Gene Weingarten is one of my favorite feature writers ever. He knows how to craft a story and isn’t afraid to look at complicated characters. A couple of pieces he’s written are “The Peekaboo Paradox,” about children’s performer the Great Zucchini, and “Fatal Distraction,” about parents who accidentally leave their children behind in a car on a hot summer day. Both are heartbreaking and wonderfully written, and I highly recommend checking them out.
Writer’s Digest has an interview with Weingarten about the writing process. About storytelling and reporting:
One of the things I admire about your work is that you consistently prove that great writing begins with great reporting. Talk about the importance of reporting.
Well, let’s start with the maxim that the best writing is understated, meaning it’s not full of flourishes and semaphores and tap dancing and vocabulary dumps that get in the way of the story you are telling. Once you accept that, what are you left with? You are left with the story you are telling.
The story you are telling is only as good as the information in it: things you elicit, or things you observe, that make a narrative come alive; things that support your point not just through assertion, but through example; quotes that don’t just convey information, but also personality. That’s all reporting.
What distinguishes a well-told story from a poorly told one?
All of the above. Good reporting, though, requires a lot of thinking; I always counsel writers working on features to keep in mind that they are going to have to deliver a cinematic feel to their anecdotes. When you are interviewing someone, don’t just write down what he says. Ask yourself: Does this guy remind you of someone? What does the room feel like? Notice smells, voice inflection, neighborhoods you pass through. Be a cinematographer.
Very much like Weingarten’s focus on the story itself, not extraneous flourishes, and creating a cinematic feel in a piece. Even though this is about nonfiction, I think both of these tips are extremely useful to fiction writers as well.