What the heck is narrative journalism?

Constance Hale defines the literature of fact

I’ve taught narrative journalism at Harvard, organized conferences on the subject, written criticism about it, and practiced it for more than 20 years.

Yet the term “narrative journalism” makes me cringe.

It’s the word narrative that bugs me, because the term represents everything that this form of writing is not supposed to be. For starters, narrative smacks of academia. It’s abstract. No one knows what it means! It’s an example of people choosing a high-falutin word when a more straightforward one exists (storytelling).

But we seem to need a some name for articles and books that tell true stories. Other critics have come up with literary journalism, immersion journalism, creative nonfiction, literary nonfiction, and the literature of fact.

Does the name matter? I think it does. For starters, when we label a work “journalism,” we acknowledge that the writers are reporting on people and events outside themselves, and that they subscribe to certain ethical ideas (not making up quotes, being present at a scene they are sketching, confirming facts with multiple sources). Journalism suggests a paramount concern with factual truth.

Nonfiction is a broader category. It includes memoir and first-person essays and think pieces and arts reviews and Op-Eds and travelogues. The experience or opinion of the narrator is central. The pieces are as concerned with emotional truth as they are with factual truth.

Both narrative journalism and literary nonfiction borrow liberally from the traditions of poetry and fiction. In fact, that’s a good starting point for a definition: narrative journalism takes the techniques of fiction and applies them to reportage.

What does that mean? For starters, it means conceiving an article as a story, not as an inverted pyramid. (The classic structure of news journalism tells the reader in the first paragraph who, what, when, where, and maybe why, and then organizes the evidence in descending order of importance). A story is a graceful line rather than an inverted pyramid, it has an arc, a beginning-middle-end, a spine with limbs attached in just the right places.

Without a central storyline, there is no story. But many other literary techniques are involved in narrative journalism:

  • precisely painted scenes, to put the reader into the story;
  • fleshed-out characters to make the reader care about the story;
  • plot, or a series of actions that unfold over time and lead the reader toward an endpoint or realization;
  • paradox, to give the story twists and turns;
  • suspense, or techniques to keep the story taut and thrilling;
  • dramatic conflict (between characters, cultural forces, or communities);
  • artful language—shapely sentences to pull the reader through paragraphs and inventive metaphors to surprise him or her;
  • the presence of a narrator, what many call voice;
  • some sense of relationship to the reader, viewer, or listener, so that there is a connection between storyteller and audience.

But there’s more to narrative journalism than just these devices. From the get-go, it requires extensive reporting so that the writer can pull from many different sources and anecdotes to develop the various layers of a story. It requires a kind of authorial confidence (born of that reporting) that comes across as an assured voice. And it requires time—time to dig deep and time to think deep and time to rewrite and time to deliberate with an editor over choices. It also requires the alacrity that comes with experience, because all of this must be done on deadline.

More and more, literary journalism also involves thinking creatively about medium. Is this a story best told in plain text or in elegant type? Is it best told in print, where a reader can enter the current of the story and be swept along, or online, where the words can be married with graphics in thoughtful ways? Is it best told accompanied by sound and moving images?

Here are some recent works of literary journalism that impressed me:

Soldiers Face Neglect, Frustration At Army’s Top Medical Facility,” published in the Washington Post on February 18, 2007. Dana Priest and Anne Hull paint a vivid picture of the neglect at Walter Reed Army Medical Center starting in the very first paragraph.

The Peekaboo Paradox,” Washington Post, January 22, 2006.  Gene Weingarten is a character sketcher par excellence;  his story spirals ever deeper into one person’s story.

In a City Under Strain, Ladling Out Fortification,” New York Times, April 26, 2009. Dan Barry finds in the making of soup a clever way to let action unfold over time, and to give the full flavor of a mill town in decline.

Trial by Fire,” The New Yorker, September 7, 2009. David Grann brings the thrill of pulp fiction to investigative journalism.

After Life,” New York Times Magazine, September 25, 2005. The mistress of style, Joan Didion, shows how carefully chosen language and carefully crafted sentences enhance the power of a story. (This is an excerpt from Didion’s book The Year of Magical Thinking.)

Waiting for Death, Alone and Unafraid,” Los Angeles Times, April 3, 2009. Thomas Curwen artfully lets his print story be complemented by an audio slideshow. When the subject’s voice can be broadcast on the Web, the need for direct quotations diminishes, freeing the writer to craft an elegy.

Killer Blue—Baptized by Fire,” the Associated Press, 2008. Produced by Evan Vucci, this joint effort by reporters, photographers, and videographers shows multimedia at its best.

If you’re interested in sampling some longer work, try any one of the great reads listed in Online & On the Shelf.

—Constance Hale

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5 Responses to What the heck is narrative journalism?

  1. Jesus Mendoza November 9, 2010 at 9:28 pm #

    Fascinating read. Thanks for including the recent works of literary journalism.

  2. Connie Hale December 29, 2010 at 5:14 pm #

    In doing research for my next book, I am reading Christine Keneally’s book The First Word: The Search for the Origins of Language. Kenneally, herself a linguist, reports that the linguists Fred Lerdahl and Ray Jackendorf (who for 20 years was principal clarinet of Civic Symphony Orchestra of Boston) have sought to identify which elements of music—rhythm, structure of melody and harmony, emotion— arise from cognitive processes that are shared by language.

    Among their findings: Large structures in music—the slow buildup of tension, a climax, and then denouement—can be like dramatic arcs in narratives. Perhaps both music and language exploit a human predisposition to understand events in terms of tension and resolution.

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