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A Five Part Serial Narrative About HS Football

Discussion in 'Writers' Workshop' started by KVV, Feb 3, 2007.

  1. KVV

    KVV Member

    So, this is a bit of a departure from what is often posted here, and will require a bit more of an investment from the Venerable Professors here, but I think it could be a good chance to help the Writer's Workshop open its doors to all kinds of stories. After discussing this with Jones, I decided to go ahead and post a story of mine so we can have a conversation about narrative writing. It's something I've done in the past and would like to do more of. If it's something you've always wanted to do, or have done some of but have questions about, I hope you'll participate.

    I just recently wrapped up a five-part serial narrative about a high school football in West Baltimore. I spent several months working on it. The entire thing ended up being about, oh, 16,000 words. But my editors never questioned its length. And they let me have a tremendous amount of freedom to try something ambitious and important. In the end, they seemed pleased with the result. But I'd like to hear what you think.

    The idea I had was to follow a football team for a week, completely immersing myself in the lives of the coaches and kids, and use the impeding football game (the biggest game of the year) as the engine to drive the narrative. The story, however, wouldn't be about football as much as it would be about the lives of inner city teenagers and the importance of sports and male role models in helping kids avoid pitfalls of urban poverty. (In some ways, it's kind of a cross between Friday Night Lights and The Wire. At least that was the idea.) It wasn't easy. At times, I wondered if it was much too ambitious. But I earned the trust of the kids very quickly (I worked on the story with another reporter, but he turned his notes over toe me, and I did all the writing) and I was witness to a lot of great teenage moments.

    So here it is, all five parts. Does is succeed? Fail? What would you have done differently? What works and what does not? Have you ever tried something similar? I worked with the paper's narrative editor on the story, and the managing editor had lots of input, but more feedback can't hurt, and I'm not sure we talk enough around here about how to construct narrative stories (I post on SportsJournalists.com under another name on occasion). Hopefully this can help kick start a fun discussion. And you don't have to sugar coat stuff. I understand by posting it here, I may see it devoured by a vicious pack of wolves. And even if you do hate the writing and the storytelling style, check out some of the multimedia stuff we did for the story (podcasts, audio interviews, slideshows, video clips). Some of it is wonderful. (Just don't skip ahead to find out the ending!) It really, in my opinion, is an example of what papers should (if they have the resources) do more of to draw readers in.

    If it takes you a few days or a week to get through it, no sweat. I'll be back. Thanks in advance. If you'd prefer to respond by PM, you can, or you can send me an email at sportsscribe@yahoo.com.

    The entire series is called: The Big Game.

    You can click on the links below, or find the whole thing at: baltimoresun.com/edmondson

    Here is the editor's note that ran each day with the stories.

    About this series: Kevin Van Valkenburg and Lem Satterfield began reporting this series in mid-September of 2006. Along with photographer André Chung, they spent the entire week with the Red Storm football team leading up to the Edmondson-City College game on Sept. 23. They interviewed players, other students, coaches, teachers, administrators and family. They witnessed nearly every scene in these stories while driving to school with the players, attending classes and school events with them, observing practices, hanging out in the locker room, visiting players' homes and watching the big game. Additional follow-up reporting was done throughout the season. In certain instances, players and coaches were asked to recount their thoughts during a scene after it had taken place. Van Valkenburg wrote the stories.


    PART I: A Game of Contrasts


    Part II: The Promise of a Fresh Start


    Part III: On the Ball Off the Field


    Part IV: Doubts and Distractions


    Part V: The Showdown

  2. KVV

    KVV Member

    Three more things to add, all which perhaps may help start a discussion.

    1. Some high level editors believed very strongly that the story needed a nut graph. The paper's narrative editor and I were against this, and fought very hard to keep it out of the story. We went back and forth for several days until we reached a compromise. Instead of a nut graph (which I believe true narrative doesn't need, but newspapers are reluctant to break away from) we settled on having a Prologue. I wasn't thrilled about it, but I don't own the newspaper, so the story starts with a prologue. I'm not sure it's necessary, and would probably have preferred to start the story with the scene in the film room.

    In your opinion, is a prologue or a nut graph necessary? With magazines we have the expectation that people are going to read stories without being told WHY THEY SHOULD READ THIS STORY. But with newspapers it's different.

    Should it be?

