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Veteran narrative journalist explains why small stories are ultimately the biggest

Veteran narrative journalist explains why small stories are ultimately the biggest

Picture of Ryan White
Alex Kotlowitz, center, speaks with reporters at the 2019 National Fellowship this week.
Alex Kotlowitz, center, speaks with reporters at the 2019 National Fellowship this week.
(Photo by Chinyere Amobi)

It’s a story many ambitious journalists might tell themselves as they climb out of bed in the morning: If I could just find that one big story that blows the lid off some overlooked crisis, that ties everything together into a gripping whole, that exposes grave injustices and compels sweeping change. 

But after years of honing the art of narrative journalism for outlets such as The Wall Street Journal and The New Yorker, veteran journalist and author Alex Kotlowitz has a different take. “I think the real power in narrative is finding really small stories, which in some ways may seem counterintuitive,” he told reporters in his keynote address at the 2019 National Fellowship this week.

Kotlowitz, author of the now-classic 1992 book “There Are No Children Here,” argues that it’s those smaller stories that are uniquely capable of granting us access to other people’s lives, their struggles and the surrounding worlds they inhabit. He faulted the tendency among journalists to equate ambition with being exhaustive in their reporting — in other words, talk to everyone you can, read every report, know the data points by heart. It’s a bit like a fly-over view of a landscape, he says — you might get the lay of the land, but not the smell of the trees, the timbre of the morning birdsong.

“I urge you to get lost in the terrain, to get so close to what you’re reporting that at some point you begin to feel and see and hear what your subjects do,” he said. 

Paradoxically, it’s those small, intimate, richly detailed narratives that get at some of the biggest themes imaginable. He points to classics such as John Hershey’s “Hiroshima,” which tells the stories of six survivors of the atomic bomb, and, in so doing, offers one of the most powerful indictments of nuclear war imaginable. Or Katherine Boo’s “Behind the Beautiful Forevers,” which tells seemingly small stories from a Mumbai slum to give us a harrowing new perspective on globalization. 

“The smaller the story, the more intimate, the more personal, the more detailed, the more it will stay with you — the more it will get in your bones,” Kotlowitz said. He calls it “the bigness of the small story.”

Kotlowitz has a few practical tips he uses for organizing and framing such stories. One is to think through the central question you’re trying to answer through the story. For example, for a two-part series for This American Life, Kotlowitz and two other reporters spent five months embedded at Harper High School in Chicago the year after 29 current and former students had been shot. While they didn’t have a concrete plan going in, they were guided by a larger question: How do this school and its students try to regain their footing after such a horrific year?

The setting of Harper High also offered another element Kotlowitz considers essential for a good story: a natural boundary that helps frame and delineate the story from the larger world. Such boundaries prescribe some order to the messiness inherent in reality and reporting. “Be really clear about your boundaries,” he said. “Your boundaries may be a place, an individual or group, or it may be a period, or some combination of those.”

At Harper High, he ended up spending much of his time hanging out in the office of two social workers he “fell in love with” after meeting them on his first day. The women not only allowed Kotlowitz to essentially embed himself in their offices, granting him access to students and the intimate details of their lives, they also supplied another crucial storytelling element.

“It’s really important that you have a central protagonist or a group of protagonists who will anchor your story,” he said. “The question I always ask myself when I’m looking for those protagonists is really a kind of simple one: Are these people I want to spend time with? Because if I don’t want to spend time with them, I guarantee my readers or listeners aren’t going to want to spend time with them.”

Whether immersing yourself in subjects’ lives over time, as Adrian Nicole LeBranc or Katherine Boo have famously done, or seeking to recreate pivotal moments through interviews and accounts after the fact, Kotlowitz urges journalists doing this kind of work to think in cinematic terms. 

“The bottom line for good storytelling is you need to think in moments and scenes. That’s how stories work. They move from scene to scene … And more than anything else, you need details, details, details. God is in the details.”

And if you’re committed to letting the god of small details and surprising lives speak, Kotlowitz counsels sacrificing the ego at the altar of the story, to the degree possible. 

“Truthfully, using the first person more often than not creates a distance between your reader and your subjects, because it creates a barrier. You’re essentially saying to your reader, ‘Look how well I know this person,’ and you’re kind of pushing your reader away. I would argue some of the most intimate storytelling is in the third person.” He added: “The hard truth is the reader doesn’t care about us.” 

That speaks to Kotlowitz’s larger storytelling philosophy, a belief in not directing, dictating or otherwise standing between the reader or listener and the story. He’d much rather provide space for the audience to engage with the story on their own terms.

“The other beauty about stories is that people don’t like to be pushed or pulled, dismissed or pandered to, and therein lies the power of narrative: It lets people find their own way. There is, after all, far too much shouting going in the world today. Too much ranting, too much stay-at-home ‘Here’s what I think; I know what is best’ diatribes from people who have little curiosity for the lives of those at all different from their own.”

Such stories, redolent with the complexity of actual lives and contradictory identities, are perhaps the best antidote we have to a lazy, simplified view of humanity, or what the novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie calls “the danger of a single story.”

“In the end, I’m looking for stories that in some manner or other surprise me, that upend what I think I know, that knock me off balance,” Kotlowitz said. “Otherwise, why do this work? Why write about stories that we all know the answers to?”

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