Details. The Write Stuff loves reporting details that put readers at the scene or help them understand what makes a person, business or organization work. We’re reminded of the standing orders to reporters at the St. Pete Times to “get the name of the dog.’’
That wisdom has been passed down by Roy Peter Clark and others. Such details add authenticity to your story and help produce compelling writing. We’ve got lots of good examples this week. Here, Mat Warren in the New York Times painted a vivid picture of a funeral of a Thai-born U.S. soldier:
While four Buddhist monks in orange robes chanted and fanned incense, family members and friends gathered in a Queens funeral home to pray for the soldier, Chirasak Vidhyarkorn, an Army specialist. Sitting silently, mourners bowed their heads before his coffin, which was draped in an American flag. White and yellow Thai orchids surrounded the coffin, and a small statue of the Buddha sat on a mantel underneath a picture of the soldier in his uniform.
Annaliese Griffin painted on a more expansive canvas in her profile of film director Abel Ferrara in The Reeler. Here she describes the apartment of Ferrara’s partner in a documentary film and weaves in detail about Ferrara:
A green vintage couch separated the living room — overflowing with camera equipment — from her dining room workspace, which is also home to a life-size plastic Simpsons family. A few minutes later Ferrara came down from the apartment he’s staying in upstairs, trailed by his girlfriend Shanyn Leigh (a slender redhead whom the director cast as one of Go Go Tales’ dancers) and production designer Frank DeCurtis. Ferrara tucked an orange Adidas T-shirt into his Wranglers as he drained a beer, introduced himself, briefly talked shop with Gatien and then disappeared to see about an interview with a long-time resident.
Barry Paddock used numbers to suggest how Mark Israel’s doughnut business had grown from the days he worked alone inside his tenement basement in the East Village:
Inside the store and bakery, at 379 Grand St., a staff of seven produces some 2,000 doughnuts a day in round-the-clock shifts. A driver ferries the bulk of them by van each morning to 40 gourmet Manhattan stores. The rest are sold in the bakery’s small storefront…
None of these stories involved a dog but, had there been one, it’s a good bet these reporters would’ve gotten its name.
One of the principal writing weaknesses we see here is the lack of transitions. A quick definition, offered by Prof. Strasser, is that transitions are the mortar between the bricks of your story. You also need to recognize when you need a transition: namely when you come to a paragraph that seems to contradict what you just said, or at least veers from the theme. Here’s an example from writing coach Jack Hart in his book, A Writer’s Coach, in which one paragraph talks about counseling and the next about paying bills:
“A couple of years of counseling at the VA hospital left his vocabulary salted with the syntax of self-help. But syntax doesn’t settle bills.”
The repetition of a key word in the two paragraphs creates an effective transition. But some words of caution here: Try to avoid words or phrases that signal a transition to the reader but don’t say or add anything to the story. Examples: “Indeed,” “On the other hand,” “Moreover.” Many times you don’t need those words or phrases. The rest of the sentence should be able to speak for itself as a transition. If it doesn’t, then you don’t have a strong transition.
The word “but” can extremely effective, as used in the Hart example above. But many times, it’s just tossed in to signal a transition without relating to the thought in the previous sentence. Here’s an example of how not to use “but”:
Harry Smith is a great writer. But he’s unhappy with his cell phone service.
Another critical part of building unity in your story is through the so-called nut graf, the graf that provides the context and roadmap for the reader about why this story matters. Some call it the “so-what” graf; some dub it the “Joe (or Jane) is not alone” graf. If you’re profiling Joe or Jane, and you’re telling readers about their lives, it’s critical to tell readers why they matter in a larger context. If you’re able to do that, and include the main elements of the story to come in your nut graf, then you’ve built the device by which you can seamlessly stitch your story together.