newstraining

Skills for journalists in print and digital media

Storytelling 7: Writing that shows, lets readers feel

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Once your have your themes, main character,  timeline and story frame, it’s time to start writing. When attempting a “narrative” of any kind, the old advice about writing to show, not tell, becomes crucial. For most people, especially journalists used to writing hard news, this is usually impossible in a first draft. Much of the attention to show versus tell will come in revisions. So a skill to cultivate in storytelling is the ability to see those places where the writer has blurred the timeline or digested events and is sharing conclusions rather than a scene.

A primary goal in storytelling is to elicit feelings in a reader. This is done by providing stimulation that the reader processes and which give rise to feelings. If the writer (and thus the story) does that processing ahead of time, and delivers conclusions rather than stimulation, the reader is left out of the process. The piece becomes a recitation of information, like a regular news story. The viseral power of a well told story is lost.

Here is a short example I like to use in training programs, from a series by Sue MacDonald called “Christopher’s cancer,” published years ago in the Cincinnati Enquirer. It was the story of a young boy’s fight against cancer. Here are two versions of the same short passage, the first draft followed by the revision:

Grit and determination remained with Chris to the end. On April 5 – just 13 days before he died – he donned a tuxedo and stood during his sister’s 40-minute wedding ceremony, refusing several times to obey Barry’s hand motions to sit in a wheelchair strategically placed behind him.

“Shanna asked me to be in her wedding, and I wasn’t going to mess things up for my sister on her wedding day,” he said afterward.

Revised:

On April 5 – two weeks before he died – Chris donned a tuxedo for his sister’s wedding. With slow, awkward steps, he escorted his mom, Debbie, down the aisle to her seat. He stood during the entire 40-minute ceremony. Watching from his pew, Barry signaled several times to his son to sit in the wheelchair an usher had placed behind him. Chris refused.

“Shanna asked me to be in her wedding,” he said later, “and I wasn’t going to mess things up for my sister on her wedding day.”

This brief passage illustrates a couple things.

Chronology is essential. Let events — the stimulation — unfold in a natural sequence, even down to individual sentence construction. Let the stimulation (sights, sounds, quotes) fall into place so the reader sees the moment take shape. And avoid inserting conclusions or summaries.

In this example, removing the opening sentence of summary (“Grit and determination remained with Chris to the end.”) opens up a blank canvas for the reader. After reading what happened, a reader might also feel things like grit or determination. But there may be other qualities or sensations tripped by the scene, based on the reader’s experience and perspective. Don’t limit the response. This moment of stimulus and response is at the heart of great storytelling. The art is in setting up the experience for the reader.

And one technique that supports that effort is letting chronology rule. By letting the moments come in order — “Chris donned a tuxedo for his sister’s wedding. With slow, awkward steps, he escorted his mom, Debbie, down the aisle to her seat. He stood during the entire 40-minute ceremony. Watching from his pew, Barry signaled several times to his son to sit in the wheelchair an usher had placed behind him. Chris refused.” — the reader is given a better chance to “see” or feel the raw material of the event and then feel a response.

Another helpful technique is to stick with short, declarative sentences much of the time. That makes it easier not to slip into the passive voice, or bend the timeline and interrupt the flow of stimulation building up in the reader’s mind.

Attention to writing that shows versus tells is a large part of a successful story.

Storytelling 1: Touching shared emotions

Storytelling 2: Chronology is your best friend

Storytelling3: Pick a main character

Storytelling 4: Microcosm, telling details, and meaning

Storytelling 5: Subtext and universal experiences

Storytelling 6: Outline the story, frame a chronology

Storytelling 7: Writing that shows, lets readers feel

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Written by mroberts8

01/21/2011 at 6:26 pm

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