Finding the #Longform Idea
(*Written for my University of California, Irvine Literary Journalism Program students, and for Out of the Binders #Bindercon 2015 LA conference, as well as anyone else interesting in finding narrative story ideas.)
Nonfiction writing careers live and die on ideas. Without great ones, longform journalism stories and the bylines of writers who write them struggle to rise above the Internet noise of click-bait articles and 2,000+word confessional essays. We can sit at our desks hoping an editor will assign us the next killer feature, but that almost never happens.
“Ideas from editors are the worst,” an editor of mine once told me. “What do editors do? They get in their cars, drive to work from Pasadena, sit at their desks all day, then drive back to Pasadena.” Editors, he said, are not (usually) out there in the world finding the great stories. Those come from the journalists themselves, from our interests, questions, curiosities, and life experiences.
The challenge of finding great ideas also has nothing to do with knowing how to pen a pretty sentence. When I was in college, I pulled all-nighters writing 20-page research papers that somehow managed to earn As. Some of my undergraduate students now might do that too (in classes other than mine). But the business of #longform/#longreads/literary/narrative journalism/creative nonfiction is an entirely different kind of game. It can’t typically be done in one night.
Narrative starts with that glimmer of an idea, the one that follows you into the shower, the commute, the daydreams during lectures. Follow it back. Usually, it will lead you somewhere compelling.
In my 15 years as a journalist (first, for the Los Angeles Times, where I was a national correspondent, and now as an author and freelancer) I’ve been fortunate enough to publish longform narratives. Along the way, I have figured out a method that works more often than not when it comes to pitching features and narratives, and pulling them off.
Here are a few tips on finding those ideas that I picked up along the way:
1.) Immersion=world + character + plot.
Sometimes a good story idea begins with diving into a world. You might not yet know who your characters are, or what your narrative arc might be, but you are fascinated by the world, or subculture, or issue and where it might lead you. This is often how a good immersion journalism piece begins, by exploring life inside of a troubled high school, a prison, a fascinating college course, a biker gang, a science lab, a housing project, a courtroom, a sports team, a support group, a hospice, a neighborhood block, a program to train new teachers, a group of dropouts, a homeless shelter, and on and on.
Once you have picked your world, the fun begins. You hang out. Talk to people. Become that “fly on the wall.” You may have no idea where your story is heading, and that is both terrifying and thrilling.
2.) At some point within that world, you must identify some interesting characters, and zoom in on them. I often find myself gravitating toward people who fascinate and befuddle me. I am drawn to writing about strong, complex personalities, people with flaws or weaknesses, people who have endured or have shown resilience or strength. I ask myself what does this individual’s life story tell us about the world we live in? What can we learn about humanity and society by understanding this person?
For my book about a New Jersey college class on death and dying, I focused on a beloved professor who seemed invincible to those around her. But the most difficult part of reporting that story was getting her to open up about growing up neglected and feeling unloved. Digging up those painful moments and putting that pain on the page for the world to read was hard and uncomfortable for both of us. But it was also necessary, because it showed how she related to students who needed her.
There is a level of psychological exploration that goes into this kind of work too. It’s important to understand what drives someone.
I care about the people I write about, and as a journalist I am not ashamed to say that. I have written about former criminals and murderers before, and found the ability within myself to empathize with them too. Caring doesn’t mean I won’t write about imperfections and character defects.
When I find that special person I want to write about, I often want to know everything about their daily habits, childhoods, pivotal moments, mannerisms, households, families. From before birth, to now. I call it the “chronological lifeline.”
“We must dig deeper than stereotypes. We must get down on our knees or climb up on a chair or walk in the shoes of the people we write about.” — DeNeen L. Brown, Telling True Stories
Journalist Jon Franklin actually calls this delicate process of getting to know someone, “The Psychological Interview,” as outlined in Telling True Stories: A Nonfiction Writers’ Guide from the Nieman Foundation at Harvard. In his interviews, he asks questions like: “Was your family well-off or poor? Did you know? What happened at family holidays? Did your parents raise you together? Did you have a pet?” He writes, “I’m interested in knowing all these things and also whether the family experienced any crises. At this stage in the interview, you are poking around, discovering both what a person remembers and how it’s remembered.”
Screenwriters want to know the answers to such questions too, when they are crafting fictional characters.
