By Ben Baker
As a newspaper editor for longer than I really want to think about, I’ve written, read, edited, and cursed more newspaper feature articles than anyone except another newspaper editor.
The cursing part comes in because most newspaper feature articles I read are one-person interviews which are almost monologues of the person being interviewed. Nothing exciting, some potentially interesting anecdotes, but it’s not the kind of writing that reaches out and grabs a reader by the eyeballs and drags him into a story.
The fault for this is twofold: most newspaper reporters are under serious deadline pressure to get something written and get it on a page. This leaves little time for getting seriously creative in the storytelling process and storytelling is what a solid feature should do. The second problem is newspaper reporters are taught to keep a professional distance from the story, which prevents them from getting inside the story and looking out.
I recently had the chance to write a feature story, which is rare for me. As the story involved the father of one of my friends, I got into deeper than I normally would have. The story turned out to be a killer piece. I have included it below with some story-construction notes embedded in parentheses to show the process of how I generated this award-winning story.
By Ben Baker Editor (Byline. Duh.)
His arm reaches as high as it can as the tall man waves vigorously at the Cessna plane taking off at the Turner County airport. (This lede is intentionally ambiguous because I had awesome art to go with the story—a hunched over man covered in gauze between two very tall men next to a small single-engine plane. The 80 pt kicker headline read “A Dying Wish.” I knew I had the reader hooked with these two visual elements, but I wanted to make some suspense. It was important to show this big man waving at the plane for reasons that will become more obvious later in the story.)
You can’t see the big man’s eyes tearing up because he’s got sunglasses on as he watches the plane soar off. It’s not a wave good-bye. Well, then again it sort of is a way good-bye. (Key #1—why the wave was important. Here we have a big man. Men, as the adage goes, are not supposed to cry. Yet, here a very large man, as evidenced by the artwork, is crying. There’s also another suspense set-up in the double-entendre wave goodbye. Again, this will make sense later into the story. )
(These two ‘graphs are also a key place where most newspaper features fall down. I have not given the reader any information in the story that is useful so far as a plot line goes. But I have taken a line from fiction writers and I have built major character into this man in four short sentences. Character development is the number one area where newspaper feature stories fall down. A good feature writer doesn’t just interview. A good feature writer observes and reports on what is seen. Show the reader some details. )
The tall man in sunglasses is watching a lifelong dream happen as the plane disappears from sight. The airplane trip, piloted by Jay Leatherwood, is a ride sponsored by the Ashburn Pilot’s Association. Seated next to Mr. Leatherwood is a special passenger. A passenger who is stooped over, and has a head covered with gauze, a passenger who is getting a dream 80+ years in the making come true. (This paragraph sets the hook, to borrow a fishing term. I have grabbed the reader with a few key words: “Lifelong dream” speaks to everyone who has an unmet personal goal of any kind. We all have dreams. “Special passenger” lets the reader know this is not an ordinary event. The next sentence partially explains this, but builds more suspense. The “80+ years” is just more suspense and tightens the grip on the reader. These minor details are one of the instances where the sum of the parts is greater than the whole. Also, note my use of these descriptive details scattered throughout the story. Observe absolutely, but take your observations and shotgun them through the story. Keep feeding your reader bits and bites of information. Don’t lump all your observations into one sentence or one paragraph. It’s like butter and sour cream on a baked potato. Mix the condiments through the entire tater and it will taste good from the first bite to the last. )
The special passenger is James. J. Zabriskie. The gauze protects the skin-cancer ravaged skin on his skull from being damaged. (Now you know the man’s name. Critical information, but I delayed announcing it intentionally. I linked it to the cancer. Being in South Georgia, skin cancer here is extremely common. Everyone I know has had family members touched by cancer and every extended family down here has lost someone to cancer. Cancer, as with any dread disease, generates sympathy in a reader, especially when the disease is caused by external forces the victim had no control over. )
The internal cancer, well, it’s terminal. (Death. It’s the great equalizer. I wrote this sentence exactly like I would speak it to someone. In fact, before I wrote it, I spoke it aloud. The word “well” separated by commas generates a dramatic pause which lets the reader know something of major importance is coming up. Two simple words “it’s terminal” deliver an emotional blow like nothing else. )
James is Craig Zabriskie’s (call him Craig Z) dad. Craig Z is the tall man in sunglasses who watched the plane take off on the ride of a lifetime for his dad. (A simple wrap-up sentence to tie everything above together. Now the light goes off in the reader’s head. The suspense in ended, but a new suspense has been created. The old man went flying, which was his wish. So what was it like? This is where the interview with the feature subject is very important. I use Craig Z to ID the son because that is how Craig Z is known in our community. As he explains, no one can pronounce his last name. )
