Storytelling 101: A Reading List

In the Fall of 2015, I was lucky enough to teach a class on nonfiction storytelling at the University of Montana School of Journalism as a visiting professor. It was a wonderful experience, one that I will always cherish, simply because, twice a week, I got to sit in a beautiful classroom with a window that looked up at the mountains and talk about some of my favorite writing with smart students.

I wrestled, at times throughout the year, with whether I was truly qualified to teach writing at such a high level. I’ve written a lot of stories in my 15-year professional career, but where I work, I often feel like I’m batting 8th on the ’27 Yankees. It’s inspiring and intimidating to share magazine pages with so many talented people. Whatever my abilities are as a writer, I certainly read a lot, and this syllabus represents some of my favorite stories over the years. Classroom discussions are great, but I didn’t learn how to write features in a classroom. I learned because I obsessed over the structure and the details of certain magazine stories for a decade before I ever wrote a wrote magazine piece. A lot of people think it’s pointless to teach “longform” (a term I’ve grown to dislike in recent years, because of how often it’s abused) because of space restrictions and people’s iPhone attention spans. But they’re wrong. You can apply the storytelling techniques in these pieces to stories of almost any length: Tension, action, dialog, detail, character development.

If you’re interested in reading a piece on why storytelling matters to me, you can read the transcript of the speech I gave that was part of the fellowship.

A handful of students at other schools asked me if I would post my reading list (or syllabus) on Medium and talk about why I asked students to read certain things, and what you could learn by reading them. I usually tried to group two or three stories together that I thought complimented one another for various reasons. My students had to write 200 word reactions for each piece they read, which is a good exercise to help work through how you feel about something (and a great way to prove they actually did the reading).

Here is the reading list for anyone interested:

  1. FIRST ASSIGNMENT: PICK A FAVORITE PIECE OF JOURNALISM AND EXPLAIN WHY YOU LOVE IT

Muddied But Unbowed by Jeff MacGregor

If you can’t pick a piece of journalism that has inspired you over the years, one that you’ve read countless times and still discover new stuff nearly every time you read it, you aren’t much of a reader. This piece resonates for me because it’s essentially a standard profile that Jeff chopped into 25 different pieces, rearranged them in a way that at first feels random (but isn’t), then published it. It’s inventive and funny and full of so many wonderful scenes. The only issue is, the formatting of SI Vault robs it of some of its magic because it takes away the section breaks. It’s all one wall of text. If you click on the original layout, it reads much better.

2. IT’S ALL ABOUT THE SCENES, MAN:

After the Sky Fell by Brady Dennis

WHY SHOULD I READ IT AND STUDY IT: No one should start out writing long narratives. NO ONE. Some people bristle at this and find that declaration elitist, but you shouldn’t do it for the same reasons you wouldn’t want to face Clayton Kershaw the first time you picked up a baseball bat. If you learn how to write a 300-word story, you can begin to understand how to write a 500-word story, then a 1,000-word story, and so on. That’s why you should study Dennis’ series of of 300-word narratives that he wrote while working for the St. Petersburg Times. After The Sky Fell, about a lonely tollbooth operator, can teach you so much about details, about character, about not revealing everything right away, and about scene. So can man of Dennis’ other entries in the series, which earned him an Ernie Pyle Award.

3. PUT ME IN THE ROOM

The Final Moments of Wesley Eugene Baker by Jennifer McMenamin

WHY YOU SHOULD READ AND STUDY IT: What does it really mean to “bear witness” to something? Well, in a journalistic sense, it often means you serving as the eyes and ears to something that most people cannot see themselves. We can debate how important that role is when it comes to sports, but it’s extremely important if we are talking about being the witness to a war, or to an execution. This story, a simple yet powerful tick-tock of Baker’s final minutes alive before the State of Maryland executed him, works because it puts you in the room. It doesn’t moralize, or try to show off. It gives you a window into what death looks like when administered by the state. The details the the tight language are exceptional.