    2. One of the things both the narrative editor and the managing editor were very adamant about is that each part needed to have a "theme." Otherwise, why are they their own part? Would this story have been better in four parts? If so, what would you lose? Originally, I wanted each day to be its own part, and that the excitement leading up to the game would build as the week went on. In the end, two days ended up being collapsed into Part IV. I think it was the right decision, but I fought hard to keep Parts II and III from being combined. I felt that the characters were different, and they had different stories, and needed their own day to address different subjects. But it doesn't mean I was right.

    3. Originally, after spending three days with the team and getting so much great stuff, I went back and re-pitched the story to my editor, Tim Wheatley, and he greenlighted me to spend the entire season with the team. He felt the material I had was already strong enough to warrant me staying longer. But the coach, Dante Jones, wouldn't allow it. He thought it would be too much of a distraction. So my reporting time (at least as far as scenes) was limited to this one week. So here is my question: How much would the story have benefited from staying longer? Or was the week of reporting time, and the material gathered, enough to tell the story I was trying to tell?
  3. jgmacg

    jgmacg Guest

    Let me be the first to say that this an extraordinary piece of work. Thanks for posting it, KVV. It should, and I hope will, prompt a lot of discussion.

    It being Saturday morning, I have to run out for a while, but look very much forward to going over the piece in greater detail with our colleagues.

    I can't recommend strongly enough that the younger writers here wade into this story and read it carefully.

    Again, thanks for sharing it with us.
  4. Piotr Rasputin

    Piotr Rasputin New Member

    For me, the opening made me stop reading. Very cliched, and I almost decided not to read further.

    HOWEVER . . . .

    I finished the first story, and that is excellent work. The opening is completely unnecessary.
  5. KVV

    KVV Member

    Piotr, I appreciate that you kept going. As I said, the prologue ... not my idea. But the story started each day on the A1, not the sports section, so the paper's editors wanted something that would explain why we were writing this story. Maybe some people were drawn in by it. I don't know. This was essentially what they wanted. I wasn't thrilled with it, but a lot of newspaper editors are reluctant to just let a story unfold. That's part of the challenge with attempting narrative, I guess.
  6. Angola!

    Angola! Guest

    Did it only run the first day? If so, then I am not too broken up over the inclusion of it. I've read the first two stories and they are pretty interesting. Thanks for sharing.
  7. Montezuma's Revenge

    Montezuma's Revenge Active Member

    That lead-in is horrific and off-putting. Cliche central.

    That whole nut-graf mentality thing is a perfect example of how too many people don't trust the damn story to unfold.

    And there has to be a better way to begin the actual narrative than, "We begin ..."
  8. KVV

    KVV Member

    Certainly a good point. Wish I had that one back.
  9. Leo Mazzone

    Leo Mazzone Member

    Just finished reading it through and am interested to hear what others say about it from my learning standpoint. I've never attempted something of this magnitude (doubt many have).

    I did have one question: Did Jones deny you access the rest of the season because he pinned his team's distractions --and only loss of the season-- on you having been there that week?

    And for some reason one of the closing lines, Jones' point to the sky after winning state, stuck with me. Did he tell you it was a thank-you to God? Could it have been tribute to Darryl, or another late friend or family member? Maybe I just missed a religious connection with Jones somewhere earlier in the story.

    I know. Out of 16k words, that's what I come up with.

    Enjoyed it, thanks for posting.
  10. STLIrish

    STLIrish Active Member


    Just read the whole thing. Nicely done. I especially liked the section (was it the first half of Part Three?) about Tariq. And I thought you did a good job weaving together the stories of so many characters. That can be tough.
    One question: Did you give any thought to ending Part 5 at the end of the game, and doing "the rest of the season" on a sixth day? It just seemed like a lot got crammed into that fifth story. And the game could made a natural climax that could have been followed on the day after with how they did the rest of the year.
  11. KVV

    KVV Member

    Many thanks to all of you who took the time to read it, whether you liked it or no. Some quick answers.

    Angola, the prologue only ran the first day of the story.

    Leo, Jones did deny me access after the week of the City game because he felt that the kids couldn't handle the attention. I even offered to seriously scale back, but he said he just didn't think the kids were mature enough to deal with it. I was disappointed, but I understood. (He obviously had bigger issues to worry about with these kids.) Though I felt like I had enough info to write a decent story anyway, but I think, obviously, with more reporting time different characters might have become a part of the story, and there might have been some darker moments with the kids emerge.

    As for your question about Dante's faith, yes, he was fairly religious man, and there was a small mention of that in Part I, but perhaps not enough to connect it to that final moment where he points at the sky. I wondered too if it might be about Darryl, and asked him in the Ravens locker room about it, and he said that, while he thought about Darryl all the time, that was more about thanking God for giving him the chance to help these kids. He really is a very admirable person, and if you check out the pictures, he's physically quite striking, which made for some great art.

    STLIrish, Tariq was probably one of the most interesting high school kids I've ever met. A real old soul, so to speak. With Sterling, there were times when I felt like I needed to have my bullshit detector on high alert, but with Tariq, he was brutally honest and realistic about not only himself, but about Baltimore City and the difficulties kids face.

    As for a possibility of a part VI, yes at one point that is the route I wanted to go. And the sports editor agreed with me that perhaps the epilogue should be its own day and its own part. But those in charge felt that readers would be too exhausted by then to go on. If you had all this build up, created all this meaning, had you pulling for these kids, then broke your heart, the managing editor felt like readers wouldn't stick around for a Part VI. I don't know. I think in some respects that the epilogue is a bit rushed, but the story is already something like 120 inches. Maybe a Part 6 would have been the best way to solve that issue.

    One of the things about a serial (which is different from a series) is that it's supposed to have twists and cliffhangers along the way that make you want to keep reading. It's hard to argue that you could ever have a better twist than the team losing the big game. Something to think about, I guess.

    Again, thanks a bunch for reading and for your thoughtful comments.
  12. Jones

    Jones Active Member

    Well, Kevin, I read your series today and first off, congratulations. It's really a beautiful, substantive piece of work that'll be with you and these kids for a long time.

    For the purposes of this dicussion, I think two things stand out for me.

    1) Picking the subject. Before anyone heads into a narrative like this -- Bringing the Heat, Friday Night Lights -- it's a gamble, but I guess it's an educated gamble. I'm curious why you picked this team, this season. Obviously, it worked out great -- the loss to City coupled with the state win -- but I'd like to know what made you pick this team. Why not City? Why not a terrible team in a shithole school? I've thought a few times about doing this kind of story, and I've always been like, What if you spend a season somewhere and it just doesn't turn out? Do you just make it work? Or do you just can a year's worth of effort?

    2) Structure. I think to make something like this sing, structure is key. I liked the way you divided it up by days; I think that's a natural. I've gone back and forth on whether the epilogue should have been broken off or not. The way it reads now, there's some nice momentum to it. On the other hand, breaking those parts up might have given you more space for each. Those are the kinds of decisions that a narrative writer needs to make.

    I suppose other than days of the week, you could have broken it up more explicity by personality -- although you did that to some extent. For example: Coach, Sterling, Kyle, Tariq, Cox, Game. Almost like a series of profiles tied into the Big Game. I don't think your series suffered for its day-by-day approach, but I don't think it's the only approach. Of course, that's another one of those decisions that you make at the outset and live with. Another gamble that might be worth discussing.

    Bottom line, it's clear that a series like this is one giant risk -- for the writer, for the paper, for the subjects. It's a major leap of faith. When it works -- and this one works perfectly -- it makes newspapers something bigger than they seem to be satisfied being. I'm curious if anyone out there embarked on one of these things that didn't pan out. I'd love to hear some stories of falling off the tightrope -- not out of some perverse pleasure, but to see if we can figure out why some of these work and some don't.

    I agree that the prologue is probably unnecessary, but I think it might have been a way to allay a few of the fears that a series like this might have instilled in the suits.

    My only other thought is that, because you're a talented writer, I wouldn't have minded seeing you stretch the writing a little bit. There are some beautiful turns -- Beowulf; the digital trash talking (never even entered my mind that that would be going on, a sort of modern pressure that kids of old never dealt with); the entire section on Tariq especially (that's the best stuff, I think, lyrically; I really, really liked that kid) -- but I wouldn't have minded seeing you take a few more risks. Maybe there were enough risks taken already. Maybe it was a by-product of so many editors getting their mitts in (I suspect that's the case). But yeah, and again not to take anything away at all from this sweet piece of work -- maybe next time out, take a hit from a bong and see what spins.

    I hope this thread takes off, because I think there's a lot of value to be mined here -- lots of lessons to learn. And hopefully this inspires a few other writers and editors to take a stab at being something other than glorified agate. I really believe newspapers, to survive, need to be telling these kinds of stories. No one else really can.

    Thanks for posting, Kevin, and again, great work.
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