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"The Someone You're Not" by Mike Sager (Esquire)

Discussion in 'Journalism topics only' started by Dick Whitman, Feb 28, 2011.

  1. Dick Whitman

    Dick Whitman Well-Known Member

    A few weeks ago, I mentioned how the best long-form feature writers make you forget their presence, in response to a comment that long-form is usually nothing more than "flowery" verbal masturbation. Here is an example of the kind of storytelling I was talking about:


    The piece is about Ray Towler, an Ohio man who was convicted 30 years ago of a child rape he did not commit, then exonerated with DNA evidence.

    Shockingly, considering the subject matter, the story is amazingly uplifting. But I'm more interested in how Sager tells it:

    * There is no "nut graph," no inverted pyramid. It is a chronological narrative, from beginning to end. The exposition, which can be awkward in this kind of story, is handled remarkably well. We find out a lot of it through scenes early in the story, mostly courtroom or courthouse scenes.

    * The courtroom is a natural place to begin a story, because of the high stakes and natural conflict. There's a reason so many successful movies and television shows have had courtrooms and trials as their narrative centerpiece.

    * No flowery prose. No wordsmithing. The story is about as breezy as it gets. Sager gets out of the way and lets the story tell itself. But no hackery, either.

    * No first-person. Ray Towler is the story here, not Mike Sager's internal struggle and journey of discovery as pertains to the dark underbelly of the criminal justice system.

    * No quotes, not as we traditionally think about them. The story is told in narrative form. There are scenes that are cinematic in scope (like the one early in the piece in the judge's office). There is some dialogue. The quotes he does use are reframed as internal monologue.

    * No flashback device. Sager trusts you to keep reading. He doesn't feel it necessary to begin with, "Ray Towler sits in a Cleveland diner. Thirty years ago, he was convicted of rape. Wrongly." A lot of us, I don't think, would trust ourselves enough to let the story unfold this way. The most important material - his exoneration - doesn't even arise until the last 1/3 of the story (thinking cinematically, it is like the second plot point). A lot of newspaper editors would have an aneurysm if this got turned in.

    Here, Sager talks about the piece and spending time with its protagonist:

  2. Ch.B

    Ch.B New Member

    Great call, and post. That's about as pure as narrative gets. Sager lets the details do the work for him (the image of the lawyer's mismatched socks is perfect). The lack of direct quotes keeps the reader from being pulled out of the story, a danger in a piece this long and about a subject some readers might be inclined to skip. If there was one thing I wasn't crazy about, it was Sager's use of slang - "Moms", "cellie" - as it stopped me momentarily. Then again, I thought he deployed "fucking" expertly. If I'm not mistaken, it was the only profanity in the piece, making it all the more emphatic.
  3. Dick Whitman

    Dick Whitman Well-Known Member

    Good call on the slang. I didn't love that, either. Same thing that kind of stops me in my tracks when reading "Freedom" by Jonathan Franzen, in an obviously different genre, or a Matt Taibbi piece (there it's profanity).

    When it said "moms," I almost nudged my wife to show her that I had found a typo in "Esquire" until I looked above a couple paragraphs and realized that Sager had established that as her nickname.

    Also, I'm really glad someone finally responded to this post. I think there's a lot to learn from that story, and you don't have to be F. Scott Fitzgerald to pull it off.
  4. Flying Headbutt

    Flying Headbutt Moderator Staff Member

    It's definitely a brilliant feature. I breezed right through it, while hanging on every word. Towler's ability to stay calm through it all is, really, amazing too.
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