Replace the quotes – with what?
I’m reading Storycraft by Jack Hart, at the suggestion of my Goucher mentor, and it’s kind of blowing my mind as I try to free myself of standard journalistic writing and start writing more like a narrative journalist. One of the things I must re-think once, twice or perhaps three times is the use of direct quotes. Hart notes that the “pro forma” of standard journalism is to use direct quotes, but that is different from dialogue. When I reviewed the writing I’ve done to date on Mormons I realize it is written like a magazine article.
Yesterday I took my first step to change that, and it was with shaking hands that I deleted the quote that made up the third paragraph. Just took it out altogether. The piece did not fade into smoke and float away. It didn’t feel quite natural, but after a minute I adjusted and realized it was actually better, and the piece would work just fine without the magazine formula of alternating prose and direct quote.
Having freed myself by deleting the quote, the challenge was to replace it with something to personalize the story, to make it that missionary’s story. And that is not as easy as using the words the subject himself used. My first pass – and where I am now – was a corny statement (basically replacing his quote about doing what God wanted with a paragraph saying he was waiting to hear the voice of the holy ghost; trust me, it’s corny). I need to always imagine that I’m the reader, that I’m coming to the story with no knowledge of Elder Jensen but hearing about him for the first time. (That link is to the Houston Chronicle story I wrote with my initial reporting on the missionaries.)
Then I went ahead and deleted the next direct quotation, a few paragraphs down. It now reads like endless narration from “third person limited point of view,” as I learned from Hart’s book. I don’t hear Jensen’s voice at all, just me saying what he thought and did. So do I ever inject dialogue or quotes? More confusion. Fortunately, yesterday I had another interview with Jensen and now have more reporting to work with.
This process of learning narrative writing is far more painful than I ever imagined, and I’m getting nervous that three more semesters won’t be enough. I feel like I’m in kindergarten, actually.