Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Good Reporting Makes Good Storytelling

My parents, Andrew and Gertrude, circa 1940.
As a member of the Fourth Estate for almost 30 years, I learned the importance of economy of words.  I also learned how to get to the heart of the story, how to interview people and pay attention to details.  Good reporting is crucial not just in newspaper work, but in crafting your book, whether it be fiction or non-fiction.

In the end you can save a lot of time and energy by concentrating on how you want to organize and tell your story. Do the research, the "legwork," as we used to call it in the business and you are on your way.

Gathering information for your story is key.  What exactly does this mean?

Take the time to sort through old photographs, records and other memorabilia in order to paint an accurate portrait of your subject.  I have begun doing this with photographs of my parents when they were young and in love, studying the style of dress, the smiles that tell a story in themselves.

Interview people about your subject and then grab onto the best quotes to liven the story and keep it from being flat.  They don't call them "sound bites" for nothing.  Not that I am advocating sound bites in terms of picking up something the person said and taking it out of context, but using it as a springboard to capture reader interest and expand from there.

Observe your subject . . . his or her gestures, facial movements. Listen to the sound of his voice, his unique intonations.  Work with all your senses when you go about bringing the person "alive" in your writing. 
What year did the person die?  What were the circumstances surrounding his death?  I heard a lovely and tragic story the other day about a person who died before his time, but the writer forgot to mention how old the person was at the time of his death.  These are details that can make or break your story.

What time period are you writing about?  What was a defining or seminal moment of the era?  Historical context adds to the flavor and is key to the story's atmosphere and mood.

Keep it tight.  Don't use 20 words when 10 will suffice.

When I was a journalist, I interviewed people from all walks of life.  I found that getting to the heart of the person's story meant asking the compelling questions, the ones I felt I would want to know the answers to if I were reading the story. It meant approaching people with an open heart and mind.  It meant understanding motivation, what drives a person to do what they do and putting that in context with their accomplishments, their goals, their backgrounds.

Some people can report and some people can report and offer a beautifully compelling portrait. Everyone is a study in contrasts, good and bad, strength and weakness. Nothing is black and white. 

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