September 5, 2007

Know your story limits before getting started

Tom Hallman Jr.

Imagine you’re remodeling your kitchen. You look through magazines and examine top-of-the line appliances that you know will look perfect. Then, the contractor shows up and asks about your budget. If you have $100,000, no problem.

But what if you have just $10,000?

That’s the way it is when we approach stories. How long can I make this story? It’s a question I ask my editors, not because I’m looking to always get 50 inches. The answer helps me determine what approach I’m going to take.

Writing is about choices. If your editor says you have 100 inches, the options are unlimited. But if you get 20 or less, then you have to start cutting. And it’s best to start thinking about those cuts when you approach the story, not when you’re at the computer trying to wring 10 inches out of what you consider a masterpiece.

The mantra in narrative writing is to show, don’t tell. But scenes that allow the reader to be with the character, to live out the moment, take space. If you have 20 inches, there’s no way you can pull off a multiple-scene story.

That’s where writers new to narrative often get into trouble. They open with a terrific scene but run out of space to develop the story. It would be better to make structural choices at the outset because it will guide your reporting.

Let me give you an example. This is the opening of my four-part series, “Sam: The Boy Behind the Mask.” Each story was about 80 inches.

The boy sits on the living room sofa, lost in his thoughts and stroking the family cat with his fragile hands. His younger brother and sister sit on the floor, chattering and playing cards. But Sam is overcome by an urge to be alone. He lifts the cat off his lap, ignoring a plaintive meow, and silently stands, tottering unsteadily as his thin frame rises in the afternoon light.

He threads his way toward the kitchen, where his mother bends over the sink, washing vegetables for supper. Most 14-year-old boys whirl through a room, slapping door jambs like backboards and dodging around furniture like imaginary halfbacks. But this boy, a 5-foot, 83-pound waif, has learned never to draw attention to himself. He moves like smoke.

He stops in the door frame leading to the kitchen and melts into the late-afternoon shadows.

Dim light is a refuge.

He watches his mother, humming as she runs water over lettuce. The boy clears his throat and says he’s not hungry. His mother sighs with worry and turns, not bothering to turn off the water or dry her hands. The boy knows she’s studying him, running her eyes over his bony arms and the way he wearily props himself against the door frame.

She’s been watching him like this since he left the hospital.

Contrast that with the opening of this recent story:

What they get is a bag of soil, a few flowers and maybe a couple of plants thrown in for good measure. Considering all they’re up against, that doesn’t seem nearly enough. But people suffering from depression or other mental illness look for hope where they can find it.

On this day it arrived about 10:30 in the morning when a car pulled up outside a Gladstone home.

Kathy Fredrickson, watching from inside, stepped into a front yard she hadn’t used in years because of a depression so severe that it left her unable to deal with people. She smiled and waited for the driver, who walked through the gate with an armload of lilacs and petunias.

Treating a mental illness can be challenging. Medication and counseling aren’t always enough.

How a person copes with the world is as important as what’s going on in their head, and counselors are always looking for ways to bring patients out of the shadows. Last month, a Portland group that helps those with mental illness decided to give people plants and flowers. By nurturing them — literally getting in touch with the life cycle — the theory goes, people grappling with mental illness might also heal parts of themselves.

In that opening, I do far more telling than showing. The story was about 22 inches. And the story has a nut graph that allows me to tell the reader what the theme of the story is about. The best narrative stories don’t have nut graphs. The nut graph is the story itself.

But in short pieces, writers don’t have that luxury. A shorter story, by the way, doesn’t lack the power to reach readers. I got many calls and letters on the story about flowers.

The Quill
September 2007


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