4. FINDING MEANING (AND TRUTH) IN A PHOTOGRAPH

Split Image by Kate Fagan

Falling Man by Tom Junod

WHY YOU SHOULD READ AND STUDY THEM: Kate’s story about a Penn student who felt she had to fake happiness on Instagram while suffering from severe depression was one the stories my students liked best all semester. It was something they could relate to, the pressure to seem happy, like college should be a blast all the time. Tom’s story is, I would argue, one of the best magazine stories of the last 25 years (if not the best). Both stories begin with photographs, and two talented writers and reporters had to work backward to unravel their mysteries. The magic of both is that we don’t reach a definitive conclusion, but that doesn’t mean the stories don’t ask powerful questions about death, about humanity, about what we choose to believe and remember.

5. WHAT IS TRUTH

A Rape on Campus by Sabrina Rubin Erdley

How To Tell A True War Story by Tim O’Brien

The Art of Fact Checking by Hannah Goldfield

WHY YOU SHOULD READ AND STUDY THEM: When Erdley’s Rolling Stone piece started to fall apart, a few half-hearted defenses of it surfaced suggested that it didn’t matter if the opening scene was real or fictionalized, what mattered was the issue. In addition to asking my students to read it from the perspective of an editor, and what details seemed to give away the fact that it was fabricated, it was important to discuss the difference between advocacy and journalism in storytelling. O’Brien makes the case, though fiction, that the feelings are what matter. Goldfield eloquently argues the opposite, that the power of nonfiction storytelling is that you can find something beautiful that’s still tethered to facts.

6. EMPATHY, HUMOR AND A SENSE OF PLACE

Snakes Alive! by Jeff MacGregor

Lost in the Waves by Justin Heckert

WHY YOU SHOULD READ AND STUDY THEM: These pieces seem like they have nothing in common, but both are great examples of an author seeing a small story somewhere (like a newspaper or a local TV report) and recognizing there is a lot more story there. Both writers approach the subjects without judgment or contempt. Jeff uses details and humor to set the scene of a rattlesnake festival, Justin uses details and empathy to help you understand how a father could lose his special needs son at sea. By the end of both, I feel like I know what it’s like to hunt rattlesnakes in the dry heat of Oklahoma. I feel like I know what it would be like to float in the ocean at night, certain your son had drowned.

7. SOMETIMES IT IS THE CRITIC WHO COUNTS

Mindy Kaling on the roles for women in film

Wesley Morris reviews Ted 2

Molly Lambert tackles Eminem at 40

Mark Harris on How Selma got smeared

WHY YOU SHOULD READ AND STUDY THEM: If you want to write nonfiction, you have to consider the perspective of other people who are nothing like you. Each of these four pieces of criticism forces you to consider a subject from something other than the popular consensus. (Spoiler: The white male perspective that dominates popular culture). Some of them use humor, some use logic, but each of them asks you to consider a person or a piece of art or an entire genre from the perspective of someone being marginalized.

8. BRUTAL HONESTY

Elephant by Jason Isbell

WHY YOU SHOULD LISTEN TO AND STUDY THIS SONG: Even though Jason is a songwriter who deals almost entirely in fiction, he has a knack for plucking real details from his life and plugging them into his music, and those details illuminate scenes as well as any storyteller alive. Sometimes those details are uncomfortable, and raw, and unsettling, but by studying the way he chooses to describe things in Elephant you can learn a lot about what kind of details to look for in reporting. I’ve always loved how Isbell uses movement in his descriptions as a window into character, and that’s evidenced by the picture he paints with the very first line: She said “Andy you’re better than your past.” Winked at me and drained her glass. Cross-legged on a bar stool like nobody sits anymore.

9. WHAT TO LEAVE IN, WHAT TO LEAVE OUT

Miss Teen America Finds Freedom, For A Day by Lane Degregory

A Team Playing From The Rough by Kurt Streeter

WHY YOU SHOULD READ AND STUDY THEM: For my money, there isn’t a better feature writer in American newspapers than Lane Degregory. And Kurt Streeter was in that category before he became a colleague at ESPN, where he now does excellent work on the magazine level. Both these pieces do a great job of illuminating their subjects, but at the same time, exercising restraint. They don’t preach, they show using scene and details. Lane’s piece flips conventional wisdom on its ear, and gives us a really honest look at the complexities of being a teenager, even if you’re someone coming from privilege. Kurt shows us the opposite side of privilege, and uses golf the same way Lane uses an overnight camp for troubled teens— to show you the subject’s humanity. The ending of Lane’s piece remains one of the boldest choices I’ve ever seen to end a feature.

