Trying to imagine the best way for a story to unfold before a reader’s eyes is first and foremost in any editor’s mind when handling a lengthy manuscript, writes Bill Reynolds. Using five personal examples, Reynolds shows how structuring narrative changes depending on the material.
In season four of The Wire, Detective Shakima “Kima” Greggs (Sonja Sohn) continues her wiretap investigations into the Baltimore drug trade. Suddenly, upper management pulls the plug. Disbanded, the unit’s members are dispersed throughout the force. In this much-lauded HBO police drama, Kima and her colleagues had committed a no-no by wandering into a dark zone of political corruption. They’d caught some of the mayor’s powerful friends engaging in illegal activity.
Kima receives a transfer from Major Crimes Unit to Homicide, where she has no experience. Her new confrères, all men, give her a rough welcome, hazing her and intimidating her upon arrival. Not really knowing what to do with her, her new boss assigns her to an important case involving a murdered state witness—the thinking being she’s too much of a rookie to solve the crime. In addition, she’s told not to pursue answers to the mystery killing with vigour, at least until after the civic election.
Reluctantly, she complies.
Eventually, Kima can’t suppress her curiosity. The election over, she visits the crime scene. There, she tracks bullet trajectories and ricochets and begins to reconstruct the circumstances that led to the murder. The fatal bullet, she surmises, actually must have come from an entirely different direction, from the vantage point of a house down an alley. Following this hunch, she wanders up the alley and finds that someone had been shooting bottles for target practice. She finds a bullet embedded in a piece of discarded furniture used to set up the bottles. The logic is inescapable: no ordered hitman killed the witness, but a stray bullet. When Kima returns to the station with a slug that matches the one in the corpse, she says: “Soft eyes.”
While I’d never claim to being as good a detective as Kima, the mental make-up of her character, the kinds of problem-solving techniques she uses to extrapolate and make leaps of judgment, are similar to the thinking required by handling editors on long-form magazine narratives. When confronted with a lengthy first draft, an editor might be pleasantly surprised to find a manuscript that requires no improvement. More often, he or she will be faced with numerous directions to take the narrative. First and foremost in any editor’s mind is to grapple with the structure of the piece; in other words, to try to imagine how the story would unfold before the first-time reader’s eyes.
Structure: gathering the lost zoo animals
The initial pitfall with structure is figuring out how to section off a complex story into simple sections. What constitutes a section and what order sections should go in, should be determined early. National Post columnist Robert Fulford, when he was editor of Saturday Night magazine, called this the problem of the straying zoo animals.
Think of each section of a feature—the lead scene, the theme set-up and theme statement, the background history, the current issue at hand, other telling scenes, the counter-theme, the concluding wrap-up or final scene—as an animal in the zoo. Often what happens in early drafts is the lions get out of their lion cages and the tigers get out of their tiger cages. They start to mingle, thereby creating chaos for zoo staff. An editor’s first job is to coax the lions back into their lion cages and the tigers back into their tiger cages. To take a few examples, background history is not appropriate to a scene building toward a conclusion. A scene showing proof of theme is not useful to a history section. Introducing minor characters in one section, abandoning them, then reintroducing them later, is apt to confuse the reader. In general, don’t repeat information—get in via a seamless transition, say it once, move to the next section with another transition.
Case in point: a couple of years ago a student asked me to take a look at her feature. She had just finished the fifth draft of her profile. Frustrated and exhausted, she complained that no matter how much more work she did, the piece seemed to get worse. One look over her 6,000-word manuscript and I could tell why. All the information was there—and a lot more, really—so she obviously had done the required research and interviews. What she had not done, though, was to organize the work into discrete sections. Here was the classic case, and an editor’s first job should be to round up the tigers and the lions and get them back into their respective pens. Often this work can be laborious, as sentences and even phrases need to be disentangled from places where they don’t belong, returned to their proper genus types and then reintegrated with new transitions.
Of course, there may be the odd time when the situation call for the writer actually wanting the reader to double back and re-read events that have already happened in the narrative. Usually this occurs when the story is so complex that the surest way for the reader to grasp it is to tell a concise version once, then start again with a new section and proceed a second time in more detail and with more scrutiny. The story would be written like an aircraft making a second pass, say.
