Subject and theme.

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.

Or small:

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.

Posted at 9:13 am in Current events, Media |

24 responses to “Subject and theme.”

  1. alex said on July 31, 2007 at 9:31 am

    A reason I heard recently that didn’t make the Top 237:

    “I wanted my ex-husband to babysit so I could have some time to myself.”

    The theme here? An abusive relationship doesn’t necessarily end once the divorce is granted.

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  2. Kirk said on July 31, 2007 at 9:32 am

    An editor’s little secret: remembering to ask writers “Why the hell should the reader care about this?”

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  3. nancy said on July 31, 2007 at 9:58 am

    And it’s amazing how many writers can’t answer the question.

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  4. Jolene said on July 31, 2007 at 11:19 am

    The “what’s it about” and “why should anyone care” questions come up in every kind of writing. I taught university-level writing courses for several years and was constantly pressing students to answer those questions. Sometimes the pressing helped.

    In other incarnations, I worked with researchers in several disciplines on chapters that were to appear in edited volumes–a genre common in academia and think tanks. It’s truly amazing to see really smart people w/ impressive credentials and accomplishments who haven’t learned the difference between a data dump and a story or argument.

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  5. Jim said on July 31, 2007 at 11:42 am

    Years ago, I was business editor for a small northern Indiana daily. Every year, we produced a special tab about the business community. One of our writers was assigned to do a profile on a local factory. In her story, she wrote that the plant manufactured fuel rails for the automotive industry. Upon finishing the story, I asked, “What’s a fuel rail?” And I didn’t ask it just to be a snot — the story didn’t tell me and I truly didn’t know. Neither did she. She was flummoxed by the question.

    Ah, the joys of editing …

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  6. Jolene said on July 31, 2007 at 11:44 am

    It’s truly amazing to see really smart people w/ impressive credentials and accomplishments who haven’t learned the difference between a data dump and a story or argument.

    It’s also amazing to see how easy it is to forget what a good idea it is to strip out adverbs . . .

    But anyway . . . I got a kick out of this passage in the NYT piece re Tom Snyder.

    “Fire up a colortini, sit back, relax, and watch the pictures, now, as they fly through the air.”

    In his tribute to Snyder, Craig Ferguson said that Snyder had established a style of conversation that he admired and uses as a model in his own show, which he often begins by saying something along the lines of, “Sit back. Relax. Take your pants off.” He often refers to his audience as “you cheeky little monkeys” and such like.

    Ferguson, by the way, has a book called Between the Bridge and the River that he describes as “very dirty”.

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  7. Danny said on July 31, 2007 at 11:48 am

    Yeah, in engineering we see a lot of people who cannot express themselves well in written form, much less write a full technical thesis. Thankfully, I’ve been a life-long reader and I had an English literature minor in college. That really helped me because my first job entailed a bunch of technical writing to audiences who were not always technical. Breaking stuff down into what is important and why one should care was always in my mind.

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  8. Kirk said on July 31, 2007 at 12:03 pm

    One of my favorites is when a writer includes an incomprehensible quote from someone. When asked what it means or why it’s relevant, the writer says, “Well, that’s what he said.”

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  9. nancy said on July 31, 2007 at 1:17 pm

    Argh, the “that’s what he said” comeback. And they always say it as though it just ends the discussion, like a Puritan saying, “God’s will be done.” Some of the dumber ones, if you press them to explain or clarify, will say, “But that’s editorializing!” Like they’re just a stenographer passing the message along.

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  10. brian stouder said on July 31, 2007 at 1:23 pm

    I would guess that good reporters would want to put in all the stuff that they worked (so very hard!)to learn, and then let the editors whack out whatever they want to…and if it’s ‘editorializing’ – that’s a promotion!

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  11. Jeff said on July 31, 2007 at 10:08 pm

    Subject: Iraq war
    Theme: Is it pointless/hopeless? (most recent dispatch, but even more illuminating is . . .)

    and before you make up your mind on Pollack and O’Hanlon, see:

    Given that we had 30 to 40,000 troops tied down around Iraq for twelve years, and had our planes shot at almost every day for those 12 years of UN-requested no-fly zone patrols, we’ve been at war since 1991; our 110,000 in country today can create space for a healthy country and leave (all but 24,000) in the next three years without endangering themselves in a rash retreat or creating genocidal vacuum. But before you make up your mind, read through those dispatches linked above.

    Searching for peace,

    ps — for the debate over why we aren’t surging the civilian component as fast as the milbloc upgrades, see this remarkable speech, which was attended by my old college roommate, and was a moving presentation for all in attendance, i’m told secondhand:

    Krulac’s three-block war model is the military that is forming right now, and is a service we can all feel proud of; State and AID and VOA have a long way to go.

