Friday, 6 July 2012

Workshop: Narrative Reporting

I am a writer, first and foremost, and so I tell stories. But sometime in my teens I reasoned that if I wanted to make money from writing, I might have to venture into journalism for a day job. That never really happened on a full-time basis (I gave it a whirl for 18 months or so), but I have maintained a presence as a freelance journalist ever since. Though it will never be the entirety of my work (journalism simply doesn't pay that much and the jobs are highly competitive), it will certainly always be part of it. News reporting, I've discovered, doesn't really appeal to, but feature writing, travel writing, reviewing and opinion pieces flow naturally for me, and I enjoy them.

As a storyteller, however, there can be a tension in reporting. Real life doesn't always lend itself to narratives. When you tell stories with real lives, you run the risk of trivilising them, or oversimplifying them, or drawing conclusions that are too black and white.

'Building narrative in reporting is the toughest challenge. Facts are messy and don't yield to the demands of story' writes Evan Wright at Omnivoracious. In the article, Wright discusses those writers who have shaped his work in narrative reporting. It makes for an interesting read.

Wright makes some fine points, of which the most important seems to be: don't be reductive. Complex narratives (which are what real life stories always are) resist easy conclusions.

Here's a little workshop exercise for those of you up for the task. Find a real life story. It might be in the newspaper or on TV. It may be a story someone has told you in person. Whatever, go find it. Then take the story's principle character (I resist saying hero, because they might not be) and interview them. Interview them in real life if you know them, otherwise write a fictional interview. Get inside the character's head as a real life human being. Doing as much research in constructing your interview questions as you can, and then let the answers flow from the story and your understanding of what they think happened.

Let your final interview stand alone as a piece of faction, or use it to inform a longer piece of writing, using your answers as a resource for developing character and perspective. An interesting project would be to collect such interviews into a series of imagined Q&As with real and/or historical figures.

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