29.03.18

On story-telling - we hear from two experts by experience

As part of our on-going training at the Bureau, we spent part of Monday (and the week before) discussing how to work on our story-telling techniques. It's particularly tricky for us as investigative journalists, as the need to put the revelations at the top can be seen to fight with the desire to craft an immersive narrative. We've been lucky enough to discuss these thorny issues with two experts in the craft, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, Mike Rezendes, and award-winning writer and journalist, Brian Cathcart. They both visited our offices to give us a sense of how to surface narrative in investigative journalism. 

Mike Rezendes used an arresting phrase to talk about his story-telling technique: “find the mule who will carry the story”, emphasising that real people like to read about other other real people - and that writing can get dry without narrative. He talked about the importance of painting scenes in narrative journalism: “you need to hook 'em and hold 'em”, he said. He added: “We are in service to tell our story in a compelling way”, comparing it to a “legal brief with colour”. This was a call to arms for well-told journalism in the public interest and he ended by saying: “We employ novelistic techniques to tell our stories”, so that the pacing works and readers stay with the narrative. 

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Brian Cathcart settled down with us in the office to run a longer seminar on story-telling - and started by saying that narrative story-telling is the opposite of news journalism, where you “throw your best stuff in the first 30 words”. He added: “News readers are in a hurry, whilst with narrative story-telling it's an explanation and you are trying to engage people with a story that will unfold.” Whilst news stories are “bold and hard”, he said, “story-telling has charm, it should be a pleasure to read.”

He talked about the importance of smooth writing, using the analogy of a helter-skelter: “The reader should be carried along - you have to polish the surface so they don't stop along the way.”

He explained that for him: “Narrative is an investigative tool: it's not just about getting the fact in order, but about explaining how things happened and why.”

He said that he felt that a key tool for story-telling was constructing a timeline - which then helps in sitting back and seeing the story more clearly. 

One way of starting a story, he continued, was to pick out a detail, sometimes absurd, which can sum up the story in a vivid image. He gave the example of an article by the Toronto Star journalist, Michelle Shephard, who wrote about the family of the so-called Jihadi Jack. She began her story, with a detail about how friends wanted to help the family, who were broke and how they were not allowed to give them money for rent. There was then a surreal discussion with the police about whether giving the family cheese was a support for terrorism. 

He went on to talk about the importance of pausing on “areas of controversy. It's fine to say that there is lots about a story that we don't understand. Be fair to your reader.”

He agreed that creating characters and scenes were key to pace a story - including details that might be random but which not only provide additional colour but throw light on the overall narrative. 

Signposting was key, Cathcart continued, especially where the narrative is tangled. He pointed to the particularly tricky situation he had faced when writing about the murder of teenager Stephen Lawrence, in his award-winning book, The Case of Stephen Lawrence. Witnesses were not identified, they remembered things differently and the eye-witness evidence was confused. Whilst he never had a mule to carry the story, as Rezendes termed it, he used the eye witnesses' evidence as “links in a chain”. It wasn't easy to do but by working it out it showed how all that the witnesses saw on the street the night that Stephen Lawrence was murdered was interlinked. 

He finished by saying that it was fine to “jump through the boring bits...go on to the next scene.”

Abigail Fielding-Smith raised the problem of how to tell an investigation through narrative, given that there was such a drive towards the revelations. Cathcart said that he appreciated the difficulty, but that it doesn't work to tag a news story onto a narrative - either for the reporter or for the reader. 

Mel Newman raised the issue of legalese in investigative story-telling, and Cathcart said it was important “not to let the lawyer be the writer - provide alternative solutions, offer new versions, navigate your way round”. 

Megan Lucero asked about how to scale stories for different audiences, from a tweet to a long-form piece. Cathcart felt that scaling wasn't the answer - cherry-picking for different audiences worked better, he thought. He cited John le Carre talking about one of his works being adapted and feeling that it was like taking a cow and turning it into an Oxo cube. 

There was a general discussion about weaving narrative and investigation together. “Narrative is not just a tool for story-telling, but for investigation as well”, Cathcart felt, although he added that sometimes considering whether other genres could work better for particular stories, whether that was a graphic or an image, could reap dividends. 

He ended by saying that a good writer can stand back from their story and see it from the outside - does it hold interest, is it the right length, for instance. That ability helps to weave a narrative that will sustain interest. 

Header image of Mike Rezendes of the Boston Globe, other image of the Bureau team with Brian Catchcart. Both by Meirion Jones. 

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