The Secret Ingredient of Narrative Journalism? Asking Stupid Questions with Authority.

This blog was originally published by Third Verb in October 2016.

I took on an interesting assignment for Reader’s Digest this summer. It was not a career-changing story and few readers outside of the magazine industry would even notice my byline, let alone remember me for it.

It was a 2,200-word “Drama in Real Life” feature about a five-year-old girl who saved her mother and baby brother from a traumatic car accident. It was, by then, a year-old news story that had been reported on in far fewer words by virtually every Canadian media source and countless English-language tabloids, including Dr. Oz, Inside Edition and People magazine. Now I had to retell the family’s story, quite literally, by recreating the moment of the accident beat-by-beat, and everything in this girl’s life the built up to it.

Essentially, I had to distill it to the fundamentals of storytelling: characterization, plot, conflict, tension, resolution. It should read like a work of fiction, but adhere to journalistic standards of accuracy. (The last story I wrote for Reader’s Digest, after all, was a Christmas memoir that would involve the fact-checker speaking to both my mom and my sister to ensure that I didn’t make anything up — including the 2pac album in my stocking, in order to verify the timeline.)

Anyone who reads the institutional magazine is familiar with this column called Drama in Real Life. It’s Reader’s Digest’s signature feature and I’d read my fair share. The level of detail in these stories are nothing short amazing. But I’d never actually stopped to think what goes into them until I agreed to write one myself. I knew immediately that I would be asking lots and lots of stupid questions.

I’ve been writing narrative journalism (a.k.a. literary journalism, a.k.a. “new journalism,” a.k.a. long-form articles, a.k.a. creative nonfiction) for five years now. There’s a technique I’ve developed to prepare subjects for the laborious job ahead, which I think I stole from Chris Jones, who might’ve mentioned it during a conference seminar or in a profile (I can’t remember!). But, anyway, here it is: I warn my subject’s that I’m going to ask lots and lots of stupid questions.

What I mean by that is, I’m going to ask you about the things that seem irrelevant to why we’re here. I’m going to mine you for minutia. I’m going to ask you about the colour of things. About song lyrics. About the time of day when you did so and so, and whether it was your first time doing so and so, and what your first time doing so and so was like, and who taught you to do so and so, and how do you feel when you do so and so, and so on. (I also let them know we’re going to need a lot of time for this story.)

Take, for instance, this passage of my Reader’s Digest article published in the October 2016:

Angela Shymanki was making great time. It was 8:30 a.m. and the kids were fed. The eight-seat Honda Pilot SUV was fuelled and packed with all the necessities for a road trip: a pop-up tent, toys and snacks for five-year-old Lexi and, for 10-week-old Peter, a pink blanket, formula and seven days’ worth of clothes — all of which had been worn. No matter, thought Angela. It was 26 C in central Alberta — the hottest June 8 on record — so her infant would better endure the eight-hour drive home to Prince George, B.C., in diapers only.

[…] It was an important trip for Lexi, too. The morning they had left Prince George — June 1, 2015 — marked the beginning of the 100-day countdown to kindergarten. Angela was keen to make every day fun; by week’s end, Lexi had seen gorillas at the Calgary Zoo, picnicked with cousins, gotten dizzy on amusement park rides and made sandcastles at the beach. It would only get better upon her return: Travis was set to surprise Lexi, a bubbly little girl who shared her mother’s golden hair and bright blue eyes, with a three-and-a-half-metre outdoor pool he’d built on the family’s acreage. Angela couldn’t wait for their daughter to become her newest waterborne student.

Because I forewarned Ms. Shymanski about my line of questioning, she offered a lot of close details herself (eg: Peter ran out of clothes, but because it was such a hot day, she thought he’d be fine in just diapers.)

Now here’s a list of some questions I asked Ms. Shymasnky either during our first interview or in followups:

  • What time did you leave?
  • What type of car? Year? Colour?
  • What did you bring along on the trip? What colour was the blanket?
  • What did Lexi do at the zoo? Who did she picnic with?
  • What colour are Lexi’s eyes?
  • What sort of house do you live in? How many acres?

Not every answer was used, of course (eg: the year and colour of the SUV would make its description a mouthful). Still, I didn’t gather enough and my editor had a few questions for me too. I’m paraphrasing, but here they are:

  • Date and year that they left Prince George?
  • What did she do at the beach? Sandcastles?

There are 39 more paragraphs to this story, so you can imagine how many followups and seemingly irrelevant questions I had to ask. I’ll be honest, I don’t normally gather this much minutia; the level of detail in these Drama in Real Life stories is daunting. And yet the effect is incredible: the story unravels so naturally that the minutia becomes an invisible part of the larger effect of telling a strong narrative.

Great narrative journalism is almost indistinguishable from short fiction. Almost, because most often you’ll still need to cite your sources, bounce around to secondary interviews, and follow a format that makes it apparent that this is a work of journalism and the facts are equally paramount to the reader’s experience. But because the reader’s experience is given so much weight, it does not have to be stodgy and conform to the so-called “inverted pyramid” of facts found in most newspapers.

Read “The Littlest Hero” in Reader’s Digest.

If you’re looking for more feature writing advice, I recorded a 2-hour tutorial called “The Secrets of Long-form Features” for Pandemic University School of Writing. You can purchase access to the class, plus all my notes and tip-sheet, for $10 CAD.

Author, journalist, and documentary filmmaker

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