Mark Kramer, co-founder of Well Told and a leading expert on the teaching of narrative journalism, joines today to discuss key storytelling techniques for narrative journalism, particularly focusing on the impact of voice and the importance of creating suspense and tension.
Kramer began his talk by discussing narrative journalism as a form is often unexpected. “Most people who read narrative journalism have no idea they’re reading it,” he says, but acknowledging that “people still have trouble writing it because they’ve learnt a bunch of rules.”
For Kramer, however, it’s not about writing by rules. He focuses on voice and characterisation in his writing, and is not afraid of having to write “37 drafts”. Kramer explains the impact of voice by suggesting narrative journalism should capture ‘a different voice’.
He says that in narrative journalism “you speak in a voice that allows knowledge and it signals to others that they should be open to it. It’s a different voice to the voice you use when you text your best friend”.
Voice is important for three reasons, he says. Firstly, a tasteful and respectful private voice signals that the writer has ‘authority’ for the subject at hand. Secondly, voice allows the “human sensibility of other people”. Lastly, a strong voice in narrative journalism promotes “acknowledgement of your [own] sensibility.”
Kramer also sees significance in creating suspense and tension in narrative journalism. He notes the significance of punctuation, particularly brackets, in helping to control readers’ pace when reading and also enjoys nice words like ‘swooping’ that invites the reader into the narrative.
When writing, Kramer eliminates the verb ‘to be’. “You should always try to activate your verbs, it makes things more intimate.”
Kramer also comments that he tries to always “take account of the five senses”. He does this by writing detailed notes to help him fully develop his narrative.
“Truth is stranger than fiction, but it has pacing issues.”
Only writing three in-depth stories a year might not be enough alone to keep a writer financially liquid. Reporter-turned-author Alex Perry and Jeff Maysh have adapted to today’s media to make the most of their work. Both Jeff Maysh and Alex Perry discussed how they made their writing irresistible to film and TV producers in Hollywood and elsewhere.
The main point the writers covered was that journalists need to adapt themselves to the demands of today. “Your writing first and foremost must work as a longform piece,” says Maysh. Both advise against writing for Hollywood. “I can’t take a story unless I know it’s a longform piece,” Alex admits. “Otherwise my children don’t eat.”
However, Jeff also explores how longform lends itself to other outlets such as audio, TV and film. “I feel like narrative journalists and Hollywood are looking for the same thing. We want transformative characters, a strong narrative and a twist. But what’s that saying? Truth is stranger than fiction but it has pacing issues – so definitely keep that in mind.”
Being aware of how your work can translate across platforms is important Maysh explains. “For anyone writing something who believes there may be TV interest, fight to retain your rights.” Through retaining his rights for his McDonalds story, the $1m deal was signed to him.
Alex and Jeff recommend getting an agent, should this opportunity arise. Maysh credits his agent as “a key thing” for making his work for a producer. Perry says, “For me, I’ve got two agents, a literary one and a guy that specialises in taking something from print to film, without them it would be impossible.”
However, when it comes to the scriptwriting, don’t expect to be involved. Neither of the journalists has been approached to write a screenplay. Perry says, “I have to bite my lip because you sell an option to a production company and they say ‘we’ve just got to wait for this really great writer’ and I’m like hello, I’m in the room! But I’ve tried to write screenplays and they are really hard. You can’t just turn up and try to do something others have been doing for years. It’s a different muscle.”
Crime writer Jeff Maysh, originally from Bromley, London but now living in LA, joins Well Told as the final speaker of the night. His presentation focuses on stories that set social media alive and catch the eyes of both readers and film producers. His primary focus is structure and how using screenwriting methods his true crime stories are being reimagined in Hollywood.
Maysh started his career at Loaded magazine but “the less said about that the better,” he jokes.
In 2010 he left to become a freelance correspondent in America, originally covering major breaking news in the Rockies. Today, however, he freelances for publications such as The Atlantic, The Daily Beast, and Playboy.
“In 2016 I was tipped off to an amazing story about McDonald’s. The story was about an ex-cop named Jerry, who had managed to rig the Monopoly game for 12 years. Every major game prize was stolen.”
“I pitched the story everywhere, everyone said no,” Maysh says. Due to the time delay between the crime and his pitching, no one wanted to commission the story, stating it was too old. Bloomberg was all for it until they heard the date. The crimes occurred in 2011, yet Maysh was pitching in 2018.
The reason for the story falling under the radar is that the final court case occurred on 10th September 2001 and all the media attention focused on the 9/11 attacks. The story had remained untouched ever since.
Eventually, The Daily Beast commissioned the 8,600-word article and it was published in June 2018.