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  12. czucky Dimes said on July 31, 2007 at 10:54 pm

    Childhood Goat Trauma Foundation a joke? I see valid concerns here, and will vigorously pursue all actions brought to my attention. C Dimes, Attorney at Law.

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  13. czucky Dimes said on July 31, 2007 at 11:16 pm

    Don’t know who Jeff is, but only one question–What exactly is your point? OK, two questions, then. Why should we navigate all those links you put up just to wade through DOD bullshit? And I wish there existed a stronger word than bullshit to describe that.

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  14. alex said on July 31, 2007 at 11:23 pm

    Childhood Goat Trauma, indeed. Today some vendor left giant karaffes of coffee at my place of employment. Press a lever and… voila! You’re back in the petting zoo, where the squirts coming outta them critters and splashing on the gravel conjure the gross-out your’re feeling when it hits the bottom of your cup. And the German Chocolate Whatever has the perfect barnyard amoniac bouquet to give you PTSD.

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  15. danindy said on August 1, 2007 at 7:15 am

    Goat Trauma website was hilarious!! They need to add Childhood Chicken Trauma to the list too! (mine was compliments to the Ft. Wayne Children’s Zoo)
    Thanks for the ‘enlightening’ website Nance!!

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  16. Jim said on August 1, 2007 at 8:02 am

    Another good reason for young reporters to NOT use a tape recorder: endless quotes that don’t mean anything. My advice on quotes was to only use them if the subject made the point better than you could.

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  17. Danny said on August 1, 2007 at 9:11 am

    Don’t know who Jeff is, but only one question–What exactly is your point? OK, two questions, then. Why should we navigate all those links you put up just to wade through DOD bullshit? And I wish there existed a stronger word than bullshit to describe that.

    I think Jeff’s point is well within your grasp, Chucky. Maybe you just don’t want to know, because maybe, like Minority Whip James Clyburn states, all of the Demcrats eggs are in the Failure -in-Iraq basket.

    Don’t know if you are in that camp, but a lot of people are, unfortunately.

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  18. Rich B said on August 1, 2007 at 11:31 am

    I don’t think Jeff’s links need a “point”, if by point you mean an angle. They’re stories of the mess were in. These guys are inside the mess we’ve made and it looks like they’re doing a pretty good job, considering.

    As far as the Failure-in Iraq basket is concerned seems to me it’s this (Republican) administration that wove the basket.

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  19. Jeff said on August 1, 2007 at 1:35 pm

    Thank you Rich, and yes — the story is of the situation we’re in, and what does it say about the next time? I’m stunned to hear Obama saying we should get out of Iraq fast, and bomb across the border into Cambodia, i mean Pakistan. Is that what we’ve learned? Some say we should withdraw from the Middle East, and support a large multi-national armed force in Sudan/Darfur — is that what we’ve learned?

    That’s my, uh, point. Just saying “war sucks and Bush lied and bring the boys home” may be a campaign platform, but if it’s our point, nationally speaking, then we’ll be bombing western Pakistan into the . . . hm, they’re in the early Bronze Age already. What was the point, again?

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  20. ashley said on August 1, 2007 at 1:38 pm

    My fave Tom Snyder story: One time, Tom was interviewing a man who had been married something like 35 times. He said “and 18 of my wives were virgins when we married. So for me, life has just been a bowl of cherries.” Tom laughed his ass off and went to commercial.

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  21. czucky Dimes said on August 1, 2007 at 3:31 pm

    Let’s see, maybe I can do this in broad strokes here: Clueless
    bible-thumping, hallelujah-shouting president invades a sovereign country, based on invented, contrived “intelligence”, primarily engineered by his vice-president. Reasons for said invasion seem to change with each passing month. Promised welcome from inhabitants of invaded nation fail to materialize. Exact opposite, in fact, occurs, violence now rampant. President’s tit,as a result, now in a wringer. His response then is the bogus, transparent, and infuriatingly vacuous claim that if we don’t fight terrorists there, we will see them tomorrow on our doorsteps. Meanwhile, president’s large propaganda mechanism advances idea that if we leave now unimaginable chaos will be the result. Opposition political party points out only that entire undertaking was based on bullshit from the start, and thus is destined to end badly. That party’s stance seems to be “Let’s stop all this bullshit now and get back to reality”. And goddammit, what do you know, most people seem to agree, judging by the polls. Oh, those Americans. Kind of like Forrest Gump. They’ll swallow crap for a while, it seems, but they don’t like to be told that it’s honey. Do these views put me in the “failure in Iraq” camp?

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  22. brian stouder said on August 1, 2007 at 3:51 pm

    subject: the Iraq morass

    theme: Good versus Evil in America

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  23. Dorothy said on August 1, 2007 at 3:59 pm

    I declare a truce!! (in this country, in this blog)

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