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June Editors’ Roundtable: The Washington Post finds order in chaos

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For the first Roundtable of the month, our editors looked at “Ala. tornado twists two families together” by Stephanie McCrummen from The Washington Post. The story, published early in May, covers an unusual connection between strangers after a twister roared through Rainsville, Ala.

We’ve switched things up a little this installment, freeing editors from a pesky word count and asking them to pick out one device or idea that they wanted to focus on rather than looking at the whole story. They didn’t see each other’s comments as they wrote, and haven’t yet read the reporter’s reflections on how the piece came together. Tomorrow we’ll post our interview with McCrummen [update: the interview is now up], but here we offer our editors’ thoughts. (For bios on the members of the Roundtable, see our January post.)

Kelley Benham
Enterprise editor, St. Petersburg Times

On writing about emotion:

Ah, here in the bag of downers that marks the recent tornado coverage, we find this heartwarming, uplifting story to renew our faith in humanity.

And here are some words that never appear in the story: Heartwarming. Uplifting. Faith in humanity.

This is the kind of story that makes your heart swell, makes you dash off a check to the Red Cross and hide your sniffles. But emotion is difficult to conjure. You can’t force it, bludgeon it, demand it. All you can do it put the right elements in the right order, then hope the reader feels something.

Here, the writer builds emotion without stumbling into sentimentality by assembling a clean, focused narrative driven by action, in which every line is rooted in reported detail. ­

She uses action to establish the focus swiftly and cleanly. We are with Corey Plunkett and his wife surveying the devastation when we get the first key observation: “Everything was someone else’s.” Sense of place is established through action as well, by following the flight of paper on the wind.

When the emotion in the story is turned up, the writing is turned down. Corey Plunkett’s crying in the fifth paragraph is tucked into the middle of a sentence, in the position of least importance. Imagine by comparison bad television coverage we’ve all seen before, where the camera zooms in and lingers on the tears, like some kind of prize. Or the (sub)standard newspaper feature story, where tears glitter on cheeks, often like diamonds.

The language throughout is simple and specific. There are no fancy words, few adverbs, no clichés. Sentences mostly branch to the right. It can be tempting to pump in extra syllables, as if doing so would signal the reader that “This Is Important.” Better to pull back. My editor, Mike Wilson, says, “Two cheers for understatement.”

My favorite line, for its simplicity and restraint: “He put it on the shelf next to his antidepressants. He waited.”

Characters are established through detail, not generalizations. You can’t care about someone unless you know them, and the writer makes the introductions but allows the reader to own the conclusions. We see the wood paneling, the blanket covering the rips in the couch. We learn everyone’s income, without being told that anyone is poor. No one is labeled selfless or a hero.

The writer patiently allows the story to unfold. We learn about the characters as they learn about each other. We see the Alabama couple “conjuring” the couple in Tennessee. We learn only very late in the story that Charlie Thompson’s wife is in a wheelchair after a stroke, that his daughter has Down syndrome. Like the tears in the top of the story, these details are placed quietly in the paragraphs.

The quotes are as disciplined as the rest of the piece. The writer does not allow vague, lazy thought into the story just because it’s inside a quote mark. Best quote in the story: “Oh, Corey.”

Chris Hunt
Assistant managing editor, Sports Illustrated

On the pacing of details:

I was moved by this piece and especially impressed by the way the author advanced the story through the careful distribution of small, telling details. We learn things about the Plunketts and the Thompsons gradually, and it’s much more effective than being told all at once.

Little by little the details, reported matter-of-factly, often introduced indirectly – Corey is bearded and 25; he has a factory job; he’s frustrated because he can’t brush his teeth; he writes poems and regrets in a spiral notebook; he makes $360 gross a week – add up to a vivid portrait.

The same happens with Charlie and Melissa and Heather Thompson. A shelf on Charlie’s desk contains his antidepressants; the daughter sitting on the green couch has Down syndrome. Rather than be told at the start that Charlie struggles with depression and Melissa is physically disabled and Heather mentally disabled, we’re led to these facts by the wheelchair and the shelf and the couch, and the facts have no less impact for having been backed into.

The author trusts the reader, and the reader is rewarded with images that linger because they were allowed to do their job without intrusive rhetoric.

Tom Shroder
Founding editor, www.storysurgeons.com

On narrative unity:

I want to focus on the dramatic unity of Stephanie’s piece. Notice how the story begins: (first paragraph) On the first day . … (second paragraph) On the second day…

Biblical, and not just Biblical, but Old Testament-kick ass-and-distribute-plagues Biblical. In other stories, this could be a stretch, but considering the wrath of God destruction she’s writing about, it’s nearly perfect. They don’t call the most powerful tornadoes “the Finger of God” for nothing.

On the second day, in fact, comes the key paragraph for consideration:

On the second day, they sorted through the fragments in the bright sun: ripped photos of strangers, a piece of someone else’s mattress, someone else’s medicine. When the wind blew, shards of fiberglass from someone else’s house stung their faces. Everything was someone else’s; their stuff was mostly gone.