The story consequently became the number one top trend worldwide on Twitter. “By the Sunday things were getting a bit bizarre,” he comments. That day the story was covered on Fox News and by the evening there was a bidding war for the film rights. The story was wanted by Stephen Spielberg but eventually bought for $1m by Matt Damon, Ben Affleck and Fox.
“I’m not telling this story to tell you I was right and the editors that turned it down were wrong,” explains Maysh. He even comments on how some editors now brag that they turned ‘The McDonald’s Story’ down. His aim, he explains, is to encourage writers to not give up if they believe they have a good story that no one will commission.
Structuring the Story
“I’m obsessed with structure,” Jeff says. He describes how he turns his living room into a Sherlock Holmes-style crime scene investigation board to help him write a true-crime piece.
He uses a three-act structure to construct his stories, influenced by the ancient Greek dramas. The three-act structure is broken up into five stages. The first, he says is the set-up – where you introduce your main character, a protagonist who has a desire. “They must want something,” he explains.
Stage two introduces the protagonist into a new situation, an unknown territory in order to pursue their desire. Stage three shows the progress of the protagonist on their way to achieve their desire. This should take the reader to the halfway point of their journey and it needs a twist. The whole story changes at the midpoint, “Something completely different happens,” Maysh says.
Stage four shows the protagonist facing complications and higher stakes, often facing a major setback. The fifth and final stage is what Maysh calls the ‘final push, the end game’. He compares the four stages to sex; “stage five is a bit like the cigarette that comes after”. It should return the reader to the beginning of the story with a positive end. “The end card is the mirror image but everyone is happy,” Maysh says.
Jeff Maysh talks about Hollywood and about narrative structure, noting the similarities of the structure of screenplays and longform. In one of his articles, the concluding part even has a kiss scene.
It is no surprise when he begins speaking about literary theorists such as Aristotle and Joseph Campbell, the latter of whom penned theory of the ‘The Hero’s Journey’, which despite it being a literary device, Maysh finds useful in shaping his narrative.
As he walks the audience through a few of his stories and how each follows ‘The Hero’s Journey’, he mentions:
The one thing separating The Murder House from other stories he had done was that it was self-published because he could not get it commissioned. It later became the most read article on Medium in 2015.
He wraps up the talk on a positive note.
“You all have stories in you that you can’t get commissioned, but I want to say, don’t give up on the stories you know in your heart are amazing. If you’ve got something on the go that you believe is a killer story, then just go ahead and write it. Publish it yourself if you have to.”
All slides from Jeff’s talk can be found on his website: jeffmaysh.com
Chief foreign correspondent for the Sunday Times, Christina Lamb, joined the Well Told festival on Skype from Congo and emphasised the importance of immersing yourself in the field and not just relying on research.
Her journey as a reporter began with an unexpected wedding invitation which led her to move to Peshawar aged just 22 to cover mujahideen.
Lamb spoke to attendees at the festival from her hotel room in Goma, Congo, where she is currently in the field reporting, and also talked about how her reporting has introduced her to amazing people, many of whom have got through awful circumstances.
Lamb believes reading about events and circumstances in foreign countries from a distance isn’t enough. She is against the idea of pinning down the story before you go into the field, she explained.
She talked about how as a foreign correspondent covering conflict around the world she was seeing more violence against women than ever before in her career. In addition, journalists, in general, have become targets.
“We’ve become targets in a way we never were which has made this job a lot more challenging.”
She also goes on to explain that all she wants to do is tell stories about people whom she’s met. “Women in the Congo have thanked me for reporting. They can’t believe the things that are going on here and no one is doing anything about it.”
Longform journalism is a big operation within the Guardian, with the Long Reads department producing around 150 articles each year.
Editor Jonathan Shainin – speaking at Well Told on Friday 1 March – estimates that more than 500 long reads have been produced since its inception in 2014.
Each story “involves an investment”, he explains, comparing the process as similar to that of documentary-making, along with writer contracts and expensive commissions to consider and justify.
But Long Read stories bring something new to the table. Much like the BBC produces both the News at Six and Newsnight, the Guardian’s Long Reads team and general news desk both have a vital role to play, he argued.
“We’re a little bit like a film production studio that sits within the paper… It’s a different form, but holds an equally valid place in journalism”.
Tips for longform journalism pitches
Having read and published hundreds of longform stories in recent years, Jonathan has plenty of tips to impart when pitching a deep-dive article.
One to avoid in particular, is anniversary pitches. When Guardian Long Reads was first set up in 2014, he received countless pitches for stories to mark the anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. And five years later, he received the same pitches again.
