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Star-Trib’s Laurie Hertzel at #BUNarrative: “Write with a camera angle”

Laurie Hertze

While many sessions at the Power of Narrative Conference in Boston last week discussed abstract ideas about storytelling and voice, Laurie Hertzel’s session called Narrative Glue gave attendees six you-can-actually-do-this tips for crafting better narratives. “I’m your practical grunt for the day,” quipped Hertzel, who is the books editor for the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Here’s an overview of her advice.

 

Write with a camera angle. To make the reader feel like he or she is in the center of a scene’s action, think like a moviemaker, suggested Hertzel. “Aim your camera at what’s important and use different lenses, pan around the room, show a couple of people in motion,” she said. This allows the writer to zoom in one person or action and zoom out as needed to move between actions or people and tell the story in a dynamic way.

Use both scene and summary. Technical writers are told to “show, don’t tell” (perhaps because they do too much of the latter) but Hertzel said it’s necessary to do both, showing through scenes and telling through summary. “Scene are used when you want to put readers in the moment,” she explained. “Summaries cover spans of time and stitch scenes together.” Summaries also give readers information they need to know but don’t need to actually see.

Use telling details and metaphor. Scenes should unfold moment by moment but the journalist needs to carefully choose which details to include. In the opening of a Star Tribue article about a troubled teen, reporter Larry Oakes includes the fact that the teen’s dog is unnamed, which serves as a telling detail. With each scene, Hertzel said journalists should ask themselves, “Why am I telling this scene? Who are the main characters? What happens and why is it important?” She added that description should fold into action so it becomes part of the movement of the scene, like in a New York Times story about two elderly sisters begging on the streets of Brooklyn.

Vary your pace. “You don’t want all scenes to move at the same steady pace,” said Hertzel. Shorter sentences and a clipped pace creates urgency and drama in a scene with a lot of action, for instance, while longer, more detailed sentences create a slower pace and allow the reader more time to process.

Move forward and backward in time. As long as it doesn’t confuse the reader, Hertzel said, it’s perfectly fine to move forward and backward in time. A New York Times piece about a mother forced to choose between throwing her baby to a stranger below or losing her in a fire moves between descriptions of the stranger’s high school football career, him racing outside to the fire and the scene of the fire itself. The central question of the piece—what does the mother do?—isn’t resolved until the very end of the piece.

Know where to end your scene. In transitioning between scene and summary, Hertzel recommended pivoting away from the scene during a powerful moment to keep the reader interested and keeping the summary short enough that it doesn’t frustrate the reader. A New York Times article about the stresses of working as an air traffic controller skips ahead to summary at several climactic moments. Scenes that drag on for too long can bore a reader. “You want the reader to keep moving into end of scene,” said Hertzel.

 

About Susan Johnston

Susan Johnston is a Boston-based freelance writer whose work appears in Bankrate.com, The Boston Globe, The Christian Science Monitor, MediaBistro.com, Parade Magazine, and SELF, among other places. She is the author of The Urban Muse Guide to Online Writing Markets and blogs at The Urban Muse.

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