(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
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.)