10. THE BURDEN AND BLESSING OF CELEBRITY

The Final Comeback of Axl Rose by John Jeremiah Sullivan

The Tragedy of Britney Spears by Vanessa Grigoriadis

The Cult of Bob Barker by Hank Stuever

WHY YOU SHOULD READ AND STUDY THEM: Writing about celebrities, especially those who have already been the subject of thousands of stories, is really difficult. But these are three of my favorite pieces about celebrity, and each of them is executed differently. Sullivan’s essay would collapse in the hands of a lesser writer, especially the section in the middle about his own Indiana childhood, but when viewed as a way to understand the part of the world that birthed Axl Rose and all his crazy magnetism, it works. Grigoriadis worked like an investigative reporter to dig up things we’d always suspected about Spears and her toxic family, then uses it to explain why it all (right as this was published) was coming apart. Stuever manages to capture what Barker meant to a generation by explaining the world he created, and deftly juggles humor and pathos to show us what was disappearing with his exit looming.

11. THIS SONG MATTERS TO ME BECAUSE…

Joe Posnanski on The Promise

Nick Hornby on Thunder Road

WHY YOU SHOULD READ AND STUDY THEM: One of my favorite exercises for the semester was to have my students write an essay about something they loved, but do it in a way that tells a story. No one has done that better in recent years that Joe, who wrote about working with his father in a factory, and how The Promise by Bruce Springsteen did a better job of capturing his desire to escape that life than words could (at least at the time). There is a paragraph in here where Joe describes his father, the one that ends with “He fell asleep in front of the television” that’s one of my favorite things he’s ever written. Hornby had similar feelings about Springsteen, about hearing Thunder Road and getting out and never looking back, but of course we can’t help looking back. All of us.

13. LET YOUR HATRED FLOW FROM WITHIN

Lindy West on Sex and The City 2

Bono is an Asswipe by Albert Burneko

Hunter S. Thompson on Richard Nixon’s death

WHY YOU SHOULD READ AND STUDY THEM: If you’re going to occasionally write about why you love something, you should also understand the flip side, and what it means to write about something (or someone) you loathe. West uses humor to take a rusty saw to the embarrassment that was the Sex and the City sequel, Burneko gets worked up about Bono’s narcissism, and Hunter S. Thompson (in on of the great take downs of all time) sets fire to Nixon’s corpse. Each has its charms, but HST’s essay became a classic piece of “journalism” in part because the author knew his subject so well, and he did not come lightly to the typewriter when it was time to unleash his anger.

14. RARE AIR

Roger Federer As Religious Experience by David Foster Wallace

Michael Jordan Has Not Left The Building by Wright Thompson

WHY YOU SHOULD READ AND STUDY THEM: It’s rare for someone to write something about a subject that is so good, so moving, it essentially becomes the definitive piece about that time in a subject’s life. No other stories from that period matter. But that’s absolutely the case here. Wallace’s piece is as much an ode to the things DFW wanted to believe about sports (that aesthetic beauty and artistry could triumph over brute strength) as it is about Federer. Wright’s profile captures Jordan at the perfect time, when he is both reflective and human. Every scene builds beautifully on top of the previous one. Wallace studied Federer at the height of his athletic brilliance, while Wright studied Jordan when his gifts were a fading into memory. Both stories are examples of a great writer at the top of his game.

15. A SUBJECT CLOSE TO MY HEART

The Unkillable Demon King by Mina Kimes

You Can’t Quit Cold Turkey by Tommy Tomlinson

WHY YOU SHOULD READ AND STUDY THEM: These are two of my favorite ESPN The Magazine stories we’ve run in recent years, and for good reason. Every writer brings something different to a story, but here are two examples of the perfect writer matched with the perfect subject. Although Mina is American, she wrote about what Faker and League of Legends means to South Korean culture in a way that seems completely organic. It never feels like she was an interloper dropping into the world of video games and not quite “getting it.” Tommy, who has been open about his own battle with his weight, was able to relate to Lorenzen in a way very few writers could. When everyone else was mocking Internet clips of Lorenzen, Tommy approached him with empathy. Both stories have beautiful passages of writing, but they’re also structured in a way where the length feels effortless.

