newstraining

Skills for journalists in print and digital media

Grann on great storytelling

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Grann

In a recent interview for Nieman Storyboard, New Yorker writer David Grann makes excellent points about the early stages of a story, structure, and the revision stage, all in pursuit of a compelling storyline.

On the finding the focus:

For me, the most important part of the process is finding the story idea. If I can find the right idea, I can get out of the way and do a good story. There are many journalists I admire who can make magic or gold out of almost any material, but I have less confidence.

In all these stories, I’m looking for multiple elements. On one level, there is a story that is compelling, there are characters that are interesting, but also there are some intellectual stakes—and perhaps the story in there that has the highest stakes is the story about Cameron Todd Willingham, who was executed in Texas and may have been innocent.

On structure:

I spend a lot of time on it. I was a very bad newspaper writer. I never could do inverted pyramids and get the important information up top. I tend to think in stories naturally, as if I were sitting down to tell someone the story. I do think a lot about structure and to try to find a compelling way to tell a story. I spend a lot of time doing very elaborate outlines and think a good deal about structure and when information should be revealed.

On paring back when there is too much material:

Even when you’re doing magazine stories that are very long by the standards of magazine writing, you have to be somewhat ruthless with digressions. Because I do a lot of research, and I’m very obsessive about my research, especially when there are elements of history, one of the things I like to do is to deepen them through texture and history. If I’m doing a story on the water tunnels, you’ll learn the whole history of how these tunnels were built and the history of the sandhogs digging them.

The trick is to insert the amounts of this material that will help and deepen and enrich a story without bogging it down. I almost invariably write too much on the history but put it all in there and then go back and ruthlessly say, “What’s essential? How can I tighten it so that it doesn’t overwhelm the story?”

Even though Grann is talking about longer magazine pieces, the same tactics apply to most any piece of newspaper enterprise writing, good storytelling at any length, and fall into the tasks and skills embodied in the Five Stages of a Story model.

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Written by mroberts8

04/14/2010 at 5:26 pm

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