 2-year-old.”

I don’t know about you, but I’m intrigued and I’m going to read that entire article.

These examples have led me to conclude that the inverted pyramid in hard news stories is highly overrated. Sure, it’s important to get the most important information out there as soon as you can at the top of the story. But sometimes it’s equally important to show, not tell, right up front so that readers can get a visual idea of what’s going on. That expression–show, don’t tell–shouldn’t just be reserved for long-form magazine articles or novels or creative writing. Reporters, one of the staffers at the brown bag today observed, get so focused on detaching themselves from the story that they confuse lack of bias with lack of emotion. We’re human, and so are our readers–we have to relate to them by piquing some sort of emotion in them.

Some more storytelling tips I got today:

  • If you have a point you want to make, come up with the four things that’ll get you through it coherently. (For example, one reporter wanted to write a column ranting about annoying chickens that shouldn’t be in cities. So he took a look at the basic facts about chickens, the reason they ended up in Seattle in the first place, the people who liked keeping chickens in coops in Seattle and the people who really, really didn’t like chicken enthusiasts.)
  • Find a character to focus on. Sometimes there are more than one. Sometimes it’s not a person, but a building or a creature–like that bear.
  • Get a backstory that explains who that character is–or maybe highlights the difference between the character’s backstory and who the character is now.
  • Write lists when they’re compelling. In a story about the crazy things people steal and smuggle to other countries, reporter Craig Welch listed them: 200,000 pounds of geoduck, monkey blood, badminton birdies.
  • When you sit down to write a story, think about the five things you remember about the story that most stand out in your mind. They stand out for a reason–they’re interesting and readers will probably think so too. So highlight those five things. It’ll get people to say, “Hey Mabel, look what I just read–you gotta check this out!” (Throughout the brown bag, the reporters kept calling this “the Hey Mabel effect.”)
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