16. WHAT IF MY SUBJECT IS A JERK?

The Hit King by Scott Rabb

“Baby, Give Me A Kiss” by Claire Hoffmann

WHY YOU SHOULD READ AND STUDY THEM: One of the hardest things to do in journalism is get a lot of access to a subject, and then fearlessly and honestly reveal just how awful the subject truly is. Far too often, the opposite happens. Both Rabb and Hoffman each use some first person in these pieces to help the reader understand what it’s like to be in the company of Rose and Francis, and the stories are better for it. These stories also have two of my favorite walk-off lines ever.

17. STORTYELLING ON DEADLINE

Tom Brady In A Postgame Daze of Disappointment by Dan Wetzel

Death of Racehorse by W.C. Heinz

Digging JFK Grave Was An Honor by Jimmy Breslin

WHY YOU SHOULD READ AND STUDY THEM: Great storytelling can’t always be done over the course of weeks or months, involving multiple editors and multiple drafts. Sometimes it’s better when you only get one shot and you know you have to nail it. All three of these pieces are memorable because they went in a different direction than what most reporters were writing about that day, and they showed us scenes that you rarely get a glimpse of, stuff I like to think of as happening “just off stage.” Wetzel, maybe the best current columnist there is at big events, captures the misery of defeat and manages to humanize one of the biggest celebrities on earth. Heinz pens what feels almost like a short story. Breslin looked at one of the biggest events in U.S. history, the Kennedy assassination, and went micro, telling the story of the man who was asked to dig his grave. Each piece uses little repetitions throughout, almost like music. Each has pieces of dialog, which is different than using “quotes.”

18. LEARNING HOW TO LISTEN AND OBSERVE

Into the Lonely Quiet by Eli Saslow

WHY YOU SHOULD READ AND STUDY THIS: In my opinion, this is one of the best newspaper features anyone has written in the last 10 years. Eli has many strengths as a journalist, but I’d argue that his greatest skill is that he doesn’t step on scenes. He gets out of the way, almost like he becomes invisible, and gives us a witness to real human moments. The scene in the diner in this story could easily have been mawkish or overdone, and instead it’s handled with grace. What’s left unsaid is even more powerful than what is. Saslow, who is a close friend, is in my opinion, the writer aspiring journalists should study the most. He never makes stories about anything other than his subjects, and understands the importance of pacing, character development and restraint better than anyone working.

19. WRITING ABOUT AN OBJECT, NOT A PERSON

Jason Werth and Betsy, A Glove Story by Adam Kilgore

Why No One Will Ever Replace Richard Petty as the King of NASCAR

by Jeff MacGregor

WHY YOU SHOULD READ AND STUDY THEM: The best writers often challenge themselves to look at things differently, and these are two of my favorite examples of mini-profiles that defy convention. Kilgore, looking to fill a slot in early editions of the Washington Post while because the Nationals were playing a West Coast night game, dashed off this perfect ode to a baseball glove. MacGregor, in a series Smithsonian Magazine ran about objects that helped shape America, wrote about Richard Petty’s race car. Kilgore narrowed the lens, writing about the special relationship every professional baseball player has with his glove by bringing just one example to life. MacGregor widened his lens, pulling back and giving us commentary on how Petty’s race car represented the way the country was changing.

20. GOING ON ALL IN, LEAVING NO STONE UNTURNED

The Things That Carried Him by Chris Jones

WHY YOU SHOULD READ AND STUDY THIS: Chris has been pretty open about the fact that this story nearly broke him. But it nearly broke him because he felt obligated to get it right, to put everything he had into unearthing every last detail that would help tell the story of Joe Montgomery’s journey home. During class discussion, I asked my students to guess how many people Chris interviewed for this piece. Most guessed somewhere in the 50s. A few said maybe it was 70. The actually number is 99, an exhaustive effort that took eight months to complete. But what we’re left with is a masterpiece, another story that documents what happens “just off stage” when most reporters are looking somewhere else.