“To get inside a character we must question all aspects of their 24-hour day,” writes Robert McKee in Story: Style, Structure, Substance, and the Principles of Screenwriting. “How do my characters make a living? How do my characters play? Pray? Make love? What are the politics of their world? The hierarchies within my characters’ lives? What are the rituals of their world? How do characters eat? What are the values in their world? What do my characters see as good or evil? Right or wrong? What do my characters believe is worth living for? What do they believe is foolish to purse? What would they give their lives for? What are my characters’ biographies? From the day they were born, how has life shaped them? What is the backstory?”
Screenwriters can make it all up. Novelists can too. We can’t. Journalists have got to put in the time. Ask the right questions. Shut up and listen.
I always say this process requires a deep level of observation and obsession on the part of the writer. The closest analogy might be like dating a person you are really into, or even falling in love. At first, you become intrigued. You think about this person on the subway, while driving, while cooking. After a while, you begin to hear this person’s stories over and over. Eventually, you begin to know their insecurities, perhaps better than they do. It is at that point when you have hit on the heart of your character.
“One thing you have to do, if you’re going to write this sort of thing, is realize that people have buried their pain and have transformed experience enough to allow them to endure it and bear it. If you stay with them long enough, you let them reveal the past to themselves, thereby revealing it to you. Then they will dare to bring out the truth even if it makes them look bad.” — Joseph Mitchell, Literary Journalism in the Twentieth Century
3.) Once you find the world and the person or people in it that you want to capture, you still need to find a story arc. An unfolding plot with a beginning, middle and end. It sounds like a writing technique reserved for fiction, but in narrative journalism we are waiting around and asking questions to find this storyline too.
The world and interesting people in it don’t necessarily equal great narrative. They might make for good stories that are perfectly fine to publish, but when you are trying to hit a home run narrative you need to take it one step further. You need twists and turns, tension and cliffhangers.
Count the number of twists, for example, in the 22-minute Invisibilia podcast about a man locked inside of his own body. If that story keeps you hooked all the way through, do the same thing with this 12,000-word story, about a woman who was also locked inside of her own body. Whatever the length, whatever the format, readers of narrative need to keep feeling surprised along the way. You do that by showing your characters struggling, learning or overcoming. And all of those moments must add up to some larger universal theme or meaning.
The Orchid Thief was not just about a wacky dude who hunts orchids. It was about passion and obsession. Random Family was not just about kids growing up in the Bronx. It was about the pervasive cycle of poverty. Seabiscuit was not just about a horse and his trainers. It was about beating the odds when the odds are against you.
One way to identify such themes in a story is to look within the emotional context of the story, to ask yourself how does it make you feel and where in the writing does this feeling emerge within you?
Another way to elevate narrative is to hook your story to a larger issue or news story or some kind of scientific or social research.
Once, I wrote a narrative about a girl who was abducted, drugged, beaten and thrown off a cliff — and she managed to survive. I thought it was an incredible story, and I had the exclusive interview with her, one of her abductors, as well as piles of court records to document it. But it was a hard sell. Several editors didn’t want to publish the piece because it didn’t have a news hook, or an obvious “big picture” angle. Also, the crime happened a few years ago. It was old.
The main character in my story was a young girl, who grew up disadvantaged and was hanging with some unsavory guys. Two different editors told me it was hard for mainstream audiences to relate to her lifestyle choices. But I related to her. She reminded me of friends I grew up with. My emotional connection to her character still wasn’t enough to get it into print.
When pitching to most publications, a story has to be about much more than what happened. It has to answer the question: So what does this mean and why should we care? Your chances of selling a piece are much stronger if you can give it a context that is timely and relevant.
There are many other online ventures now devoted to longform narrative storytelling that do not necessarily need the proverbial “news hook” to publish a narrative, especially one that is inherently gripping or compelling. But the story still has to be about something more profound than the chronology of events.
4.) On reconstructing, and surfing the Web. Immersion takes a ton of time. Unfortunately many of us can’t just hang out for weeks waiting for a fantastic story to come to us. We have to go looking for it and be more strategic and efficient in our approach.
At the LA Times, I spent many days taking the most random people out and picking their brains for ideas (from activists to foster kids, to gang members, parents, teachers, low-level government employees, and the homeless). I preferred treating someone who might have never been before taken out for lunch by a reporter. This meant less lunching with politicians and CEOs. I spent my breaks with the everyday people, the overlooked. They always gave me the best story ideas.
Many will tell you that you can’t find good story ideas just by searching Twitter, or by following the same news that everyone else is following. I think that is half true. It is pointless to write about what everyone else is writing about — unless you can do it deeper and better and in a surprising way. The Web can be a time-sucking hole of useless leads. It can also be a goldmine if you learn how to look in places others are not looking. Read blogs and chats. Learn how to become an archeologist of the Web.
