Subscribe to RSS - Narratives

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."

The top narrative conferences of 2016

Conference room audience image via Shutterstock

"From the practical to the inspirational, these events offer something for journalists looking to improve their storytelling, no matter the medium or the format," Michael Fitzgerald writes in an introduction to Nieman Storyboard's annual list of conferences focusing on narrative journalism. Included are Boston University's "The Power of Narrative," with Gay Talese and Mary Roach, the Mayborn conference in Texas, and others in various states and three foreign countries.

Putting a face on the homeless

Homeless person image via Shutterstock

April Reese interviews Faith Kohler, a law enforcement agent turned filmmaker, about 30 Seconds Away, her study of homelessness. At one point, Kohler explains how she decided to do her narration: "I cringe when I hear the sound of my own voice. I can’t tell you how many tries it took me to get that right in the studio … But I don’t know if it would have been as compelling to the audience or got their attention without [them] knowing this was very personal to me."

A brief survey of literary journalism

Type blocks image via Shutterstock

Josh Roiland annotates the syllabus for his class, “Literary Journalism in America,” explaining why he has selected each of several dozen articles he assigns: "In many ways, the course is easy to teach because the stories are so compelling that everyone always completes the assigned readings and we have amazing conversations in class. I still get regular messages from former students as they discover new writers or works that remind them of something we read in class."

Moving from journalist to playwright

Theater seats image via Shutterstock

Twin sisters Margaret and Allison Engel used to write for newspapers. Now they're the authors of a successful play about the late Texas columnist Molly Ivins, starring Kathleen Turner among others, and are working on plays about Erma Bombeck and Damon Runyon, Laura Collins-Hughes writes: "Even as playwrights have borrowed techniques from journalism to create such work, journalists have recognized an opportunity to transfer their well-honed skills to a different medium."

A new collection of newspaper narratives

The Best American Newspaper Narratives cover

Roy Peter Clark discusses a worthy heir to his old Best Newspaper Writing series, a book called The Best American Newspaper Narratives, edited by Mayborn conference director George Getschow, of whom Clark writes: "He places these contemporary narratives in a historical context, tracing the impulse for storytelling in journalism back to the 19th century in the work of Mark Twain, Lafcadio Hearn (whom every storyteller in journalism should read), and Stephen Crane."

Narrative journalism tips from Mayborn

Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference logo

From Charles Scudder on Nieman Storyboard, a series of reports on this year's Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference: Caleb Hannan discusses his 2014 "Dr. V" story for Grantland; Dan Barry on how video can improve narrative journalism; Jeff Chang on writing about race in an era of social media; George Getschow on how great writers craft scenery; and four Pulitzer Prize winners talk about how the award affects their work.