The News Story


(the news story)

Editor’s Note: Having just come off a weekend writing workshop devoted, mostly, to ‘story’ and the narrative skills of John Updike, I was reminded in my daily reading of the New York Times of the significance of ‘story’ to a good news story. You don’t get to report for the New York Times without a sense (I might suggest ‘mastery’) of story technique in your writing.

Case in point: the following excerpt from page one (May 19, 2012), and only the first nine paragraphs of a journalistic piece that jumps to page three, and dominates that entire page—over forty paragraphs, four columns. I’ve changed the title slightly for the purposes of this excerpt. And I’ve excluded the photograph of the “main character” since my focus here is primarily on words, narrative…story technique.

I also propose to interrupt the narrative flow of these opening paragraphs (below)…to ‘editorialize’ on story. —Norbert Blei


Benedict Carey

PRINCETON, N.J. — The simple fact was that he had done something wrong, and at the end of a long and revolutionary career it didn’t matter how often he’d been right, how powerful he once was, or what it would mean for his legacy.

(Note that sentence. Is this not a classic opening to a good short story, though this is not fiction?)

Dr. Robert L. Spitzer, considered by some to be the father of modern psychiatry, lay awake at 4 o’clock on a recent morning knowing he had to do the one thing that comes least naturally to him.

(Enter the main character, Dr. Robert L. Spitzer, and the first suggestion of conflict. In both cases: real. True-to-fact.)

He pushed himself up and staggered into the dark. His desk seemed impossibly far away; Dr. Spitzer, who turns 80 next week, suffers from Parkinson’s disease and has trouble walking, sitting, even holding his head upright.

(Oh, what a beautiful sentence of narrative to advance both character and story.)

The word he sometimes uses to describe these limitations — pathetic — is the same one that for decades he wielded like an ax to strike down dumb ideas, empty theorizing, and junk studies.

(I repeat the editorial comment above.)

Now here he was at his computer, ready to re­cant a study he had done himself, a poorly con­ceived 2003 investigation that supported the use of so-tailed reparative therapy to “cure” homosexual­ity for people strongly motivated to change.
What to say? The issue of gay marriage was rocking national politics yet again. The California State Legislature was debating a bill to ban the therapy outright as being dangerous. A magazine writer who had been through the therapy as a teen­ager recently visited his house, to explain how mis­erably disorienting the experience was.
And he would later learn that a World Health Organization report, released on Thursday, calls the therapy “a serious threat to the health and well-being — even the lives — of affected people.”

(Masterful…as the reporter/writer leads us now to resolution.)

Dr. Spitzer’s fingers jerked over the keys, un­reliably, as if choking on the words. And then it was done: a short letter to be published this month, in the same journal where the original study ap­peared,
“I believe,” it concludes, “I owe the gay com­munity an apology.”

(Nothing left to say but “Bravo.” This is how ‘story’ is composed.)


  1. jean

    Poignant…a ruined man trying to fix the ruin to which he contributed. Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.

  2. Elizabeth

    and Bravo to you too Mr. B… about 300 words the summation of a class in story technique. Especially great for those of us who missed your weekend writing workshop and especially someone about to embark on a sentimental
    excursion into memoir.

  3. Jeffrey Winke

    Superb! An incredibly example with astute notations. Geeze man, you’re good!

  4. Alice D'Alessio

    Ah yes. There it is! Benedict Carey must have felt so proud of that one. Or does it just come naturally?

  5. Tim Stone

    I gladly second Jeffrey!

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