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May 2 / King Kaufman

Wright Thompson of ESPN: Write “scenes”

Robert De Niro in "Raging Bull"

Robert De Niro in "Raging Bull"

Today’s advice for writers comes from ESPN senior writer Wright Thompson, yet another talented graduate of the Kansas City Star sports page, which is to writers what Ohio is to football coaches.

Thompson’s got plenty to say so I’m going to let him get to it, but first, let me say one thing. Much of what Thompson says about thinking in terms of “scenes” might seem as though it wouldn’t apply to Bleacher Report writers since we don’t do a lot of original reporting. But I think it does apply.

Keep this advice in mind even as you write opinion pieces or slide shows. Your own observations, your ability to “show don’t tell,” are vital to all kinds of writing, not just reportage.

The rest of this post is Wright Thompson writing.

Wright Thompson’s advice for writers

Rick Telander of the Chicago Sun-Times told me when I was in college perhaps the best advice I’ve ever gotten about stories: “It’s all about the scenes.”

Scenes are what allow you to show instead of tell. They’re the engine of a narrative arc. They make the thing go. So, while I’ve received a lot of writing advice, that’s been most helpful. With that in mind, I’ve got five little thoughts about scenes:

1. The hardest working reporters get the best scene

There’s a reason Dan Wetzel of Yahoo Sports is so damn good. It’s because he works hard. He hangs around, looking for moments, trying to find the tiny pieces of a day that bring something alive.

This involves active scene hunting: being everywhere you can possibly be to see interactions. (Search these out. For instance, at Augusta National, you can be in a mass of people between the 17th green and the 18th tee, and if you know where to stand, as the players make that walk, security guards put up a rope and suddenly, instead of being in the middle of a swirling crowd, you are three feet from Phil Mickelson interacting with a young child moments before the final hole of the tournament. Those are the things you need to actively search for.)

But it also means knowing that, in asking questions, you shouldn’t waste time on getting comments or broad thoughts; try to get them to put you in a moment.

Think of an interview as a place to learn something and not gather quotes. It’s why walk-ons and backup quarterbacks are perhaps the best big-event postgame interviews: They see everything and, while the cameras are throwing softballs at the stars, you can go to the corner of the locker room and find the soul of something.

A final note about looking for scene: It really is about outworking other people. In golf, for instance, the players’ wives or families are always in the gallery. I found Tiger Woods’ mother at the Masters and saw that she kept her plastic cups, like every fan does. That’s a powerful window into what the tournament still means to Tiger and his family.

Do the work and the journalism gods will repay you. If there’s a choice between going out and looking for a detail and not going out, always go out. If there’s a choice between an extra phone call or hitting the hotel bar: Always make the call.

2. My editor, Jay Lovinger, gave me a book to read one time: Norman Mailer’s The Fight. It really opened my eyes. I realized that all the hard-won scene in the world is meaningless if you can’t provide motivation.

It’s why some scenes read like great fiction and others seem like an obligatory moment tacked on top of a feature (more on that in a minute). Read this book to see what I mean.

When you’re reporting, ask a lot of questions after observing to get inside people’s heads. It’s vital. This is where backstory is useful.

People often think backstory is the story. To me, that is why there are so many rise, fall and redemption pieces, which are almost always bad. Backstory isn’t the story. It’s the stuff that makes the current decisions/dilemmas/etc. make sense. Use it wisely. Use it carefully.

Nothing can kill a story more than misplaced backstory. But it is vital to showing motivation, and the stakes, and odds, and risks. But think about how information is given out in movies or novels. That’s what you’re aiming for. (More on that later, too.)

3. Use the right scenes

A bad scene is often worse than no scene. And I understand the difficulty of dealing with no access. I know that I have the luxury now of passing on stories if the access won’t give me the tools I need to hit a home run. I get that isn’t indicative of the real world, or the job I had to do at the K.C. Star.

But still, be aware of this. Deal with it as best as you can while dealing with the realities of the modern sports media relations machine.

Here’s a test: If you have to do verbal gymnastics to get from the scene to the story that comes after, you need a new scene. I’ve done it more times than I care to remember: scene, then bizarre twisted sentence or two to get me back on track. Take it from someone who’s made that mistake: don’t.

4. Understand how the scenes fit together

Sometimes a great scene doesn’t work. I recently wrote a story about cricket and couldn’t use perhaps the funniest thing I observed because it took away from the arc. It was a great scene for some story … just not this one.

Try to remember that. The story is more important than any individual part.

People who tell you to lead a feature with your best thing are, to me, wrong. That’s not the way to think about it. Which leads us to … structure. I outline religiously. Not everybody does (though I suspect the people who don’t are a) much better writers than I or b) so smart that they outline in their heads without having to write it down).

Maybe both of those apply to you. If not, if you’re like me, then outline. Read Jon Franklin’s Writing for Story. It’ll help you understand conflict and resolution.

A simple way of thinking about it is: The first section of a feature story asks a question and the rest of the story answers it. A scene that does this for you is gold. It is the story in miniature in a way, and sets a tone, and introduces a character — use as few characters as you can get away with, by the way
– and is incredibly important.

Also: The end scene needs some of the same qualities but also requires something a bit different. The story should be leading to a hammer. I try to have my most powerful revelatory moment be the end.

It should be something that, if you’d led with it, would be good but if it is at the end of this journey, is devastating. Chris Jones from Esquire writes the best endings. He inspires and humbles me. If you want to know what to do, read everything he writes. It’s what I do.

5. Use the scenes cinematically

Always be asking yourself: If this were a movie, would any part of it make me want my $8 back? Put the things in the best order.

The idea of a feature isn’t to tell readers all the info about something. It is to create a world. People should understand the subject of the feature; just telling them lots of cool facts and formative moments isn’t enough. It’s only halfway there.

The facts are the tools for the job, not the job itself. A great story isn’t a vehicle for information … it goes deeper than that.  Thinking about what you have cinematically helps a lot.