— Also pay attention to print. Skim the flyers posted on dorm walls and in cafes. Read newspapers, magazines, trade journals, scientific studies. Watch the evening news. One of my favorite examples is a book by Miranda July, It Chooses You, in which she went through the Penny Saver and tracked down people selling their stuff, crafting a story around that journey.
— Pay attention to news briefs. Here are a few places to search and sift through that might be first stops (note: some cost money, so try to access through your local or campus library). Factiva and Access World News (for newspaper records). Lexis (newspaper records, and also court documents). I always try to come to these places with a term, topic, issue or world that I want to search, as I would in Google. A search through U.S. news clips for “avalanche” led me to the story about teenage boys who drowned in “avalanche” of corn.
Look for events that have happened in the news and go back to re-examine them. One year later. Ten years later. Fifty years later.
— Tracking down people can be a challenge itself. Social media is one of the quickest ways to find people now, and many you are experts in that area already. Another useful people search site is Intelius, which accesses public records to find phone numbers, family members, addresses, emails (though there is a small fee for this site). Also, emailing someone is not enough. Pick up the phone. Write a letter. If that fails, show up to their door. It’s awkward, but it works.
— Keep story files. Pocket is a great online organizing tool. You can also do it the old-fashioned way and keep hard copies of clips in file folders. Clip anything that interests you. People. Places. Styles. Trends. Crime. Issues. These are your idea files, and they might come in handy even years later.
— Access is everything. Secure access into a world as soon as you can. Without it, you have no story.
5.) Practicing narrative reconstruction relies on a different muscle than immersion journalism.
One editor for my book told me after reading my first draft: “You have to reconstruct more. That’s the only way you can pull this off. I believe in 80% reconstruction and 20% immersion. And a lot of times that 20% immersion is just to get to the 80% reconstruction.” It was a great point. We immerse into worlds sometimes thinking that is the only story — the day-to-day events that we witness. Yet, reconstructing past life events of characters within those worlds might actually become better stories.
It is also important to remember that narrative does not always have to take place over a few years, or a few months, as journalist and author Edgar Sandoval notes here.
Great features can unfold over a week, or even a day. Consider Leslie Jamison’s essay, “The Devil’s Bait.”
Narrative, as we who teach it understand it, has come to be synonymous with inhabiting a person’s mind, writing in the third person and from the omniscient “voice of god,” or writing from the third person point of view of the individual you have interviewed. Often, it means spending long stretches of time immersed, and pulling from the rules of fiction to apply them to nonfiction. But sometimes it’s okay to blow up these rules (as long as you understand what rules you are breaking in the first place, and as long as you do not break the core rule of sticking to the facts and truth).
Jamison’s essay is an example of using yourself as a narrator and guide to explore an issue that has a narrative style (dipping into the experiences of other characters) while following a timeline that offers a beginning, middle and end (a day at a conference for people suffering from Morgellons Disease). She taps into her essayistic voice. It is a unique way to mix styles and think about telling narratives in different ways.
* * *
I asked a few of my favorite journalists to share some additional advice on finding story ideas, with examples of pieces they wrote. This advice applies to finding all kinds of ideas, not just longform, but is definitely relevant to finding narrative stories as well.
Here is what they sent me:
— William Wan: China correspondent for The Washington Post.
1) Look for drama in little corners of life. There’s often a lot of reporters hunting big game — the prestigious stories, the tragedies and life-and-death situations, which is great and often produces amazing work. But a way to find untold stories is to look for human experience and narrative at smaller scale. When the setting is smaller and the stakes are lower…for some reason, that sometimes provides the perfect conditions for drama that can really delight readers.
So from my own writing — this is not my best story, but remains one of my favorite: I used to work the weekend shift at the Baltimore Sun. Every Saturday, I would be sent out to cover some banal event. So one week, the editor says, “I want a story about the Thanksgiving parade.” I was told this on Thursday and spent most of Friday looking up how other people had covered this in the past, and who usually turns up at these things. Amid reams of stories, I see this guy’s name pop up as having been the parade’s Santa Claus for a few years running.
Then I saw a press release saying Sponge Bob Squarepants would be the main attraction in this year’s parade and just thought to myself, that ain’t right. You don’t upstage Santa at the freaking thanksgiving parade. And I thought about how this guy playing santa might feel about it all. (This was at the height of Spongebob’s popularity.)