Another exception, in medias res, or in the middle of things, is a common trick: begin a magazine feature in mid-story, with an arresting scene that grabs hold of the reader’s attention; then tell the reader what the focus and theme of the story are going to be; toss in a line break and then retreat to the beginning; chronologically tell the story up to the lead scene; and finally, move beyond the lead scene to the denouement. This structure is used to great effect for the simple reason that it hooks the reader.
Here are five stories I’ve worked on recently, either as an editor or a writer (or both). With each example, I hope I might demonstrate how an editor often has to make different decisions with respect to structuring narrative, depending on the situation and the material.
What makes a person tick: a profile of Fred Kuntz
Last year, in my senior level course magazine course, I acted as a handling editor on a profile of Fred Kuntz, who at the time was editor-in-chief of The Toronto Star. Profiles almost always contain a theory about what makes a person tick, and my student’s profile, which was signed off at 5,500 words, was no exception. In Kuntz’s case, he had been a 19-year veteran of the Star before being lured away to The Globe and Mail, its cross-town rival. He made many changes in a short period of time and then moved again, this time to take the role of publisher of The Record in Kitchener-Waterloo. Finally, he was summoned back to the Star, this time as editor-in-chief.
So, would this be the story of the return of the prodigal son? Maybe, but how much could be made of this fact, and whether or not Kuntz could actually be seen as a wandering spirit, is suspect. One thing became clear. Everywhere Kuntz went change happened, and happened quickly. So would Kuntz be the hit man, the guy who comes in, shakes things up and catches the next bus out of town? Maybe, maybe not.
The writer had found out early on that Kuntz loved to paint. His father had been a printer, and at one point the whole family drew pictures together for relaxation. Then the writer found out an interesting detail—Kuntz preferred acrylic-based paint to oil-based paint. Why? Because, he told her, acrylic had the distinct advantage of drying quickly. If you didn’t like what you’d just painted, well, so what, paint over it! No need to wait 24 hours for oil-based paint to dry fully. We began to see that Kuntz’s managerial methods—his bold, outspoken style; his quick moves; his decisiveness—were an extension of his personality, and had been since he was a young boy learning how to hold a paint brush properly.
In the end we decided to precede the typical opening scene—this one takes place in one of the Star‘s editorial meeting rooms—with Kuntz’s thoughts on painting. The way he moves paint around a canvas turns out to be the way he moves people around an office. And we decided to bookend the piece with the writer being taken for a guided “art tour” of the Kuntz home. Almost every room contained at least one Kuntz painting. We ended the piece with: “I don’t know what else to show you—that’s my art,” hoping the reader might pick up on the inference that for Kuntz handling paint and handling people were synonymous activities.
Man as metaphor: a profile of Bob Cox
A second student feature story I handled that year was about another senior newspaper executive, publisher Bob Cox of The Winnipeg Free Press. Cox had been hired two years previously as editor-in-chief. One of the reasons he’d been brought in and then promoted to publisher was the experience he gained at the Globe helping to integrate the Internet into the news-gathering process. Cox was not afraid of change, so we began to see the story not so much as a profile of a particular man but as a metaphor for the newspaper industry’s bewildered and often flailing response to the crisis of our time—how can the journalism business cope with the World Wide Web? As with the Kuntz profile, we turned to the subject’s other passion—running. Cox was an avid long-distance runner, so we sent a photographer to shoot him in motion wearing his bright red winter tracksuit. With all his new initiatives to integrate the Internet into his news gathering operation, Cox was hoping he wasn’t running on a treadmill but rather to a destination.
But we also wanted to make sure we were threading in the notion that newspaper executives were running in fear of their papers becoming irrelevant to readers. They needed to show courage. They needed to try just about any initiative to staunch reader losses. So what seemed like a simple profile of Cox was actually becoming a more complicated portrait of a newspaper. This is another common pitfall in feature writing. When the story can’t decide if it’s a profile of a person, a profile of company, or an investigation into an industry, neither can the reader.
