A Starter Kit For Narrative Writers

Narrative is chronology with meaning.
-- Jon Franklin

Narrative stories need:

An interesting character (or characters) facing a challenge, obstacle, dilemma, danger.

An unanswered question. Readers need to know enough about the story to be intrigued, but not too much. The reader should always be wondering WHAT HAPPENS NEXT?

Passion. Characters must have something vital at stake -- the family farm, a love interest, their very lives.

Dialogue. Not quotes. Dialogue is conversation that takes place at the time that events unfold. Quotations are comments given to a reporter in an interview.

Scenes. Give your stories a sense of place. Use your senses -- sight, sound smell, even taste. Include action -- what people do and how they behave. Add dialogue -- what they say.

An ending. It doesn't have to be a happy ending; nor one that ties up every loose end. But the complication, obstacle or dilemma your character faces must be resolved. Readers should get the sense that your character has been changed by the experience.

An overarching theme. Decide what your story is fundamentally about - courage, brotherhood, perseverance. What's all that action and detail add up to? Ask yourself this question before during and after you report and write. It will help you to know what to include and what to leave out.

How to find a narrative:

Look for and anticpate endings. A boy's first dirt track race. He wins or he loses. A young surgeon's first operation. The patient lives or dies. An attorney's first capital punishment case. His client fries or survives. In each instance, you know the story will have a resolution. That provides an easy road map for telling the story.

Sweat the small stuff. Little items in the paper can become narratives. Jon Franklin wrote a Pulitzer Prize winner starting with a small story about a man honored for his academic achievements. He reconstructed the man's path from ignorance to enlightenment.

Listen to volunteers, proud mammas and papas, who have the good news stories that never make the paper. Such a volunteer sent in a mother's day message that a son had written to his mother thanking her for helping him graduate from tech school. Big deal, huh? Turns out the son had schizophreneia and Tourette's Syndrome. The writer reconstructed the son's journey to success for a story that landed on page one in his paper and moved on the wires as well.

Keep track of trends. A study says an increasing number of Americans are putting their parents in nursing homes. Your narrative chronicles one family from the time the move is contemplated to the point at which grandma is wheeled into Happy Acres.

Starter narratives:

Write a great obit. Identify the obstacles faced and overcome in a person's life. Write a lead paragraph that captures the essence of that person's character and contributions. Tell the story of that person's life chronologically.

Turn a public safety story into a narrative. Fires, police chases, bank robberies lend themselves to compelling storytelling. Often these can be done as followups once the basic details have been made available. Sometimes they can be done that day if participants and witnesses are accessible and forthcoming. Use their descriptions to recreate scenes.

Focus on a small event that is extraordinarily meaningful to the person involved. It might be the last game of the little league basketball season when the smallest kid on the team scores her first basket.

Tell the untold story. That's what reporter Mark Bowden did in his best selling book "Black Hawk Down'' about America's disastrous mission in Somalia. He returned several years after the fact and was able to gather crucial details not otherwise available.

Helpful books:

  • "Writing for Story," Jon Franklin
  • "Intimate Journalism, the Art and Craft of Everyday Life," Walt Harrington
  • "Literary Journalism: A New Collection of the Best American Non-Fiction," Mark Kramer, Norman Sims, editors
  • "Stein on Writing," Sol Stein
  • "Follow the Story: How to Write Successful Non-Fiction," James B. Stewart