The Heart of the Story

Though this is more about feature writing in a newsmagazine or some such publication, I thought this article was helpful for us fiction writers as well. Just um…whenever he writes “journalist,” substitute “fiction writer.” In general, it works out.

The Heart of the Story
by Jon Ronson
, feature writer for The Guardian

Finding a Story to Tell
How do you begin your story? All journalists are, to a greater or lesser degree, paranoid conspiracy theorists. This is because stories do not have natural boundaries, every lead can take you to another lead, every thought to another thought, and eventually – if you allow yourself to become crazy – every story you write can incorporate the past, present, and future of all human civilisation. You don’t believe me? Okay, I’m going to pick a topic at random. The Paris fashion shows.

Every journalist is – at some point in their career – asked to cover the Paris fashion shows. The brief is this: we are slobs with no fashion sense. Wouldn’t it be funny to send us to this strange world, where we can be wide-eyed, sardonic innocents, making fun of the pomposity, the circus, and the expensive clothes?

So you start with that very brief, but the conspicuous, garish wealth on display starts to grind you down. Where are the clothes produced? Are they stitched together in some sweatshop where the workers are beaten up for complaining about their conditions? So it becomes a story about that. And you feel so superior in your slobbishness, and you think it’s all a con, but what if you’re wrong? I don’t like looking like a slob. Are they happier than me? What is happiness? How old is that girl? Oh my God, am I a dirty old man for finding her attractive? Why does the age of consent differ from country to country? Is the Law as fragile as a shifting sandbank? Should the Law respond to the moral climate or dictate it? Is she too thin? She looks ill, yet attractive. Why is that? Why did Ali McGraw become better looking the sicker she got in Love Story?

Why am I here? Why are we giving so much newspaper space to such nonsense when there’s a war on? Why do people want to read this stuff? Is it a capitalist sleight-of-hand trick designed to take our minds away from the war? Am I a pawn in some grand conspiracy to divert attention from our dreadful foreign policy? Do I really find her attractive, or do I just think I do? Would I find her more attractive if she was imperfect? What is perfection? What’s it like to be forced to work in a sweatshop? No I really do find her attractive. And so on. Suddenly the canvas is huge. And that’s a fashion show. What if your brief is Westminster, or the Hutton Inquiry, or a murder trial, or Iraq?

The US Supreme court judge Oliver Wendell Holmes once said (and this quote should be framed on every journalist’s wall): ‘I would not give a fig for the simplicity this side of complexity, but I would give my life for the simplicity on the other side of complexity.’

This is any writer’s greatest challenge: once you’ve chosen a story, investigate all the parameters, turn yourself insane, drown yourself in the details, then regain your sanity, and come out the other end with something …simple.

Researching Your Story
So you’ve picked a story, now chances are you’re going to need to do some research. Talking to people directly is one of a journalist’s most important skills. First, you need to get access to whomever you want to write about. Just ask them. Tell them the truth. You’re hoping to become a published journalist. You’re trying to make it. Can you meet them? You may well have more luck than an established writer. You will be non-threatening to them. You’ll be triggering in them some sense of magnanimity. I once spent a year with a very unapproachable Islamic fundamentalist leader. The only reason he agreed to let me hang out with him was because he thought I was a student who needed help, even though I never told him I was a student. I told him I was with The Guardian and Channel 4.

‘But,’ he kept saying to me, ‘look at your clothes! Look at your hair! You must be a student.’

‘I’m really not a student,’ I said.

I remember once, as a schoolboy, being cornered by some tough kids. They beat up my friend but left me alone because they were convinced I was a gypsy who deserved pity rather than violence. Play that gypsy card! You know what I mean.

Next. Do you get your notepad out or do you keep it in your pocket and scribble down notes when they’re not looking? This is a tricky one. One of the greatest pieces of journalism ever written was Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. It was, in part, the story of a multiple murder and how it affected the inhabitants of the local town. Capote never once got out his notepad. He memorised everything and then wrote up the day’s events in his room each night. Although I greatly admire the book, I would not recommend this approach. Tape your formal interviews, and keep your notepad in your hand at all times. Maybe – when you’re just getting to know your subject – you should write down what they say just after they’ve said it, so you don’t interrupt the flow of the conversation, and make them ill-at-ease. And then, after an hour or so, when you are used to each other, take notes as they’re saying it.