Anyway, by Saturday, I kind of went into the parade with some ideas about character and drama, made sure to show up early so I could catch Santa before he suited up. And just wrote it as if it were symbolic battle of titans over the hearts children everywhere.
That was just a lot of fun.
2) Mine people’s inner lives for material. I am often obsessed with people’s motivations and inner thoughts and debates and struggles. I suspect it has to do with my background as a Christian and growing up in churches, where what you do often doesn’t matter as much as why you do it. (A crime can sometimes matter less than the sin of pride or jealousy, etc. that motivated it. Or on the flip side, a good act matters far less than the heart with which you did it.)
Anyway, I feel like that’s often where I find some of my favorite stories. I’ll come across a situation or read newspaper brief or short story, and I’ll think to myself, I wonder what it felt to go through that and why the person responded the way they did.
So here’s my example: When I was just starting out as a religion reporter and casting about for stories, a reporter I knew said I should write about the little box on people’s Facebook profiles that asks your religion. (This was just a few years after Facebook had launched.) And as I started talking to people, it quickly became evident that the most interesting thing wasn’t “what” people put into the box, but “why.”
I started getting into these hour-long, deeply personal and often philosophical conversations with complete strangers about intimate details, lifelong struggles and epiphanies in their lives just off that little blank box. That was a particularly fun story as well.
For the longest time, the question just sat there on his screen. Cursor blinking. Waiting quietly, like a patient…www.washingtonpost.com
— Monica Luhar: UCI Literary Journalism Program graduate. Now Site Editor @SoCalConnected @KCET • Freelance Journo @NBCAsianAmerica
Finding story ideas isn’t always an easy task. It involves an immense amount of pre-reporting, researching, and going out into the field to find valuable sources that can help frame and provide context for your story. I’ve compiled a few tips that have helped me from hitting roadblocks during the pitching and story hunting process:
1. Attend press conferences, public forums, city council meetings to find fresh new story ideas. The best way to find story ideas is by venturing out into the field, talking to people, going to coffee shops, and attending community events. A good way to find local stories is to attend city council meetings and talk to residents who can give you a brief rundown of some of the concerns and issues in their city.
If you can’t attend a city council meeting, there’s always a recap of items posted online usually the day after. Go through the list and highlight topics that might spark interest for a potential story. Examples might include a resolution proposed by a city councilmember, or a state-wide bill proposed by an assemblymember. Other examples include tracking important city hearings and votes that may illicit some sort of major reaction or response from the larger community.
2. The power of social media and the #hashtag. I’ve used Twitter primarily as a tool to connect with sources and stay updated on the latest news happenings — whether local or national. I usually search for very specific keywords using the hashtag feature on Twitter. It allows me to narrow down my search and find related stories or people who have blogged, written, or tweeted about a specific topic.
Recently, I searched for hashtags using a few simple keywords: LA, Asian American, AAPI. I ended up stumbling across a tweet that mentioned a blogpost written by Alton Wang. His blog post peaked my interest, so I did some more research and later discovered that he was actually in the process of lobbying for the creation of a potential Asian American Studies program at his campus. My story idea later became the inspiration for a full spread published in NBC News’ new Asian American vertical.
3. Subscribe to press releases from local organizations, advocacy groups and create a document tracking the sources you’ve interacted with. Press releases provide a wealth of information for reporters. If you’re on the breaking news beat, you can also sign up for specific city-wide breaking news alerts (e.g.: Nixle). Press releases can vary in length and information. They highlight anything from community events, marijuana busts, to updates on LAUSD’s iPad program or an assemblymember’s position on a bill.
Reach out to a media relations expert or public information officer so you can start receiving emails. It might not always result in a story, but it’s a good idea to start compiling a collection of contacts who can put you in touch with other experts in the field. Examples of a few organizations/agencies I receive updates from: CHIRLA, CAST-LA, Asian Americans Advancing Justice LA, Pilipino Workers Center, LASD Nixle
It’s great to also keep track of sources you interact with. If they don’t wind up in your story, that’s okay. They can always refer you to other sources for future stories.
4. Bookmark your favorite go-to news sites and blogs for inspiration. What are some of your favorite go-to news sites? Bookmark them and read anything and everything you can get your hands on. It’s important to know what’s currently trending or controversial when finding story ideas. Some of my favorite blogs/news sites: The Aerogram, KPCC, Huff Post Women, HelloGiggles, Bitch Magazine, 8Asians, Penelope Trunk, KoreAm, Pacific Citizen, Talking Points Memo, msnbc.com.
