Before Beth Schwartzapfel became a staff writer for The Marshall Project three years ago, she spent a decade as a freelance magazine writer. She got used to spinning 4,000-word narratives for places like Mother Jones and the Boston Review. When she arrived at the nonprofit newsroom, which covers criminal justice, Schwartzapfel found herself tackling an entirely different animal: breaking news and hard-hitting features that put the facts center stage.
Schwartzapfel considered how she could bring her storytelling chops to these new formats. Her answer was what she calls “tiny narratives”: compact anecdotes, sometimes only a few lines long, scattered throughout a fact-driven article. “I think of them as raisins in oatmeal, or the signs people hold on the sidelines of a marathon. They’re little surprises or jolts of pleasure to remind people of what they’re reading and why it matters,” she explained in a session at the Power of Narrative Conference at Boston University in late March.
Those nuggets of humanity can help keep readers on the page at a time when news organizations are scrambling for the public’s attention. But it isn’t easy to do well. Injecting narrative elements into a news or investigative story can bring unnecessary clutter or overwhelm the essential facts.
Here are tips from Schwartzapfel and other speakers at the conference about how to get “tiny narratives” right.
1. Figure out whether you actually need one.
Not all pieces benefit from an added dose of narrative. Sometimes the news is compelling enough to hook readers on its own. “Michael Flynn Offers to Testify Before Congress in Exchange for Immunity,” a story in The New York Times from March 30, didn’t need a scene about Flynn’s lawyers talking to Congressional intelligence committees to hold interest. A local story about a highway collapse or impending tornado likewise stands on its own. When readers care inherently, narratives only get in the way of vital information.
But they come in handy when readers’ engagement isn’t guaranteed. That was the case in “Out of Prison, Uncovered,” Schwartzapfel’s story about Medicaid enrollment for ex-prisoners. “It’s hard to imagine a more boring subject. We needed a series of anecdotes to draw people in and show how high the stakes can be.” She went with these lines:
Before he went to prison, Ernest killed his 2-year-old daughter in the grip of a psychotic delusion. When the Indiana Department of Correction released him in 2015, he was terrified something awful might happen again.
He had to see a doctor. He had only a month’s worth of pills to control his delusions and mania. He was desperate for insurance coverage.
But the state failed to enroll him in Medicaid, although under the Affordable Care Act Indiana expanded the health insurance program, making most ex-inmates eligible. Left to navigate an unwieldy bureaucracy on his own, he came within days of running out of the pills that ground him in reality.
Suddenly, the story became about how the issue puts us all at risk. “Tiny narratives are a way to earn your reader’s interest and keep it,” Schwartzapfel says.
2. Don’t choose a story. Choose the right story.
Using any old anecdote will only add noise. Schwartzapfel suggests asking yourself two questions when vetting a potential tiny narrative: Does this illuminate the story’s most urgent points, and are the stakes high enough?
Finding the right narrative can take a lot of legwork. It took Schwartzapfel several months and dozens of phone calls to find Ernest for “Out of Prison, Uncovered,” while reporting on the policy took only a few weeks. “It’s a matter of being patient and dogged to find just the right person,” she says. “Ask who are the people most affected by this issue. And when those people are not your readers, how can you make their lives feel urgent and relevant to your readers?”
It can be tough to choose between a more typical character and an outlier that’s more compelling or sympathetic. Don’t automatically rule out extremes, Schwartzapfel says. “Most people getting out of prison are not psychotic killers. At the same time, I wanted to the stakes high at the outset, and then run-of-the-mill cases throughout the story.”
Kristen Lombardi, an investigative reporter at the Center for Public Integrity, interviewed dozens of people, often for five hours at a time, to find the right characters for tiny narratives in a series on the EPA’s failure to address environmental injustice. She combed data on civil-rights complaints to the EPA to figure out where to look for narratives, but there was no substitute for showing up. “We needed to see the people living a dirt road away from a landfill that’s a mountain of coal ash,” she says.
3. Don’t use more than two narrative elements.
In a tiny narrative, there’s no room for the whole story. Schwartzapfel recommends limiting yourself to no more than two of the traditional elements of narrative: plot, character, dialogue, and scene.
In an article on NBC News’ website in January, Tracy Connor effectively used dialogue to enliven her account of a lawsuit against then-president-elect Donald Trump over an unpaid paint bill. She quotes from the deposition of Jamie Gram, a project manager for a general contractor:
“Were you trying to pay [the paint store owner],” Vega asked the manager, Jamie Gram, during the sessions.
“I was,” Gram replied.
“And what happened?”
“Somebody chose not to,” Gram said.
“Who?” the lawyer asked.
“The Trump Organization,” Gram said.
“Who at Trump?”
“I don’t know,” Gram said. “Mr. Trump. Donald Trump.”
Using dialogue in an otherwise dry news story creates tension and suspense, as we watch the manager’s discomfort.