Cox was certainly an emissary of change, bolder than most, so we thought his newspaper could symbolize an entire business responding to industry-wide convulsions. We even decided to let one of Cox’s lieutenants, John Sullivan, manager of online research and development, state the theme of the feature, because his quote so vividly captured the problem: “‘If the web’s going to be breaking news,’ [Sullivan] says, picking up a copy of the Free Press with his left hand, ‘what does this do?’ He drops it, and it makes a loud thud. ‘No one’s come to grips with it yet.'”
Finding a fresh way to tell an old story: Neil Osborne and 54•40
Another example of a profile not really being a profile is a story I wrote a couple of years ago. It couldn’t be a profile, I decided, because it would have been boring. In other words, I felt I had to find a fresh way to tell an old story. The tale hung on a man named Neil Osborne, who at the time was a 45-year-old Canadian rock star based in the Vancouver area. Osborne had led the same band, 54•40, since his late high school years. In fact, the quartet was celebrating its silver anniversary. They’d had much success in Canada, with gold and platinum compact disc sales. They’d had an enviable run of radio hits. They were well known in their native country, but nowhere near as successful in the ten times larger U.S. market. At the point of writing the story, 54•40 was no longer signed to Sony; instead, the smaller “boutique” label, True North, issued its CDs. Osborne’s group did have a new recording to flog, but to return to the boring-angle part, I really didn’t want the story to be about the new music. (Not that the group’s new music was boring; I simply want to refrain from writing a standard “band-has-new-album, write-story-about-album” type of feature.) Instead, I wanted to turn the theme of the story around, and here’s why.
I was talking to my editor about Osborne. We both had fond memories of 54•40 playing our university campus in the early 1980s. We became fascinated: What drives a man to do the same thing he’s been doing for 25 years, to diminishing returns? To put it another way, the eldest of Osborne’s two daughters was approaching university age, so it was possible to imagine 54•40 playing a frosh week concert with one of them in the audience—and what would he think about that?
For a theme then, why not use the artist in mid-life crisis? There is only one problem: It is generally forbidden to discuss age in the entertainment industry. Osborne’s record company publicist flatly refused to sanction an interview that included questions about growing old, let alone allowing the “hanging out” time required to do such a story. Instead, I went to Osborne directly. I went to Cherry Beach in east downtown Toronto, where the group was shooting a video, and I told him I wanted to ask questions I didn’t know whether he or I had any good answer to: Why do you play music any more? What’s in it for you? You’ve done it all, why do you need to do it anymore? Is it possible to approach this job—particularly this job, so associated with youth—from an older perspective and still find satisfaction? Osborne, being a thoughtful person, said, “These are all good questions.”
When I interviewed him the next day, Osborne tried to answer these questions, and in so doing told me quite a few other things I hadn’t expected. Entrusting me with private information he said, “Please use discretion.”
So I was over the first hurdle, access, when a second came into view. In the course of our long, wide-ranging interview, I asked Osborne what had happened to his lead guitarist of 23 years. Osborne went into frank detail about his friend and comrade’s long descent into drug abuse. He described how he and the other musicians in the band felt embarrassed and naïve because they hadn’t seen it coming. They also felt guilty, as if they had been enablers for failing to recognize how serious the problem was. The pain was obvious, and so was its effect on the long-term health of the band. But from the story’s point of view, from the editor’s chair, from the long-form featuring writing standpoint, now what was the writer to do? I’d been handed a gift, this sensationalistic potential lede scene of the guitarist being flown home after relapsing and being too high to function. In other words, I’d been handed a reprise of the classic rock ‘n’ roll tragedy.
But if I were to lead with this section, the reader would think the story was yet another standard tale of rock excess. Crudely, the lead guitarist’s demise would conveniently explain away the band’s slow wane into middle age. And that was not my story. My editor and I decided to bury the long, tragic section inside the piece, effectively making it a story within a story. We stuck to the theme—an artist continues to be an artist in middle age, because he can—and instead used the fallen brother section as a depth charge. Just as the reader begins to understand the reality of life after 40 in a rock band, she’s confronted with a larger truth that explains as much about life in middle age as it does about the band’s career.
These sorts of decisions can always go another way. My editor could have overruled me. She could have said, “No, I want to grab people right away.” Vanity Fair international correspondent William Langewiesche once described this kind of writing as “candy,” as in tossing the reader candy. I’m glad I didn’t succumb to the temptation. I wanted the reader, if she’d stuck with me that far, to be gob-smacked at the surprise turn in the narrative.