Always bear in mind that your aim is to be surprising. You’re not there to perpetuate old stereotypes. You’re not there to tell people what they already know. You are there to reveal something new. I have abandoned stories because they turned out to be unexpectedly disappointing. For example, I once spent a few days with the toppled Haitian death squad commander Emmanuel ‘Toto’ Constant, who was also a CIA informant, and now lives at his mother’s house in Queens, New York. I hoped he would take me to his bedroom where – I had discovered – he keeps his large, secret collection of plastic figures that come free in McDonalds and Burger King promotions. I imagined him alone at night, lording over his new army of tiny Bugs Bunnies and Deputy Dawgs. I thought this might be an absurdly human sight, something to connect to, but despite my pleadings he refused to show them to me. Instead he just wanted to persistently, and erroneously, protest his innocence down in the kitchen. Visiting him felt like a waste of time.

When I’m embarking on a story I imagine perfect scenarios. Toto Constant showing me his Bugs Bunnies would have been one such perfect scenario. My wife tells me I’m wrong to preconceive my stories, because I won’t be open to unexpected turns of events. She’s right. Now I try and do both – I keep myself open and also strive to make the story as good as I imagined it to be before I left the house. I abandoned Toto Constant not only because it seemed a journalistically pointless exercise but also because it wouldn’t have made my editors happy.

When to Arrive – Getting in on the Action
The type of journalism I write is a kind of first-person narrative. I place myself in the middle of an unfolding story and hope that I’ll learn something interesting about whomever I’m following by watching the way they respond to unfolding events, and the way they deal with me.

You might have already spotted two problems with this approach:

1. There’s no point in putting yourself in an unfolding situation after the best stuff has already unfolded. So how do you know that an interesting event is going to unfold before it unfolds?

2. How can you put yourself in the middle of a story without being an idiot?

I will take each point in turn. In December 2002, a religious sect called the Raelians, who believe that humankind was created in test tubes by our extraterrestrial masters, announced in a press conference that they had cloned the world’s first human baby. As most of my journalism chronicles the lives of people who live on the margins of Western society, a few editors asked me to write something about the Raelians. I didn’t do it. If you’re not in their lab with them, mid-clone (or non-clone if – in fact – they were lying), if you’re not backstage with them in the minutes before the press conference, the story becomes retrospective and un-revealing.

This kind of research might be fine for a novel, and the fiction author’s task is to create the scenes as if it is happening in the moment. In most cases the reader enjoys things to unfold just as if they were in the middle of it themselves. By putting yourself in the middle of the action, as a journalist does, you really know how it feels to be that reader, wondering what comes next.

Here’s a story I did do: There’s an elderly man in Washington DC called Big Jim Tucker, a far-right wing conspiracy theorist who believes – like many people do – that a shadowy group called Bilderberg, whose membership includes heads of government and big-business, secretly rules the world every year from a five-star hotel with golfing facilities.

I wanted for some time to write about the relationship between the political beliefs of the far-right and emergence of conspiracy theories, so I called up Big Jim. He said I’d caught him at a good time. He’d just learnt that the Bilderberg group was meeting at the end of May in a five-star resort in Portugal, and he fully intended to fly over there, shimmy up the drainpipes, get in, and confront them red-handed going about their covert wickedness.

‘Can I come?’ I asked.

I assumed that whatever might happen in Portugal would surely be interesting. And it was. But there’s no time to go into that here.

How to not be an idiot. Ever since the great American gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson began to put himself into his stories, thousands have tried to copy this approach, with mixed results. Thompson created the style in the early 1970s. His thing was to take huge amounts of drugs, and then put himself in the middle of, say, Las Vegas. So the drug-addled Thompson turned himself into a metaphor for the weirdness of Vegas, that Sodom of the American dream. Sometimes the hideously stoned Thompson would place himself in the middle of a police convention. In doing so he made himself a symbol of the disparity between the counter-culture and ‘straight’ America. This was a big disparity back then.

So, you see, Thompson’s style worked because he had a very good reason for doing it. Now, consider this: if you get yourself stoned and go to the Labour Party conference, what point – exactly – are you trying to make? You will, trust me, be an idiot.

You and Your Story – The Balance of Power
I am not limitlessly interested in myself. I do not place myself in the middle of my stories because I am an egotist. Most of my stories are about the clash between the liberal world and the ‘extremists’ who live on its margins. When I am hanging out with – say – Sheikh Omar Bakri Mohammed, leader of the radical Islamic group Al Muhajiroun, my plan is to learn something interesting about our world by moving into theirs. I want to stand alongside them while they glare back at us. It is a story about Omar’s world AND about my world.

