What makes a good story?

©2008 Jean-Louis Blondeau / Polaris Images

In my effort to write stories rather than just articles, I have taken to watching movies – the best movies, my favorites – to study what makes a good story.  I haven’t yet deliberately taken notes, but I think I should start doing that.  I rent movies on amazon.com, and most recently re-watched 127 Hours.  I just finished re-watching Man on Wire.  I’ve now seen that movie about seven times (and spoken about it in Toastmasters meetings at least three times). The filmmakers lucked out in a few ways: for one, someone, and I assume it was Phillippe Petit’s friend Jean-Louis, had photographed and taped Petit’s previous exploits, his backyard practices and even their planning meetings, making it easy to visually reconstruct much of Petit’s past and the process that culminated in his walk between the twin towers.  Second, there’s simply no way to tell the story without it being awesome.  A first-grader could write about it and it would be thrilling.  What makes the film so well-told is how it’s constructed – what narration they chose, what photos or film clips they selected, whose interviews, etc.  And that’s what storytelling relies on.  You go out and report the hell out of a story and gather as much information, visual, written, second-hand, first-hand,  historical, contextual – whatever it takes.  Then you have to sort out the pieces that will tell the story clearly and compellingly.

So I’ve been thinking – do you take a look at the material you have, write a rough outline and fill it in with your material, or do you let the material kind of tell you how to map out the story?  I guess the answer depends on how your creative mind works.  I’m a novice at storytelling.  In fact, I’ve never attempted to write fiction because I feel like I’d just get lost in the plot details and forget who my characters are and what they do, etc.  I’d be scatterbrained.  My challenge now is to figure out how to tell true stories.  That involves not just the journalistic ideas of balance, context, clarity and so forth; it also requires me to decide what supports the themes and how to sequence the story so it’s compelling and clear.

Over the last couple of weeks I’ve spent a fair amount of time with the Mormon missionaries and their mission president.  I think I’ve found some common themes, but I really need time, more time and more interviews before I find the story.  Real story, not feature story.  This is uncharted territory for me and I want to do it right.  Fortunately, I spoke with Suzannah, my mentor, and she agreed with me that it doesn’t make sense to have the schedule of due dates we wrote into my contract simply because we couldn’t figure out what else to do.  That is such a relief because now I’m not forcing myself to meet a deadline but instead I can relax and learn the process of writing narrative.  I’m glad I took the step of reaching out to her to review how I should be working toward my degree.  I need to follow my instincts.  That’s the kind of degree it is.  And that’s the kind of writing I want to do.

Why do I talk so much?

I interviewed six people yesterday – such a long day!  In the morning I met with the LDS missionaries I’m writing about and I recorded that interview.  Then I went to Sugar Land and interviewed the Houston South LDS mission president and recorded that interview.  Came home and interviewed a source for the “family Toastmasters” article, but since that was on the phone I typed notes as we talked.  Then I interviewed that source’s mother (it being a family article) by Skype and recorded that.

Right now I’m listening to my interview with the missionaries and I’m groaning as I realize how much I talk when I should be letting the subjects talk!  I mean, there is a certain amount of wanting to make people feel comfortable with you that would stimulate chatting, but I just blathered on and on – and really, who cares about my opinions if the story’s not about me?  And for a Toastmaster, I say “you know” WAY too much.

At any rate, I have a Skype interview at 12:15 this afternoon, and after that it will be all writing all weekend…what a relief.  Both articles are ready to be pretty much done.  The school assignment has to be done by Monday, but the Chronicle article will include a photo shoot on Wednesday, taking photos of the missionaries in action drawing with chalk, and then that should be wrapped up.

[God, I’m still listening to this thing and I just can’t believe how much I’m talking – who cares what I’m interested in????  Why can’t I shut the heck up???]

Home…run?

The new issue of Islamic Horizons magazine is out.  My article on Houston Muslims is on page 38.  I’m happy it’s published but I’m having perhaps even more anxiety than I did while I was writing it; I’m sure I will hear from more than a few people that I should have included this or mentioned that…why didn’t you write about this? why did you use that photo?  Etc.  It is not easy writing about the town where you live.  I posted a link to the article on Facebook and we will just have to wait and see what responses I get.  Hopefully I won’t get beat up too much.