But an anniversary is not cause for a story, he argued: “If it was a good story it wouldn’t matter that it’s the 25th anniversary,” he said. “The story should be its own justification.”
Every longform article also needs to have a greater social and cultural meaning he added. Jonathan referred to an article by Sam Knight (who spoke earlier at Well Told) about what will happen when the Queen dies – also the most read Guardian Long Read ever – as an example of a story that goes deeper than may first appear, diving into the “fucked up psychological relationship we have the monarchy”.
In addition – as is a generally-accepted rule in good journalism – he reiterated the need to find stories that will capture the public imagination and take root, and get that across in the first few lines of the article.
“Writing longform articles in a newspaper is about discipline,” he said. “The headline has to be clear on what this is, about, it’s got to have a flicker of the story in the first paragraph.
“It’s like a movie trailer, you’ve got to get it into the beginning to give people an idea of how to read it.”
From a statistics point of view, the future of longform journalism looks bright. The Guardian has an in-house analytics tool called Ophan, which is used to track engagement with its articles.
Jonathan said that longform stories tend to defy the theory of short attention spans online.
The execution of these pieces means that they continue to do well despite behavioural trends, he added. “You take more time on the story, you put more effort into it, you spend more money. There’s an idea that there’s a value in the detail.”
Sam Knight, author of celebrated longform article London Bridge is down: the secret plan for the days after the Queen’s death, and reporter for The New Yorker with a fortnightly ‘Letter from the UK’, was the first speaker of this year’s Well Told festival with an engaging and amusing talk on how he researched and wrote his memorable article and how “reporting is storytelling.”
Knight began his talk by explaining how the initial idea for the article came about. His planning for the longform piece began with a simple thought, “Oh, the queen’s going to die”, and this lead to the decision: “I should maybe just sort of…write about that,” he said jokingly.
Further influence for the piece came from Evan Osnos, a fellow writer for The New Yorker, known for his article “President Trump’s First Term’. Evan’s piece taught Knight “There’s a way of doing this [reporting on the Queen’s death] responsibly and well.”
Totalling 8000 words, Knight’s article was the longest piece the Guardian had ever published on the monarchy. In fact, Knight told us how the Guardian acknowledged that the long form article could have formed a series of news articles instead, but by choosing to write it as a longform; Knight made a statement about the form, as well as the content of the piece. The article didn’t need to be a short one, Knight explained, “We wrote 8,000 words about the queen dying and everyone read it.”
In his talk, Knight also discussed his interest in speculative reporting and explained that exploring this kind of writing gave him an informed outline of what his own article could become.
Knight explained that it is “hard to assemble” smaller news stories together into a longer piece. He said: “This is a way I like to receive information: I would rather read a long complicated story about a long complicated thing.”
When writing his article on the plans for when the Queen dies, Knight was particularly interested in centric writing but had concerns on reporting this kind of event. He said: “I wanted to report it properly and something like this is sensitive”.
“I liked this idea of centric writing where you start far away and get closer and closer to the people you know,” he added.
For Knight, research was intrinsic to his article. He read The context, performance and meaning of ritual: The British monarchy and the ‘invention of tradition’, c. 1820–1977. He said it was vital for two reasons: firstly, because the Queen has been Queen for a very long time, and secondly, because royal funerals are theatre.
Ultimately, Knight said: “Reporting is storytelling”. He explained: “A really useful thing I think about when I’m writing these kind of articles is ‘what kind of genre is this?’ Is this a love story? Is this about an invention? Is it about two rivals?” For Knight’s longform about the Queen, it’s about theatre.
Re: longform. “If you’re really good at writing you’re writing poetry or books. If you’re writing features, you can write a bit. But it’s about the reporting not the writing”. – @samknightwrites#CIJWellTold
When writing, Knight saw his article as commentary, choosing to “luxuriate in the details” that he knew would interest and amuse readers, such as the exact time a certain procedure would take. He also realised he needed to use royal jargon in order for interviewees to trust that he’d done his research.
Referring back to his original pitches keeps Knight on track. Usually researching and writing four longform pieces per year, Knight tries to always remind himself of his pitch when it gets tough.
For Knight, interesting worlds do not always give interesting stories. By this, Knight means that in order for a world or idea to make a story, it needs something interesting or unusual within it. It’s a good sign for him if the story has a twist, or, like the plans for when the Queen dies, provide a “piece of theatre”.
We’re delighted that acclaimed author, reporter and columnist Sathnam Sanghera is joining the line-up of speakers at the UK’s only festival of longform journalism which is taking place at the start of March.
