Popular Culture Journalism (JOUR494): Class recap for Sept. 24 — scene stories

Tampa Bay Times

We’re a month into the semester, the pace is quickening, and the Pollner class is turning into a bit of a juggling lesson. On Wednesday, we’re going to be group-critiquing the reported essays. (Professor Stuever is also grappling with something he hasn’t thought one bit about since he left college: grades. How to grade? There’s a horrible tug between needing to be tough and wanting to be kind. You’d think three years of eviscerating TV shows would lend itself to grading 17 essays. You’d be wrong. I have to factor in hopes and dreams here.)

Anyhoo, next Monday (Oct. 1), we’ll be discussing George Trow’s Within the Context of No Context, as one of about a thousand ways to get into the personal essay assignment, which will come due on Oct. 15.

And also, it’s time to get busy on scene stories, which are due on Nov. 7.

We’re going to be revisiting the mechanics of a good scene-story writing and reporting during the next month, off and on.

A scene story is a quick, highly-narrative feature about an event or a moment, mainly. The whole point is to go and observe very closely, to weed through a day (or night) of experiences and bring it vividly to life for the reader who wouldn’t go (or couldn’t go; or couldn’t get access). Many a writing coach has advised a frozen reporter on deadline to simply imagine telling a friend about what you saw, what you heard, what people ate, what they wore, what was funny about it, what was sad. We are already good at telling one another stories, with instincts for pacing and organizing the information by the best moments and details.

Scene stories blend pure narrative with information. The goal is to engage the reader and let them know what it felt like to be there. This is different than most feature stories (or, shudder, “trend” stories) where the reporter simply gathers quotes (often by phone, or man-on-the-street) on a topic and sums up. Scene stories are alive. They are packed with active verbs and dialogue. In a scene story, dialogue and movement are more important that quote-unquote quotes.

We read three examples and talked about what we liked and didn’t like in each. Michael Kruse went to the muddin’ festival at the Redneck Yacht Club. By the time you’re done reading this piece, you can almost feel the mud on you. Emphasis here is on characters and dialogue. Also notice that we don’t watch from the sidelines only. We get in the trucks, we get close to the strippers, we can hear the music. Details are everything. You have to pack your notebook full of them.

We read Dan Zak on the final on-air hours of the military radio station at an American operating base on the verge of the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq. Notice here how dialogue works as Dan takes down everything said during the military’s “morning zoo” show. Notice how Dan seamlessly weaves in the more standard feature-story stuff. Notice how the radio station works as a metaphor for the American presence in Iraq.

We also read Monica Hesse’s pitch-perfect scene story on Prince Harry’s fast trip to Washington last May.

As we discussed these stories I sort of reversed-outlined each piece, breaking it down to its component parts. Intro, scene-setting, opening scene, nutgraf, further scenes … and then …

What I want you to notice about them is how each of these examples has a “step-back” moment. The step-back is not quite like a nutgraf, which tells you WHAT the story is about and WHY you care. The step-back is a place where we pause the action and zoom out on the frame and write a little bit — a paragraph or two will usually do it — about what this event MEANS, culturally or otherwise. Michael Kruse steps back twice in the muddin’ story to make larger (but not necessarily opinionated) observations about Florida and the redneck ethos. Dan Zak takes a moment to look at the broader influence military radio has had over the decades, including its role in introducing a little boy named Robert Plant to blues singers. (No military radio = no Led Zeppelin?) And Monica Hesse stops here and there to admire and ruminate on the culture’s mancrush on Harry. (This was pre-Las Vegas nude shots, mind you.)

So then, what you all did with your reported essays? That was training for the “step-back” part of your scene story.

More later.

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