Schwartzapfel combined character and a brief scene in her story about the release of federal prisoners under new sentencing guidelines:
Mosby began using meth to stay awake during night shifts at an aluminum plant and soon learned how to sell the drug to fund his habit. He was slated for release in 2025, at age 73 … But the new sentencing guidelines shaved ten years off his sentence, and Mosby was released in March. The first thing he and his three children did together, after saying a prayer in the prison parking lot, was eat a big country breakfast. A family photo shows Mosby in Cracker Barrel, still in his prison sweats, presiding with a grin over biscuits, eggs, and molasses.
We can practically taste the molasses. With just a few lines, we can imagine what it’s like to be deprived of a country breakfast for years. Inserting the family’s conversation and what they did next would’ve distracted from the main story.
4. Pick details that move the story forward.
Debbie Cenziper, an investigative journalist at The Washington Post, never forgot the advice of her first editor: Don’t pirouette into a story. She keeps the narratives in her investigative stories tight, limiting herself to details that propel the story.
In the first article in her Pulitzer Prize-winning series for the Miami Herald on the city’s mismanaged housing agency, she includes the following self-contained anecdote:
Keionta Mcrae, 11, has moved with her family twice since she left Liberty City five years ago. She dreams of a house with a pink bedroom. She lives in a house where rats eat through the floors.
“If I had my own room,” said Keionta, who lives in a crumbling rental just down the street from Miami’s chic Design District, “it would never get dirty.”
The four-sentence narrative focuses narrowly on the impact of the agency’s failure to build affordable housing. The imagined pink bedroom and rat-bitten floors tell us everything we need to know and no more.
“As an investigative reporter, my job is to convey the findings. I pick specific, concrete details that push the story forward and humanize it,” Cenziper says.
5. Not all characters have to be human.
Animals, plants, cars and natural phenomena are among the possible protagonists in a tiny narrative. In her story on a fatal fire for the Chicago Tribune, Lolly Bowean personified the fire itself:
Instead the smoke, gas and flames stormed down the hallway, burning the metal numbers off other apartment doors, filling the hall with heat and smoke and damaging the walls, Langford said.
Birds became characters in Lombardi’s story on a problematic landfill in Alabama:
Then there were the buzzards, which circled the landfill and swooped into people’s yards. Hundreds lined rooftops, trees, and ridges for miles, spreading their wings yet refusing to fly. “It was like a horror movie,” said Ben Eaton, who has lived on his 23-acre property four miles from the landfill for 30 years. In the summers, so many buzzards overtook his yard that a neighbor took to ringing his doorbell to make sure he was alive.
6. Consider using flashbacks.
If you have no choice but to lead with the news, Bowean suggests tucking a “second story within the main story,” often a flashback. In a Pulitzer Prize-winning story for The Eagle Tribune, about four boys who drowned after falling through thin ice, O’Ryan Johnson and Chris Markuns get the news in first, then flash back to the origins of the tragedy:
Ivan and Francis were released from the hospital last night, and recalled the story from its quiet start—Ivan and Christopher meeting Francis at his home for a 10 a.m. walk to the Boys & Girls Club.
They were too late to sign up for the free throw shooting contest that was scheduled for to follow the club’s weekly basketball shoot around, so they teamed up with four friends, playing bumper board and watching the basketball movie, “Like Mike.”
They went next door to Hanson’s for snack food, and Rodriguez had an idea when they came out.
“Willie said he wanted to go down to the river, to slide on the Ice,” Ivan said.
“But we said no,” said Francis. “So we tried to stop him.”
“This technique transports you into a new space while holding onto the integrity of the inverted pyramid style. The urgency of the news is at the top, but then you can take a step back and tell the reader how the news occurred. When done well, it can elevate the story,” Bowean says.
7. Experiment with prologues.
If you can pull it off, get creative by using a tiny narrative as an appetizer to the main story. Bowean likes an example from her Chicago Tribune colleague William Mullen, who opened a story on the local zoo’s search for a companion its elephant:
Home to Share. West Suburbs.
Seeking single female roommate for high-spirited, inquisitive middle-age female. Must be African by birth or descent, age not important. Must be social and vegetarian. Trumpeting a plus, the louder the better. Large indoor space. Secure fenced yard, charming mudhole. All meals, clean daily bedding, electricity, heat provided free.
That tempting offer might be how Joyce, a 27-year-old African elephant, might word a want ad if she were in charge of finding a companion to share her space and keep her company at Brookfield Zoo.
The technique doesn’t work for serious topics, but it can make a lighthearted news story more engaging.
8. Think about putting yourself in story.
Sometimes you can become a character in your own tiny narrative. Dahleen Glanton put herself in a Chicago Tribune story on the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina:
A reporter gave Johnson a sandwich for the children, a bottle of cold water and cookies. They ate in the reporter’s car and, and for a few minutes, life seemed normal.
“This works when you’re dealing with trauma, a natural disaster or something else particularly chaotic because it gives a glimpse of the reporter’s experience and humanity,” Bowean says. “I don’t think you want to put yourself into a story about public policy or a city council meeting — it’s unnecessary.”
Ultimately, the goal of every tiny narrative is to get the point of the story through to readers. Bowean often goes back to a lyric from R&B singer Erykah Badu: “What good do your words do / If they can’t understand you.”