21. WHEN A STORY IS STRUCTURED LIKE A MYSTERY

The Peekaboo Paradox by Gene Weingarten

The Most Amazing Bowling Story Ever Told by Michael Mooney

WHY YOU SHOULD READ AND STUDY THEM: The Peekaboo Paradox might be my favorite piece of all time. Weingarten likes to portray himself as a bit of a bumbling rube, barely able to tie his own shoes, but he is a genius when it comes to story structure and instinct. There are little echoes throughout this piece that give me chills every time I read it. (“We are rolling bones.”) Mooney managed to recreate an entire night he didn’t witness through meticulous reporting, and the pacing of learning what happened to Bill Fong is perfect. Both stories hint that there is more to come, but they don’t give anything away, and that tension is what makes the stories feel like they are running downhill. There is a little bit of magic in each of these pieces, and explaining it might ruin the trick. Better to just absorb them and be left in awe.

22. HOW TO CAPTURE A SUBJECT’S VOICE

The American Male at Age 10 by Susan Orlean

The Trophy Son by Randall Patterson

WHY YOU SHOULD READ AND STUDY THEM: When Susan Orlean was assigned a profile of Macauley Calkin by Esquire for an issue about The American Male at age 10, Orlean made a plea to her editor to instead profile a normal 10-year-old who wasn’t a celebrity. The result perfectly captured the “voice” of a 1o-year-old boy, and what goes on in his brain over a two-week period. Patterson’s task was arguably just as difficult. He had to take seriously the complaints of two parents who thought a coach and athletic director ruined their son’s life by benching him, and he chose to subtly show how absurd their claims were while writing the story from their point of view, letting them hang themselves with their own words.

23. THE PERSONAL ESSAY

Greg Howard on Obama’s Amazing Grace

A November Farwell by Mike Royko

Katie The Prefect by Joe Posnanski

WHY YOU SHOULD READ AND STUDY THEM: Each of these pieces evokes powerful emotions for me. Each of them uses a story to do so, and each requires the author being vulnerable. Greg’s piece, for me, will go down as the definitive piece about President’s Obama singing Amazing Grace in Charleston, one of the most powerful moments of his presidency. Royko managed to tell the story of his marriage in a single column, and make his wife’s death feel universal. Joe grapples with an everyday dilemma of parenting, but also highlights the random kindness of strangers. Personal essays can be fraught and occasionally pointless exercises in ego, but each of these succeeds because they risk something.

24. TAKE A RISK, WRITE A STORY IN AN UNUSUAL WAY

Here Is What Happens When You Cast Lindsey Lohan In Your Movie by Stephen Rodrick

I Will Remain Forever Faithful by David Ramsey

Hiding Out With Fiona Apple by Dan P. Lee

WHY YOU SHOULD READ AND STUDY THEM: These pieces each have their strengths, but all of them are fun, creative reads. Rodrick’s is the most traditional, the embedded journalist observes an event unfolding in real time, but it’s almost like the Hearts of Darkness version of The Canyons, where the making of the film was better than the film itself. Ramsey’s “mix tape essay” about Lil’ Wayne and teaching in New Orleans, which echoes Weezy’s own mix tapes, is a wonderful exercise in creativity, and was one of my students’ favorite reads all semester. Lee can’t help but fall a little bit in love with Apple, connecting with her on a level that transcends the typical writer/subject relationship, but the result is one of my favorite profiles of a celebrity.