Get out of the way and let the subject tell the story: John Lefebvre
Sometimes, however, the sensational lede, in medias res, seems the only alternative. In another feature, this turned out to be the case. The story revolved around a businessman named John Lefebvre, who’d made millions after co-founding and growing an electronic pay packet company that became increasingly popular with U.S. online gamblers. With this secure, convenient transaction site, users could bet online in legal jurisdictions such as Antigua without fear. It was a fairytale success story—the business made lots of money, customers were both legitimate and happy, and bookies were ecstatic about the reliability of the service and the plunge in bad debt—until the United States Department of Justice appeared out of nowhere to charge the co-founders with money laundering. At point of arrest, Lefebvre had nearly divested his stake and was well on his way to becoming a philanthropist with an environmental activist bent.
Lefebvre was shocked when FBI agents knocked on the door to his Malibu house in early 2007. He had no idea he was being targeted. He knew the company prospectus might have been perceived by some as being in grey legal territory, but he certainly didn’t consider his company to be engaging in criminal activity. Yet there he was, being driven to Los Angeles in a squad car to be placed in a municipal detention centre. A few days later he was flown, in leg irons, with hardened criminals, to an Oklahoma City federal holding pen. His Beverly Hills lawyer finally caught up with him and posted the required $5 million bail.
Now here was a story that looked like it contained the classic “rise and fall of” arc. And the bust was serious candy. Like Edmund’s compulsion to chase after the White Queen’s Turkish delight in The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, I was unable to resist the idea of using an in medias res structure. Yes, let’s open with the bust. Yes, let’s let the subject tell the story in mid-action. In fact, let’s just get the hell out of the way and let Lefebvre tell the story, editing the transcript for maximum effect.
Beyond basic structure, the kind of story was still up for grabs. Instead of a “rise and fall” arc, why couldn’t it be a political jurisdiction story—Canadian man arrested by U.S. Department of Justice regarding Isle of Man–based business traded on London Stock Exchange? This would work for a business magazine, obviously. Or why couldn’t it be an environmental story about a man who tithes people dumb enough to gamble their money away and gives it back to virtuous organizations involved in environmental struggles? That might work for a magazine that is situated left-of-centre politically. Telling the right story for the right outlet is a crucial issue. With this one, I leaned heavily on the subject’s Calgary background because he was born and raised there, and the magazine it was written for was based in Calgary. That made it a no-brainer.
Writing for your target audience: travel or politics
In a story I edited recently, target audience was an issue as well. The story was about another Calgarian, this time a wildlife biologist named Chris Shank, who’d been hired by the New York–based Wildlife Conservation Society to survey a region called the Ajar in the Afghanistan province of Bamiya. Shank’s job was to try to convince the locals to consider the idea of transforming the Ajar into a sanctuary.
The problem about which story to tell arose because the writer had excellent political material as well as a good travel yarn. He was writing for the adventure magazine explore, but I was tempted to edit the story through the lens of the political turmoil, since readers would be all too familiar with our government’s decision to allow its soldiers to engage in fighting, not simply peacekeeping. explore editor James Little did not see it that way, and shifted things around. He opened with a scene overlooking the huge valley of the Upper Ajar, with a survey party scoping for ibex. In other words, he decided ultimately to stick with what he knows his readers want, which is armchair adventure.
I would have preferred to push the writer more in the direction of an adventure-tinged political story—the idea of a Canadian hired by an American organization to, in essence, perform a diplomatic mission in Afghanistan, to convince town elders that it’s in their best interest to convert the Ajar into a park and eco-tourism site, a classic “soft power” move—rather than the other way around.
But pushed in this direction, the feature might cease to be an explore story, and become rather a Walrus story. Little won the debate, such as it was. He was the editor and I was the handling editor, but in this case I happily deferred to his judgment. I expect the editor should know his readers better than anyone.
Bill Reynolds is head of the magazine stream at Ryerson University in Toronto. This is an altered version of a piece that originally appeared in Literary Journalism, the newsletter of the International Association for Literary Journalism Studies, Vol. 2, No. 2, Spring 2008.)
(Image by Mr. Wright. Used under Creative Commons license.)