Sathnam is a multi-talented writer who displays his talents in both his journalism in The Times and also in his books. The Boy With the Topknot, a memoir of his upbringing in the West Midlands with his Punjabi parents, won many awards and was adapted for BBC Two. After that came his novel, Marriage Material, which by common consensus one of the novels of 2013.
Jonathan Coe named Sathnam as one of “the men of the next 25 years” in GQ, saying that “whether he’s writing autobiography or fiction, Sathnam is busy carving out his own literary niche – in the multicultural British Midlands – which he explores with incredible grace, generosity and humour”.
For CIJ Well Told, Sathnam will draw on his experience juggling his journalism with his writing, and also the difficult task of balancing the writing of factual memoir with fiction.
Acclaimed true-crime writer Jeff Maysh is the latest longform talent to join the line-up for the CIJ Well Told festival of longform and narrative journalism.
The tale of a Greek robber who, in protest at greedy banks, would throw handfuls of stolen cash into the air for passers-by to collect is pure Jeff Maysh. It’s as gripping as fiction, but is all true. That article was the first time I encountered his work, but it was the first time of many.
In fact, those occasional bursts of Twitter recommendations which flare for a day or two seem to happen around Maysh stories disproportionately often.
The article itself is, again, pure Maysh – a clear tale which goes deep within a world you would otherwise never know, extracted with as much precision as if he had used one of those foot-long cheese triers to bring out a long plug from the heart of the wheel.
Maysh’s journalistic career began on Loaded. He found his way into longform narrative through sports- and crime-writing. He now lives in Los Angeles, where he is on hand for film-makers wanting to talk about adapting his stories.
We’re absolutely delighted that Jeff will be joining us at CIJ Well Told 2019, especially since he is coming back to the UK specifically to be part of the festival. He will be talking about how he finds and tells his stories, and how he discovered his approach to making a life of telling longform stories sustainable.
He is without doubt one of the most talented UK longform writers, and anyone who loves the genre – as well as those who do it themselves or have ambitions to – should not miss the chance to hear what Jeff has to say.
The last of the earlybird tickets are available here – priced £55 for people in staff jobs and £45 for freelances. Student discounts are available on request by email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
We’re delighted Christina Lamb will be taking part in CIJ Well Told 2019. Below, Catarina Fernandes Martins, the Christian Science Monitor Southern Europe correspondent, who will be speaking to Lamb at the festival, writes of what makes her such a compelling reporter.
“When I think of Christina Lamb, the first image that comes to mind is that of a schoolgirl, kept in detention for refusing to give way on a point of principle. “Kept after school writing lines, I would gaze out of the window conjuring up far-off worlds,” Lamb writes in Small Wars Permitting, reminiscing of a time when she dreamt of being a poet or a novelist.
That restless teenage girl became one of Britain’s leading foreign correspondents and is well-known all over the globe for her bravery as a war reporter in all those far-off worlds she dreamed about growing up. Lamb has been arrested, kidnapped and deported. Four days before her son’s seventh birthday, she was almost killed by Taliban in Helmand province, Afghanistan.
“I have had far more than my nine lives,” she says in a short video piece the Sunday Times did about their Chief Foreign Correspondent.
Her bravery is remarkable and admirable, and yet, what really fascinates me about Christina Lamb is that she brings the same schoolgirl curiosity and imaginative powers to her writing.
That curiosity and imagination seem intact after an almost 30-year career, in which she has delivered intrepid, high-quality reporting in the most sophisticated literary form. Lamb has traveled all over, boarded Benazir Bhutto’s bus when it was bombed, competed in a Carnival parade in Rio de Janeiro, had tea with Pinochet days after she gave birth, written about war, poverty and crime, interviewed warlords and royals. Still, every description of a new scene she enters is drenched with so much detail, her readers can’t help but care about the world she brings to them. They can’t help but feel they’re right there with her, tasting the “fruits and almonds dipped in silver and gold” at Bhutto’s wedding, marvelling at the kites flying from the rooftops in Kabul after the Taliban had been driven out. Some of those details stuck with me because they made me open my eyes with wonder, made me dream of far-off worlds, made me care more.
“If I see something that’s really shocking that’s happening I want people outside to know about it… because I hope that will change,” Lamb says in the Sunday Times film.
Maybe that’s every reporter’s hope, but only a few of them can look past the bang-bang, pass the tiresome headlines and tell stories that latch onto the imagination the way poetry or novels do. Christina Lamb is one of the very best doing precisely that.”
We are delighted to announce that Well Told has a new partner – the wonderful Centre for Investigative Journalism. Based at Goldsmiths College, the CIJ is a standard-bearer for the interests and practices of investigative journalism. We see investigative and longform journalism as being cousins, and so are delighted to be teaming up with James Harkin and team.