Notice the very understated “under the bright sun” detail – Let there be light, anyone? We’ve gone from “shredded debris under a blackened sky” (aka “formless void”) to the bright sun, and a world fully populated with stuff. But there’s one phrase relating to all that stuff that is repeated four times: “someone else’s.”

This is no mistake, or redundancy; this scattering of “someone else’s” stuff triggers the action of the story. And as a stranger forms a not very rational but hugely human connection with the random “someone else” whose pay stub is blown to his doorstep, you can feel it all building to a place of great significance.

The voyage is nicely restrained. You see the collection of care packages – not of store-bought items, but personal items – stuff. The care packages arrive with more of an emotional impact than a practical one. You can see the connections being made as the lives upended by the catastrophe shift slightly and begin to settle in the new reality.

And then you get to the fabulous and well-earned unity that brings it all together and guarantees this story will mean something to many people.

The point is this: That a storm, an act of God, scatters someone else’s stuff literally to the winds; but that an almost equally powerful force, human empathy, collects someone else’s stuff and sends it back in the other direction, the direction of hope and resilience. Note the restraint, but also note the precision with which the point is driven home:

He pulled out Heather Thompson’s dolls, and Melissa Thompson’s blouse and Charlie Thompson’s shirts. He pulled out new toys for his daughters. He pulled out razors, and a brand-new Crimson Tide cap, which the Thompsons knew Corey would like because they had found photographs of him on the Internet wearing one.

“I needed a hat,” Corey said to himself, not realizing.

He emptied the boxes until the only thing left was the plain white envelope, “Corey” written on it in cursive. He opened it.

There was no note inside. No pay stub. Instead, there were $20 bills, which he fanned out and counted, $160 in all. He was quiet.

“Oh, Corey,” his dad said.

Corey Plunkett stared at all the belongings of strangers that were now his own.

Great use of dialogue in that last passage – so pared down but, because of context, so incredibly powerful and evocative of a whole world view.

Paige Williams
Narrative writing instructor, Nieman Foundation

On Voice:

I was thrilled to see a Stephanie McCrummen story come to the Roundtable. When McCrummen covered Africa, her important and extremely difficult pieces were studies in precision reporting and detail, but what has always struck me about her writing is the powerfully restrained voice.

We already know that dramatic events – hurricanes, homicide, war – tempt us to overdramatize the storytelling. While there are obvious exceptions (Michael Herr’s rollicking, slightly panicked voice in Dispatches, for instance), placid delivery can work an elegant, authoritative spell. McCrummen’s almost fairytale-like voice (the use of words such as “cottage;” the structural mileposts of “On the first day…”) is at once calm and confident, and without pretension. The pairing of the straightforward delivery and mileposts work together to move us through the story without seeing the writer at work or feeling manipulated. In other words, power comes from strong, accessible language and carefully chosen juxtapositions: “alien” and “wasteland” suggest the scope of the change that has come to the Plunkett family; the wedding veil and tree limbs suggest promise and life, upended; the deft black-sky stroke doesn’t just function as description, it suggests finality and sets up an avenue for narrative arc. If the sky is black now, will things get better? What we really want from a good narrative is to find out what happens next, and McCrummen preps us with almost lulling subtlety, not with a hammer to the temple.

By sticking to a less-is-more tone – “Everything was someone else’s; their stuff was mostly gone” – she shows allegiance to the story and its inhabitants, and respect for the reader. She’s not trying to move us; she built her story and then let it do its job.

Smart-bomb detail functions as an element of her voice. McCrummen wouldn’t have been able to build such a strong story without wide-awake reporting. She’s the kind of writer who knows when to avoid laying down a speed bump of distracting detail or device, when not to include a detail just to prove she has it in her notebook. Better yet, her smart-bombs make quick, seamless points about big concepts. By writing that Plunkett sat at his parents’ trailer (not their “kitchen table” or “home”) she cues us to lifestyle/economics – i.e., class. Nothing elaborate here, just a dollop of information without resorting to exposition. Another example: “… the pale-green paper from Corey Plunkett’s factory job…” – a kitchen-sink writer might’ve unnecessarily overlaid this with “where he works as a die caster,” etc. McCrummen is able to write with assurance and authority because of how she observes story and how she renders it: the pay stub didn’t fly above “billboards and pastures” but rather above “blank billboards and cow pastures and rising ridges.” That passage works gorgeously for its alliteration and specificity – ridges by nature rise, but here the cadence numbs us to the redundancy. Writing that Plunkett opens not just a knife but rather a hunting knife echoes the theme of survival.

Calculated restraint: Sometimes when writers choose to restrain themselves you get the feeling they’re trying to channel Hemingway or be someone they’re not. McCrummen is McCrummen. So by the time I get to the single-sentence graf “Alone in the quiet, the tattooed, bearded 25-year-old cried, and then began typing” I’m with her.

