Many years ago, when there was still money in a newsroom budget for training, our paper flew in a couple of editors from Philadelphia to talk about so-called narrative reporting — the long-form pieces you’re likely to find in Sunday editions. Not the eight-graf government meeting stories, but pieces with a longer or wider reach that seek to tell a bigger story. Semi-regular commenter Kim teaches this stuff, so maybe she has a better capsule definition.
What I recall most vividly from that day was the subject/theme discussion. Some writers have a really hard time understanding what a “nut graf” is — the explanation paragraph that answers the readers’ “so why should I care” question — as well as why you need one, and why the best nut grafs encompass the theme of the story in some way. So they went around the table and had each of us think of a narrative project we’d like to write or have written, and asked two questions: What’s it about? What’s it really about?
What’s it about? It’s about a couple who had a kid with a terrible genetic disease, and it was really breaking them down, and then she got pregnant again and they considered aborting but decided not to, figuring God wouldn’t curse them twice, but the second child was born and it had the same disease. What’s it really about? Coping.
The first question is the subject, the second is the theme. The story can be big:
What’s it about? The Rwandan genocide. What’s it really about? The paralysis of moral actors in the face of great evil.
What’s it about? These two guys, lifelong best friends, who’ve spent all the lives chasing Bigfoot sightings, until one got discouraged and switched to 9/11 conspiracies, and they stopped speaking. What’s it really about? Craziness and friendship.
See how it works? The first question is easy, but if you can’t answer the second, you’re going to get into trouble, because at some point you’re going to get stuck and say what the hell, and if you don’t know what you’re really writing about, you won’t be able to go on. Sometimes the answer is a little vague — craziness and friendship may only appeal to those people who enjoy good stories about people — but the theme is the glue that connects the problems of two little people to the rest of the hill of beans we call this crazy world. (Umm…) Only a few of us are Bigfoot chasers, but we all have friends we’ve fallen out with. Anyway.
There’s always some smartyknickers who says, “But my story doesn’t have a theme,” like that makes them special. These are frequently the ones who disdain writing classes of any kind, preferring to spend shoe leather on reporting rather than time discussing these sissy topics. That’s perfectly fine, reporting is essential, but frequently in a long-term project they’ll spend a few weeks reporting, then disgorge a bunch of facts onto the computer screen and tell their editors it’s their job to make it readable. To them I would point out the “Godfather” paradox. If you wrote the story of the Godfather narrative, the lead would be something like, “Michael Corleone has emerged [note that passive voice, a fave of the shoe-leather school] as the heir to the crime family founded by his father, Vito, after a series of suspected mob-related executions last night in New York and Las Vegas.”
But when you consider the theme(s) — and there are so many in the Godfather story that you can’t count them on all your fingers — then the story becomes operatic, mythic. You’ve got the corruption of evil, fathers and sons, the tendrils of family and blood, the futility of trying to outrun your past, the immigrant story in America, and on and on. Why do you think people still watch this movie? Because Moe Green gets shot in the eye? Grow up.
It’s been my experience, as a writer and an editor, that when you’re blocked on a piece of writing the problem is one of two: 1) You haven’t done enough reporting; or 2) You don’t understand the theme. What’s it really about? Does this paragraph illuminate that? If not, you’ve lost your way. The subject is the path, the theme lights the path.
Does this make any sense at all? I hope so.
I’ve been struggling with several pieces of work all summer, and yesterday I had a sitdown with myself and tried to take my own advice. What’s it about? What’s it really about? I realized I’d never really asked myself the second question, and when I did, it was like a door opened, or a wall fell, or something. The light came on. It all got easier.
Which is to say, I have to get back to work. In the meantime, bloggage for the faithful reader.
Kate will be joining this outfit in a few years: The Childhood Goat Trauma Foundation, dedicated to helping people recover from the pain of petting-zoo mishaps. Yes, a joke, but a semi-amusing one. Make sure you mouse over the logo. Via Metafilter.
What’s Chelsea Clinton up to these days? The NYT finds out. The short answer: Turning into a clone of her mother.
First the Swede, now the Italian: Michelangelo Antonioni dies. I loved “Blow-Up,” did you?
As for Tom Snyder, I thought David Letterman appreciated him best when he recalled the night Snyder had some chef on the show, and the two of them whipped up a little snack, and Snyder was stirring a bowl of something with a butt in his mouth. A real individual.
Is it all about death today? No. It’s also about sex: After asking nearly 2,000 people why they’d had sex, the researchers (at the University of Texas) have assembled and categorized a total of 237 reasons — everything from “I wanted to feel closer to God” to “I was drunk.” They even found a few people who claimed to have been motivated by the desire to have a child.
Off to let my theme light my path. Have a good day.