Omar says he won’t rest until he sees the Black Flag of Islam flying over Downing Street. And he lives in Tottenham. So he inevitably needs to use our symbols in his attempts to destroy them. For instance, Omar sometimes collects money for Hamas in the only collection boxes available in his local Cash and Carry, which happen to be large, novelty coca-cola bottles. You can see that the presence of me – a liberal Jew – will be an interesting addition to a story about Omar. How will he deal with me? How will I deal with him?

This is how I ended my story about Omar:

‘I was to see Omar on only one more occasion. It had been a year since he bought his novelty Coca-Cola Hamas collection boxes from the Cash and Carry. They were full now, of loose change and £50 notes. There was a cheque for £5000 in one. Anjem, Omar’s deputy, and Omar were taking the collection boxes to the bank. The money would be converted into foreign currency and shipped off to the Middle East, where it would be used in the fight against Israel.

Omar had some business to finish. Anjem packed the bottles in the back of his car. Then he remembered that he’d left his coat inside. He said: ‘Could you guard the money for a moment? I won’t be long.’

‘Okay,’ I replied.

Anjem disappeared, and I was left standing guard over thousands of pounds, money that would go to Hamas, to kill the Jews in Israel.

For a while I stood there.

And what was I doing, guarding money that would be used to kill the Jews? And then I understood that I had to take the money. I had to reach into the car, grab the Coca-Cola bottles, and make a run for it. This was my responsibility, my duty. I had an obligation to do this. I had the strength to carry two bottles. How many lives might that save? Omar and Anjem were still inside. The car was unlocked.

But I didn’t do it, of course. I just stood there. And then Anjem and Omar returned, thanked me for my help, and took the money to the bank.’

So, only put yourself in your story if there is a good reason for it: if the reader will learn something new by seeing the interaction between the writer and their subject. The story is not about you. Of course, if you’re writing a novel or screenplay, your characters can be ‘you’ on your behalf.

A Note on the Business
If, this far in, you are liking the sound of writing a bit of feature journalism, you’ve eventually got to sell your work to a publication. Who should you approach for work? Try and form relationships with the publications you yourself enjoy reading. If you feel you are on the same wavelength as them, they may feel the same way about you. I have never been to the offices of, say, The Sun, but I imagine them to be much like a prison yard in a high security jail, where the tough cons all stare at the effeminate new boy with suspicion and menace. It is like chatting someone up in a bar. Even if you pull out all the stops, use your best gags, be charm incarnate, it’s not going to work if you’re not that person’s type.

If you’re going to write something on spec – just to see if you can do it, and perhaps send it to an editor – what should it be about? My advice here is, I imagine, the same that a novelist would offer. Write about something that interests you, something you’re passionate about. But don’t be too passionate. I recently judged a student media award and one of the entrants described a visit he took to an Israeli airbase. He watched the planes taking off and wrote that they were ‘luscious beasts’. I think that’s revealing a little too much about the writer. Maybe passion is best underplayed.

Remember that feature journalism isn’t just about getting access, getting the facts, getting good quotes, etc. It is also about being a good writer. Read good writers – fiction and non-fiction. I’ve learnt as much from reading Raymond Carver and Kurt Vonnegut and the non-fiction novels of Norman Mailer and Tom Wolfe, as I have from reading the newspapers. But if you are going to learn from novelists there’s probably not much point in studying over-fancy writers – magical realists, or whatever. No one wants elements of magical realism in magazine articles. Carver and Vonnegut have simple styles. They’re good ones to start with.

Each time you deliver a bad story, your career becomes more precarious. I recently made a documentary about a religious sect whose leader had decreed that all his members had to donate their spare kidneys to strangers. (Well, if he didn’t decree it he certainly encouraged it). It seemed like it was going to be brilliant – a much-maligned ‘cult’ undertaking a bizarre, controversial, yet extraordinarily philanthropic endeavour. The story failed because the leader, Dave, was just a terrible, terrible person, bullying, hectoring, manipulative, just like your mental picture of a ‘cult’ leader. He was a stereotype, and his nastiness was so potent that it drowned out all the ambiguities. My documentary did nobody any good. Dave came across badly. The issue about Samaritan kidney donations got lost, and I made a pointlessly accusatory film. So don’t jump in head-first and hope for the best. Try and see the big picture. If the story is not going to work, don’t do it.

Good writers get work. The myth is that journalism is a closed shop, that commissioning editors have no interest in discovering new talent. In fact, they’re dying to be the first to publish the new Miranda Sawyer or Rod Liddle or Boris Johnson. I don’t know a single good writer who hasn’t made it in journalism if they’ve wanted to. If you are a good journalist and a good writer, you will never be short of commissions.

Article found here: