Naming the dog: The art of narrative structure

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A few years ago, I adopted a puppy. I’d picked the runt of the litter and in the weeks that I waited for him to wean, I made a list of a dozen or so potential names. In the end, I used none of them. I needed to spend time with the dog before I knew whether he was a Baxter or a Jack or something else. Turned out, he was Oskar, a name that wasn’t on my list. I simply knew after a day or two that this was the perfect name for my dog.

For me, structuring a narrative feels like naming the dog. The structure falls out of the story itself. I can’t outline it in advance; I need to get deep into the story and the reporting first. I don’t know what I’m looking for, but I know it when I see it. Sometimes I recognize as it’s happening that a scene will become the lede that sets the stage for the story (like when a source’s father slapped me on the head); other times it’s something seemingly random, like a David Bowie tune on the radio that helps me articulate a story’s theme. Once I know what the story is about and have decided on a lede, I look for the ending. With those pieces in place, I start writing. Afterwards, I can look at the story and see that I’ve used a particular structure, but I find it impossible to set a structure and then write to it.

This process of mine works fine, but it can seem haphazard, and I’ve always had a vague notion that there must be a better way to approach structure. If anyone has a method, I figured it would be Sandy Blakeslee, the author of eight books and countless articles for the Science Times. Blakeslee was one of my first mentors, and she’s always struck me as a particularly organized and efficient writer.

When I called her recently to ask about her process, she confirmed that she always sketches out a structure before she writes. “It’s like a crutch for me, I need something to hang on to or else I’m wandering,” she says. “Some people say, ‘Oh, just start writing and don’t worry about how you put it together right away.’ I think that’s the worst advice you can give anybody, because if you don’t know where you’re going, you’re lost.” Before she writes, Blakeslee outlines the story’s beginning, middle and end and then relentlessly sticks to her outline.

Unlike Blakeslee, I never outline, but I do spend hours thinking about my story’s lede and narrative arc before I ever sit down to write. For every hour I spend writing, I spend many more fidgeting (or running or skiing) while turning the story over in my mind. Often I’ll deliberately focus on finding a lede and it’s no accident that my best ones have come to me while running or biking or walking the dog. Blakeslee admits she does this too, and our approaches may not be as different as they seem.

“You’re actually thinking about structure much earlier than you think you are,” says Tom French, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who teaches at Indiana University. “The moment you decide on the universe of your story, you’re making a decision about structure.” As an example, he points to his book, Zoo Story: Life in the Garden of Captives. He wanted the book to explore the notions of freedom and captivity, and when he learned that Lowry Park Zoo in Tampa was preparing to load 11 previously free-roaming elephants into crates to fly them across the ocean to their zoo, he decided that this elephant transfer would play a central role in his story. French’s decision to focus his book on this incident and the Tampa zoo in particular was a major structural decision that he made before he ever started writing. Read more »

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Creating characters on the page

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“There’s no better place to find characters than science,” Erik Vance says. He should know; he makes characters come alive on the page all the time. Vance, a freelance writer based in Mexico City, has covered a wilderness medic who is creating a nasal spray to buy time for snakebite victims, a whale biologist who specializes in cetacean autopsies, and a woman who spent her teenage years in a back brace and ponders the possibility of treating Parkinson’s patients using the placebo effect.

That makes Vance and other writers an invaluable resource for tips on creating a nonfiction character. How can a reporter best capture the details of a living, breathing person in the black-and-white of ink? Especially when that person is a scientist, whose stereotype is that of a boringly analytical character? Read more »

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Smooth scriptwriting

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shutterstock_113021359Like reporters on any beat, science journalists have the option of telling stories through a variety of media. Audio and video provide alternate ways of crafting compelling narratives. But writing for multimedia outlets involves a different set of skills than writing for print.

A group of science journalists and producers recently guided TON through the process of writing a successful science script. Through a series of emails, they shared their script-writing process — from choosing a medium, to piecing the story together, to clarifying interviews in post-production. And they highlighted common pitfalls that writers new to multimedia should watch out for. Read more »

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Ask TON: Using outlines and storyboards

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Welcome back for another installment of Ask TON. This week: Should you use an outline or a storyboard when planning to write a longer story? (Click here to read previous installments.)  Read more »

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A Day in the Life of John Timmer

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At the French-Swiss border, in the tunnels of the Large Hadron Collider.

John Timmer at the French-Swiss border, in the tunnels of the Large Hadron Collider.

Where I work:

I work in a home office in Brooklyn. Ars Technica runs online: we have a virtual office in an IRC channel and a staff-only IM server. I’m also available via Skype and Gtalk, since a lot of the writers are freelancers and don’t have access to the staff resources. Even though Ars is owned by Condé Nast, which is based in New York City, I’ve probably been in the corporate offices an average of less than once a year.

My home office has a desk, and I use that a lot of the time. I’ve got a tall filing cabinet that I can put my laptop on so I can read while standing. And, weather permitting, I spend some time on my balcony, which is lovely in the spring and fall (but too hot or cold in the other seasons). I’ve got enough focus that I can work on the subway or in parks and coffee shops, so I try to do a bit of that too, just to make sure I don’t end up feeling trapped in my office. Read more »

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Single Best: Cristine Russell

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Today we continue our series Single Best, where we ask top writer and editors to give us their single best piece of advice — given or taken, their single best idea, reporting trip or memorable experience. Here, science journalist Cristine Russell talks about the, er, breakthrough moment when she learned to avoid a certain science writing cliché. Russell is an adjunct professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and former president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing. Follow her on Twitter @russellcris.

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Tackling the physical sciences

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Imagine that you are a salesperson tasked with selling a special product. Most people know very little about the product, and many have had a bad experience with similar items. People can’t see what you are selling, and it is unlikely to impact their lives immediately.

Such is the plight of the reporter who covers the physical sciences. Science writers on this beat know its hazards, from having to describe the intricacies of quantum gravity to dealing with readers who hated chemistry in high school. Yet some journalists are still compelled accept the challenge, often driven by a love for a particular scientific field. Read more »

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Single Best: Charles Choi

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Today we continue our series Single Best, where we ask top writer and editors to give us their single best piece of advice — given or taken, their single best idea, reporting trip or memorable experience. Here, science journalist Charles Choi shares the writing concept that is “God.”

Choi is a longtime freelance science journalist who has reported for Scientific American, the New York Times, Science, Nature and many others. Follow him on Twitter @cqchoi.

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A Day in the Life of Brian Switek

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What I’m working on:

I swing back and forth between panicking over not having enough work and taking on too much. At the moment, I’m trying to find the joy in being swamped.

Writing my blog Laelaps for National Geographic is my primary gig. Everything else is freelance work, which consists of looking for new assignments while trying to tackle the ones I’ve already taken on. This week, that has meant filing stories on giant swimming sloths and a 28-million-year-old whale skull while finding time to run downtown for radio interviews on de-extinction and a giant Jurassic carnivore. I need to take some old stories about conservation paleobiology, the world’s small cats, and dinosaur size off the back burner, as well, not to mention pitching new stories. Read more »

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The first critic is you: Editing your own work

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Self-editing is a selfless endeavor. You cut, replace, rearrange and endlessly re-read — all for the reader’s benefit. “Journalism is all about having a sense of empathy with your audience,” says Dan Fagin, director of the Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program at New York University and Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Toms River: A Story of Science and Salvation. To achieve that connection with the audience, Fagin says, revise with readers in mind, always asking yourself “what they need, what they want, will they understand?”

As traditional journalism outlets’ budgets shrink and editors are being overextended, writers are asked to take increasingly larger roles in shaping their own stories. Whether you have the best editor in the world or no editor at all, self-editing is necessary to deliver the best story possible. Read more »

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Ask TON: Getting sources to open up

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Welcome back for another installment of Ask TON. This week, we ask experienced journalists how to get people to open up and talk like human beings. (Click here to see previous installments).

Scientists and other interviewees are often eager to talk about their work, but sometimes, ask a basic question and you’re left with answers like “that was explained in our paper.” And some sources are reluctant in general. They may not want to talk about controversial subjects; they may have been burned by other journalists, and are wary of the media; or they’re just difficult to approach. This can be difficult if your source is a key character in a feature story.

So, what can you do to break the ice?

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Tips to help your sources warm up to you and your questions. Read more »

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Single Best: Robin Lloyd

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Today we continue our series Single Best, where we ask top writer and editors to give us their single best piece of advice — given or taken, their single best idea, reporting trip or memorable experience. Here, science journalist Robin Lloyd shares a career turning point. Lloyd is online news editor at Scientific American. Follow her on Twitter @robinlloyd99.

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