Here we are again, thinking about improving our writing.
Today’s topic is geared to feature writing although it will work in news stories, too.
We talk a lot about storytelling in writing.
What we really mean is “Show your readers – don’t just tell them.”
Most of us are aware that it is more convincing to show something through action, behavior or dialogue than it is just to tell it.
Our ability and effort to show may determine if our readers think our story is realistic and that we are credible as storytellers.
This applies more to feature writing than traditional news reporting.
Yet it can be useful in both.
Here are 3 hints:
- Describe scenes with real people taking action or talking with each other.
Let your readers hear what you hear and how you heard it – not only what they said but how they said it. Let them hear the noise of cities and the quiet of mountains and forests, the music of surf and wind.
- Let the reader experience what took place and how it made you feel.
Take them inside the scene and inside yourself.
- Use concrete detail.
Describe what happened as you saw it.
Relate strange places and people to places and people you and your readers both may know.
For example, show them an elderly man who “looked like Winston Churchill.”
Describe sunrise over a peak “like the Blue Ridge mountains.”
Bring your readers into the scene with you.
Think and write as if you were setting a scene in a work of fiction.
A fine reporter, Roger Beirne, was troubled after interviewing the mother of her son killed in combat.
His account told simply what he saw, the neighborhood where the family lived, the look of the house where the boy grewn up, how his mother appeared when she came to the door, what she told him about her son. It was a moving account.
Roger did not need to hype it up. He simply showed what took place.
During the Nazi bombing of London in 1940, war correspondent Ernie Pyle wrote:
They came just after dark, and somehow you could sense from the quick, bitter firing of the guns that there was to be no monkey business this night. Shortly after the sirens wailed you could hear the Germans grinding overhead.
In my room, with its black curtains drawn across the windows, you could feel the shake from the guns. You could hear the boom, crump, crump, crump, of heavy bombs at their work of tearing buildings apart. They were not too far away.
Australian journalist Helen Garner opens her account of a murder-suicide:
It happened in broad daylight one April afternoon in 2015, while the ciitizens of Melbourne were peaceably going about their business.
A chef on her way to get a tattoo, was driving past Lake Gladman, a reedy, rock-edged wetland, when the blue Toyota SUV in front of her suddenly pulled off and stopped. As the chef drove by, she caught a glimpse of an African woman sitting huddled over the steering wheel with her face in her hands. Kids behind her were rioting. A little one was thrashing in his booster, a bigger one dangling off the back of the driver’s seat.
Minutes later, a passing teacher saw the Toyota “drive full bolt straight into the water.”
These highly dramatic examples show what is possible.
Your story may not be as dramatic as these.
Yet similar human energy is there in most stories.
Here is an example from our newspaper:
It all began with a phone call Chapin Town Councilman Al Koon made on Monday, June 25, to his friend Paul Kirby.
Kirby is editor and publisher of the online Lexington Ledger and a former firefighter and correspondent for the Chronicle.
“Al called me about noon to chat as we often do,” Paul said. “It was unusual for him to call me mid-day as we normally talk in the morning or when I am driving home.
“When Al’s speech changed as we talked, it did so quickly and dramatically. He was completely unintelligible and it was clear that something was very wrong.”
Try it in your next story,
Make us see, hear, even smell and feel what you are experiencing.