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WMTPG, Vol 7: Brady Dennis on a lonely toll booth operator (short narrative)

Discussion in 'Journalism topics only' started by Double Down, Jul 11, 2014.

  1. Double Down

    Double Down Well-Known Member

    Thought I'd post another one of these before the weekend, just because they seem to be generating a decent response and I am getting some PMs from younger writers who feel like they're quite helpful. So thanks for your contributions. You too are a lantern in the swamp.

    Previous entries of "What Makes This Piece Good?" are linked below. Feel free to continue commenting on those threads if you come to them late, even if that discussion has dropped to a different page.

    1. Buster Olney on Mariano Rivera's cutter.
    2. Mike Bianchi on Dale Earnhardt's funeral.
    3. Sally Jenkins on Kwame's Brown's rookie year.
    4. Selena Roberts' Knicks/Heat playoff gamer
    5. Rick Reilly writing around Patrick Ewing
    6. Randall Patterson on the prodigy who wasn't.

    I thought I'd post our first non-sports story today, in part because I think it's the best example of something that extremely underrated in journalism right now, something that anyone can do whether they work at a small paper, a big paper, a website (big or small), or a magazine: Short narrative.

    We've reached a point where #longform stories have been fetishized a bit. That's mostly a good thing, I think. A lot of really great work gets circulated around social media by those who romanticize longform (and feel compelled to give it a hashtag) and people who otherwise wouldn't see it, or bother with reading it, get exposed to it. Even if you're annoyed by the cult of longform writers clogging up your Twitter feed, the work is still pretty darn good overall.

    But if I'm working at a newspaper and I'm still trying to figure out if this journalism thing is for me, chances are good I'm not getting to tell 5,000-word stories with sweeping character arcs and slowly-unfolding scenes. Maybe I'll get to someday, but it's hard to say what the future will bring.

    That's one of the reasons I love this piece by Brady Dennis, then of the St. Pete Times (he now works at the Washington Post), about a tollbooth operator on the Suncoast Highway in Florida.

    Dennis, who was the night cops reporter at the Times in 2004, dreamed up the idea for a series he called "300 Words," where he just went out and found little scenes that would help illustrate the lives of ordinary Floridians. His belief was: every person had a story, and this was a way to be creative and different and focus on understanding the economy of words in writing.

    We've talked about "Death of A Racehorse" 1,000 times, and it's obviously a classic piece of sports journalism, one very near and dear to me personally, but this piece by Dennis might be a more realistic slice-of-life portrait to try to emulate.

    What makes this piece good? (It won an Ernie Pyle Award in 2005.)

    The story, by the way, checks in at 297 words.
  2. 93Devil

    93Devil Well-Known Member


    It's only 300 words, so of course their are questions to be answered after you read it, but it sets up just like you would when you meet him in real life; you spend a moment and move on. But this time, you are left thinking.

    Of course it's great, but what makes it great is him finding the subject. How did he come across this guy? Does he know him outside of here? Did he talk to 100 toll both operators or did the third one he spoke to direct him to Lloyd?

    I think a lot of people can write, but not many writers can find Lloyd.

    This story also wants me to start playing The Smiths.
  3. 93Devil

    93Devil Well-Known Member

    I also didn't notice the repetition of because until I looked at it again. Would that repetition be more obvious in print?
  4. mediaguy

    mediaguy Well-Known Member

    Great story. Could have written it five times longer and not said much more. Thanks for the link.
  5. Donny in his element

    Donny in his element Well-Known Member

    Coincidentally (and for some of the reasons DD stated), I used Brady Dennis' series to help teach my high school journalism students in my previous career the art of writing profiles or personality narratives, etc. in an engaging way that didn't seem so intimidating. Transferred really well to scholastic journalism and the challenge of identifying the little stories and sometimes anonymous people who roam that halls and telling them well.

    Thanks for jogging those found memories with this one, DD.
  6. PCLoadLetter

    PCLoadLetter Well-Known Member

    The trick isn't finding Lloyd. The trick is recognizing the story in Lloyd. There's nothing unusual there -- he and his wife planned to retire, and her death screwed up those plans. You probably know people who have been in the same spot. I do. The trick is seeing it and telling that story well. It's told beautifully here.

    The best TV feature guy in the business -- and it's not close -- is Steve Hartman at CBS. He used to have a regular segment where he'd throw a dart at the map of the US, and he'd go to whichever town he hit. Once he got there he'd shuffle through a phone book, call a name at random, and go do a story on the first person who answered and agreed to meet with him. He called it "Everybody's Got a Story." It was brilliant, and each subject always seemed to be an incredibly lucky find. It wasn't luck -- it was his ability to find meaning and emotion in little day-to-day stuff, or the poignancy in somebody's backstory.
  7. 93Devil

    93Devil Well-Known Member

    See, I don't think are that many Lloyds out there. His story is tragic. The wife barely mad it to Florida, yet he stayed. I think more tumblers have to fall into place to make it the story it is.

    How many people give up everything just to make her dying wish come true? He sits alone every night in a menial job, when he had a white collar job his entire life.

    I think the subject makes this story.
  8. Double Down

    Double Down Well-Known Member

    Sorry Devil but PC is right. Everyone has a story. Some stories are better than others, sure. And that's why this segment of Dennis' "300 Words" series is the one I picked as a teaching tool, but all of the entries were great in their own way. Even before Hartman — who I agree is great, and I used to love that series he did with dart — Charles Kuralt was doing similar things. Dennis even said Kuralt was his inspiration for this series. It's about asking the right questions and knowing how to listen. Whenever I talk to journalism students, I bring up superheroes. Why? Because the most interesting thing about every superhero is his/her origin story. Ever person, super or mortal, has an origin story. You ask people to tell you where their story began, and 9 times out of 10, something good will emerge. A few times you get something great. Part of being a good storyteller is recognizing the universal in what seems like the mundane.
  9. One quote.
    One partial quote in it.

    This was the writer's telling the subject's story.

    This type of story is what gamers - deadline gamers - should aspire to be.
  10. playthrough

    playthrough Moderator Staff Member

    I remember this well, I was at the Times then in the bureaus north of where this booth was. Really was a lonely, lonely place at night (and probably still is) and Zuppa's photo captures that splendidly. I can't fathom sitting there night after night with no one to go home to.
  11. 93Devil

    93Devil Well-Known Member

    See, I disagree.

    This is a top 1% story, and he found it.
  12. YankeeFan

    YankeeFan Well-Known Member

    Thought about Steve Hartman and his CBS feature as well. Was always interesting.
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