As a device, the single-sentence graf has its place but tends to be overused, especially in newspapers. The device often shows the writer banging a gong, as if to say right here I want you to cry – GONG! right here I want you to gasp – GONG! We’ve all been guilty of it, but maybe we should kick away this particular crutch a little more often. The abovementioned McCrummen graf isn’t a gong graf and here’s why: Instead of simply imparting information or trying to deliver a bolus of emotion, the sentence pivots the action forward. And the short passage of single-sentence grafs that soon follows – “First he thought: ‘My God, this has come all the way from Alabama’” and “Then, slightly sickening: ‘Gosh, I wonder if this person is okay’” – works because McCrummen is using the device as structure, in order to show thought progression and advance the narrative.

Integrity: Maybe above all I appreciated that McCrummen embraced the fact that no one could have traced the pay stub’s journey, not really. By writing that the pay stub “was probably sucked into the half-mile funnel” and “somehow floated north” and “probably over Interstate 59” and “must have crossed the Tennessee River,” etc., she gracefully shows true journalistic chops and builds reader trust.

Maria Carrillo
Managing editor, The Virginian-Pilot

On focus:

Journalists too often fail to seize opportunities like this one. We cover the BIG story from 3,000 feet, and it leaves readers feeling understandably detached. Whether the subject is a storm or war or recession, we need to take our lens and focus as tight as possible.

Say to one scrap of paper.

I applaud Stephanie McCrummen – and her editor – for seeing the story. For understanding that this random connection between two families had the potential to illustrate the devastation more than a sweep of the countryside.

It all starts there. The reporter has to make a choice about what the “story” is and then report for that story. That’s instead of unloading a notebook full of facts and observations and interviews with people who say it sounded like a freight train coming through. What you get with that approach is a story that’s a mile wide and an inch deep.

What we want is a story that’s an inch wide and a mile deep. That’s how you reveal that helplessness is having no toothbrush and losing the journals where you scrawled your secrets. And how you discover what drives someone to care less about himself than a stranger whose name appears on a pay stub. The more focused the story, the deeper the reporter can go, the better the chance that it will deliver an emotional wallop.

So far, this has been the most memorable of all the tornado stories I’ve seen this year. There are many reasons why (other editors will highlight some of those), but first and foremost, this writer had the courage to commit.

Tom Huang
Sunday and enterprise editor, The Dallas Morning News

On the importance of being there:

I tell reporters who are just starting out that – as good as they might be at working the phones and scouring the Internet for information – there’s nothing that replaces “being there.” Stephanie McCrummen demonstrates the benefits of traveling to both Rainsville and Hixson, and witnessing several scenes there.

Getting story ideas. I’d be interested to find out how McCrummen learned about the Plunketts and Thompsons. I’m willing to bet she heard about their e-mails when she got to Rainsville. More often than not, reporters get these story ideas by being out in the field, talking to a lot of people, and keeping their eyes and ears open for what intrigues them.

Gaining trust. McCrummen gained the trust of both families by visiting them and spending time with them. They were willing to show her things and tell her things that would be difficult to do with just a phone conversation. We learn that Charles Thompson has anti-depressants on his desk, that his wife has written him a love poem, that his family has a ripped leather couch, that his daughter has Down syndrome.

We learn more about his family’s financial situation:

When a guest comes, Thompson, who mistrusts the government and half-joked about the tornadoes being generated by a secret military project in Alaska, offers his desk chair. He used to work in a photo studio, but since his wife’s stroke, he stays home. They live on two disability checks totaling about $1,800 a month.

Evoking emotions. By being in Rainsville, McCrummen observed people’s emotions and the events surrounding them. She then evoked those feelings by putting the reader within the scene without explicitly labeling anything. Take, for example, the tonal shift between the church scene and the Plunketts in their field:

At Brown’s Chapel Baptist church, a preacher stood under a broad, broken oak and offered that God had not caused the tornadoes but was there to help people through the aftermath, and they all sang “Near the Cross.”

In the green field, Corey Plunkett and his wife continued to pick through debris, trying to make sense of things, starting with the idea of nothingness.

Developing plot. McCrummen develops her plot through short scenes and dialogue, all of which are hard to reconstruct simply through interviews. It’s hard to imagine that she could have crafted the ending of her story without being there:

He emptied the boxes until the only thing left was the plain white envelope, “Corey” written on it in cursive. He opened it.

There was no note inside. No pay stub. Instead, there were $20 bills, which he fanned out and counted, $160 in all. He was quiet.

“Oh, Corey,” his dad said.

——

Read our interview with Stephanie McCrummen – find out why she wanted bare-bones language and how her editor helped her nail the ending. And in two weeks, we’ll post our second Editors’ Roundtable for June.




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  1. [...] Skip to content AboutNieman FoundationContact UsNarrative DigestNotable NarrativesEssays on CraftSubscribeTwitter « June Editors’ Roundtable: The Washington Post finds order in chaos [...]

  2. [...] future of articles is unfolding, other editors are discussing storytelling techniques editors at Nieman Storyboard are discussing the craft points of an artfully told story, Stephanie McCrummen’s compelling [...]

  3. [...] We’re fine-tuning our Editors’ Roundtable, moving toward more frequent postings and smaller groups of editors looking at each story. As part of those changes, today we highlight our second June Roundtable (if you missed the first, you can see it here). [...]

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