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A computer analysis of story arcs

Roller coaster

Some University of Vermont mathematicians have programmed a computer to analyze more than 1,000 texts on Project Gutenberg, and reminiscent of Kurt Vonnegut's story shapes lecture, they found that about 85% of them fit one of six narrative arcs. But Veronique Greenwood warns of some flaws: "The book that fit the Icarus arc best was a collection of 196 yoga sutras. Another odd marriage was the ‘Cinderella’ arc and its top fit: Boethius’ The Consolation of Philosophy."

Longform reporting in a small market

Maine lighthouse

Kari Howard and Brian Kevin discuss and annotate his Down East story that revisited a 30-year-old drug bust. Kevin talks about how he balances in-depth reporting and writing with the production demands of a regional magazine: "I sometimes hear more accomplished writers chatting on this or that podcast about the time they’ll lavish on a marquee project for a big-budget mag, focusing on only that piece, and I just can’t even wrap my head around what that must be like."

When to disclose an unreliable narrator

Bank vault

Davis Harper and Jeff Maysh annotate Maysh's story about a young nurse who robbed banks, an "unreliable narrator" of her own story: "This story helped me realize that sometimes you don’t have to make the decision on who is telling the truth, or why," Maysh says. "I think you’ve got to be very clear that someone is an unreliable narrator, and allow the reader to make their mind up. That’s a tool from fiction, because some of the best fiction uses an unreliable narrator."

Longform meets funny over ice cream

Ice cream truck

Kari Howard talks to David Wolman and Julian Smith and annotates their Epic magazine story, "The Cold War," on feuding ice cream vendors in Salem, Ore. Howard writes about how rarely longform journalism takes the kind of comic turn seen in that story: "Maybe it was so appealing because it reminded me of a favorite movie called 'Comfort and Joy,' which is like a Scottish version of this story — an offbeat comedy pitting one ice cream 'mafia' against another."

A cloud-watcher and his accidental fame

Undulatus asperatus clouds

Allison Eck interviews Jon Mooallem about his story on Gavin Pretor-Pinney and the Cloud Appreciation Society, including how Mooallem weaved amateur cloud-watching's history into it: "History is always my favorite part to write, and typically to read, too. It tends to feel so crisp, with a clear momentum that the sloppy narrative you’re cobbling together from your shaggy real-time interviews and contemporary reality never does. What a relief when everyone’s long dead!"

About the shooting of Stephen Torres

Police shooting scene

Rachel Aviv talks to Steve Weinberg about her story on the police shooting of a mentally ill Albuquerque man and her circuitous route to the story, which began when she was doing research into acts of domestic violence committed by police officers: "My search terms somehow led me to a petition by a father in Albuquerque whose son had been killed by the police. The petition made it sound as if the son was one of many who had met the same fate."

The trick to using history in journalism

Ben Franklin sculpture (University of Pennsylvania)

Harvard historian and New Yorker writer Jill Lepore, biographer of Benjamin Franklin's little sister Jane, annotates her story “The Prodigal Daughter,” in which she weaves her mother's history and Jane Franklin's into a single layered narrative, drawing heavily upon her many years of archival research: "The parts of the book that get imported into the essay are like the reduction of a sauce that has been simmering so long you don’t even remember turning on the stove.”

When it's OK to give away the ending

Lobster boats

Paul Tough made an unusual decision in the first sentence of his story, "A Speck in the Sea," about a man suddenly cast adrift in the ocean. The decision: He revealed that the man survived. Tough explains to Steven Wilmsen why he did that, and how it fundamentally changed his story: "Once it became a story not about whether he survived but how he survived, then there were lots of little dramas to consider within that overarching narrative."

A young girl yearns for her home

Syrian village image via Shutterstock

Abeer al-Najjar, the child of a refugee, analyzes a story by Susan Dominus about a 12-year-old Syrian refugee girl named Hana, whose days of manual farm labor are mingled with dreams of home: "This narrative speaks to the universal merit of journalistic works which help us not just be conscious of but cherish other humans. We dive with Dominus into Hana’s physical experience — 'the almonds were stubborn, resisting her fingers' — and into her soul and consciousness."

On the psychology of a good story

Brain with puzzle piece missing, image via Shutterstock

Maria Popova cites psychologist Jerome Bruner on the cognitive roots of narrative: "A good story and a well-formed argument are different natural kinds. Both can be used as means for convincing another. Yet what they convince of is fundamentally different: arguments convince one of their truth, stories of their lifelikeness. The one verifies by eventual appeal to procedures for establishing formal and empirical proof. The other establishes not truth but verisimilitude."