25. SETTING UP A SCENARIO TO ASK BIG QUESTIONS

Pearls Before Breakfast by Gene Weingarten

Driving Mr. Albert by Michael Paterniti

WHY YOU SHOULD READ AND STUDY THEM: Both of these invent a scenario in order to ask questions about the universe. Weingarten wants to know if we’re too busy to appreciate real beauty, and Paterniti wants to know if the actual gray matter of Einstein’s brain means anything beyond a collection of particles. Weingarten’s story remains somewhat polarizing in my circle of friends. Some think it’s beautiful, others find it elitist and contrived. Paterniti’s piece is a good example of an era of magazine writing that is no longer en vogue, when writers took big, WRITERLY swings at subjects and wrote 18,000 words trying to explain the universe. (Even Paterniti, one of the most creative magazine writers alive, writes with more “restraint” these days. It’s just the style.) Whatever you think of either piece, both are trying to make a case for what’s really important, and you have to admire the hell out of the ambition they required.

26. THE DETAILS YOU’LL NEVER FORGET

Growing Pains by Sally Jenkins

When Your Dream Dies by Rick Reilly

WHY YOU SHOULD READ IT AND STUDY IT: Sometimes, there is certain detail in a story that’s so good, it sticks with you forever. Both of these stories have examples of that. With Jenkins writing about Kwame Brown, it’s the anecdote about French dressing. It’s such a perfect window into what a kid he still was, that he brought French dressing with him to fancy restaurants because he put it on everything. With Reilly, it’s the detail in the lede, that Kenny Wilcoxen wrote his suicide note on the back of the letter telling him he would referee in the state finals. Both of these stories are beautifully structured, but it’s those details that will never fade from memory.

27. STORIES THAT WOULD OTHERWISE GO UNNOTICED

One Good Thing On Top Of Another by Lisa Pollak

A Woman Disappeared and Never Left Her Home by Michael Kruse

WHY YOU SHOULD READ THEM AND STUDY THEM: I love both these stories because they so easily could have been overlooked. Stories like this are overlooked every day, in fact. Lisa — who now works as a producer for This American Life but was a feature writer at the Baltimore Sun — read a press release about an Oreo cookie stacking contest and sensed there might be something more there when she interviewed the runner up. Michael saw a report about a woman who was found dead in her home, and after the TV cameras left, he got to work reconstructing her life and telling a story about loneliness and mental illness in America. Both are great examples of the adage that every young reporter should follow: Sometimes there is more to this story.

28. Stories about social policy

The Marriage Cure by Katherine Boo

TAKEN by Sarah Stillman

WHY YOU SHOULD READ THEM AND STUDY THEM: Eli Saslow and I talk a lot about stories we love (Here is a tip: Find someone more talented and smarter than you to talk about stories, then call them often), and he said often circles back to The Marriage Cure every time he’s looking for inspiration. It’s easy to understand why. It takes two complicated issues (poverty and marriage) and humanizes the people involved. Stillman does the same thing, putting faces on the victims of an absurd and unfair law. There is nothing wrong with journalism that has a voice in it, but one thing I love about these pieces is how almost every sentence is grounded in fact.

29. Explanatory Writing

Consider the Lobster by David Foster Wallace

WHY YOU SHOULD READ AND STUDY THIS: Gourmet Magazine likely had no idea what they were getting into when they asked DFW to write about the Maine Lobster Festival, but the piece Wallace handed in turned into a classic piece of journalism because it not only dug into the morality of cooking lobsters, it combined science with descriptive scenes, ethics and heart. It’s really unlike just about anything ever published, and a reminder that Wallace’s nonfiction was nearly as groundbreaking, and probably more accessible, than his celebrated fiction.

30. Documentary Journalism

Class C, The Only Game In Town A Film by Justin Lubke and Shasta Griner

WHY YOU SHOULD WATCH THIS DOCUMENTARY: This is one my favorite pieces of art in any medium, in part because it explains Montana than I ever could. But it also does an incredible job of showing you how small towns are dying. It’s about basketball, but only as a framing device. It’s really about how small town life in America is changing. It manages to juggle multiple characters, weave history into its story arc, and is beautiful visually. It’s a wonderful way to spend 90 minutes.

I could pick hundreds of other stories, but these were ones I thought were great teaching tools. Thanks again to the University of Montana and to the Pollner and Thorpe families for giving me the opportunity to teach. It was one of the most rewarding experiences of my life.

— KVV

Got questions? Shoot me an email.

kevin.t.vanvalkenburg@espn.com