— Tami Abdollah: Associated Press law enforcement reporter. Former reporter @KPCC @latimes
Here are a few things I do to find exciting story ideas:
1.) Give someone the space to go off on a tangent. The best stories have been ones that people have spoken to me about as almost an afterthought. The random comment or detail at the end; the anecdote about their work and its difficulties.
2.) Read a lot so you know what’s out there. It’s impossible to gauge whether something is a good story idea if you don’t know what has already been written you don’t know if a topic is truly novel.
3.) Ask for story ideas and realize that they are everywhere. The person you’re talking to is probably an expert in whatever it is they do — that’s why you’re talking to them. So ask for their ideas — no matter how small or large. Allow them the freedom to pitch you an idea. Whether or not you use it, it’ll help inform your reporting and refine what you look for. No matter how small, the issue or concept may also become a kernel for a future story idea. And because story ideas are everywhere — get out. You’ll be more likely to stumble across something that way. Good, exciting stories are rarely dreamt up over a desk.
— Jia-Rui Chong Cook: Managing Editor for Zócalo Public Square, dedicated to humanities journalism. Zócalo stories are syndicated to 150 media outlets — including The Washington Post, USA Today, Time, the San Francisco Chronicle, and the Sacramento Bee.
The best way to find story ideas is to talk to people and listen. When I was trying to find a different way to tell the story of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans who had returned home, I spent some time talking to any veteran anybody would introduce me to. At one lunch, among a number of other things, one guy mentioned that he hadn’t had a good night’s sleep in a long time. He looked as if he hadn’t slept in a long time. I thought about how hard sleep deprivation was for me and went online to see if there was much written on this topic. There wasn’t. Then I thought about how this issue might be illustrated.
The idea of staying up all night with a total stranger was daunting at first — would this person let me? Could I even stay up all night and be alert? But I realized that many stories haven’t been told because they’re difficult to do. And if I could stay up all night with this veteran and see how one typical night went for him, I’d have a story no one else really had. Unfortunately, the guy who inspired the story idea stopped calling me back. But as I went to veterans group meetings, I realized that a lot of guys were having this problem and it was only a matter of finding one who would be willing to share his story with me. And then, I got lucky because the group where I found my prime example (a guy from the most recent wars) was led by a guy who had served in Vietnam. And he still wasn’t sleeping, decades later. This added depth — and perspective — to the extent of the issue.
Another way to help yourself find a story is to make sure you give yourself a particular target — a particular place or group of people you’d like to write about. Read everything you can about that place — local newspapers, blogs, newsletters — and visit whenever possible. Even casual visits can result in a good story.
For example, I was assigned to cover the Asian-American community and the San Gabriel Valley at the LA Times for a few years. Whenever we could, the other reporter in the Pasadena office and I would go out for lunch in Monterey Park or Alhambra. I’d keep an eye on the stores we were passing when we were out for lunch, and I kept seeing skin whitening products. I didn’t see these products on the shelves in Hollywood, where I was living at the time and which didn’t have as many Asian-American residents. (On a trip to Hong Kong around this time, I saw more and knew this really was a big thing in Asia, too.) I went into one of these shops one of those days and met the woman who became the lead of my story when I asked her why she was buying the whitening products.
— Errin Haines Whack: Contributor @ThisIsFusion. Former staff reporter @washingtonpost, @AP, @orlandosentinel, @latimes. @NABJ VP-Print
Pay attention! Great stories are everywhere. Use all of your senses to find them. Look for trends in the real world and on social media. The advent of technology and the Internet means that yes, some stories are going to come to you, but there’s definitely still something to the old journalism mantra: Get out there!
Last summer, I saw that my favorite band, Outkast, was finally doing a show in Atlanta on their 20th anniversary tour. I immediately thought, “I gotta cover this!” I ended up with not one, but THREE stories — including my take on the show, and a look at the group’s impact on the city.
Ask yourself: “Is this interesting to me?” Because if it is, chances are, it’s probably interesting to someone else. Part of having good news judgment is learning to trust your instincts — and then acting on them! There’s nothing worse than seeing the idea you had under someone else’s byline.
Not long after I moved to Washington, D.C., I saw that a Ferris wheel was coming to town. My hometown, Atlanta, had just put up a very popular Ferris wheel, and I wondered, “What’s up with all these Ferris wheels? Is someone pushing these to cities to give them some kind of faux London-esque cache?” Before long, I had a story.