“I would have given my life to fly,” the elder Mr. Z says standing outside the plane. (Just me being a bit difficult and teasing the reader by dragging out the suspense. It’s very important that this kind of tease be short. Take it too long and you frustrate the average reader who will move on to a less annoying story, unless the reader likes mysteries in which case more teasing is a good thing. I also differentiate the two men by calling the father Mr. Z. )
After 83 years, Mr. Z got his wish to soar above the earth, shaking off the fetters of gravity that have kept him bound to the surface. (An almost hyperbolic statement. Pure and simple, it’s a case of me as a writer injecting imagery into a story. Instead of saying, “He got to fly.” I jazzed it up with extensive descriptive language. This too is another failing of many newspaper features. Instead of telling the reader Mr. Z flew, I give, as I count, nine separate images: Age, soar, earth, shaking off, fetters, gravity, kept, bound and surface. Again, a case of the whole is greater than sum of the parts. Egad, this is so hackneyed, but so true—show, don’t tell. )
As Mr. Leatherwood and Craig Z helped the elder Mr. Z into the front seat of the plane, Craig Z joked “This is the Turner County Make a Wish Foundation for old farts.” (Straight quote. No way I could improve on it. Sometimes you get a gem of an interview, sometimes you don’t. I got lucky with this one. )
The Zabriskies are carnival people. Craig Z runs a bigtop tent manufacturing and repair facility on Stanford Road. He moved up here from Florida and resumed operations in the old Industrial Park before moving to the Standford Road facility. He got into the business because of his Dad. (More background info. I could have dressed this up some, but the story is really about Mr. Z, so I left this pretty plain. But, it’s important information as the next ’graph illustrates. )
“I could write you a serious story just about his life,” Craig Z said. “He grew up with his mother. His father left them. He went into the carnivals to try and impress his dad. He was a WWII prison camp guard.” (Luck of the draw, pure and simple. A great interview and a man with an interesting past. )
After that, Mr. Z went to a trade school and learned about the big diesel engines that power so many carnival rides. (More background, but as most people have been to a carnival, they probably never gave a thought to what goes on behind the scenes. Still, running away with the circus is often a childhood dream and still something adults joke about. Here’s one man who did it. This creates another emotional link between the reader and Mr. Z. More luck of the draw sort of. I say sort of, because everyone has a story—sometimes you just have to look harder to find it. I didn’t have to look long to find this one. )
Even through all this, he never let go of the dream of flight. (A setup line. Pure and simple. Short. Sweet. Alludes to hard times and still holding on to a dream—this is clearer in the next paragraph. Another emotional link forged in the chain connect the reader and Mr. Z. As a writer, you should look for ways to connect the feature subject to the reader. )
“When he was a little kid, he used to build model airplanes. That was his passion, to learn to fly,” Craig Z said of his dad. “He was born with one bad eye and never could go for his pilot’s license.” (More background, but presented in a killer quote. I got lucky again. )
The plane meanwhile, has warmed up and is taxiing out to the runway. (I draw the reader back to the story at hand. I wrote this story in present tense first, changed it to past tense and went back to present tense because in my mind present tense for the flight is more real and immediate to the reader. It brings the reader into the story with me. The sentence also announces the flight, mentioned in the lede, is about to begin.)
“I’ve got to get over here,” Craig Z said by way of excusing himself to the other side of his pickup. ‘I’m all busted up over this.” (More luck of the draw quotes, but also ones that show Craig Z has made his own emotional investment in the story. Parents will clearly identify with this as will people who’ve had to care for ailing parents. )
After a few minutes to recover his composure, he comes back around to the front of the truck. The plane is at the far end of the runway. Mr. Leatherwood is preparing for takeoff. (Straight observation. Keeps the reader involved in the here and now in the story. I could have expanded this to discuss the plane zipping down to the far end of the runway while Craig leaned on his truck, but I chose to leave this part unspoken and merely hint at it. This is a case of forbidden fruit is always sweeter. By leaving it to the reader’s imagination, they can create in their own mind what happened and thereby move even deeper into this feature. )
“It’s been his lifelong dream. Jay is fulfilling it for him,” Craig Z said. “He’s terminal with cancer. He came home here with me to spend his last days. I thank God for all the people here in Turner County. Y’all have been so great to all of us.” (It’s called Southern Hospitality. It’s what we do. It’s also luck of the draw on quotes. )
The plane is now rolling up the runway. Tina Zabriskie, Mr. Z’s granddaughter is filming the ride from the ground. Nicholas Zabriskie, Mr. Z’s grandson is riding in the plane’s back seat. The plane leaves the runway and Mr. Leatherwood pulls back on the yoke. The plane rises. Craig Z waves as hard as he can. (This wraps the plane ride, but not the story. )
THE NEXT MORNING (subhead break—announces a second part of the story. )
The next morning at the Zabriskie house, walking in the house from the shop out back, Craig Z said his dad had a wonderful time Thursday afternoon. (More setup. We know Craig Z has a giant tent shop. This is just stage dressing and fill-in material to build on later.)
“He was grinning from ear to ear,” he said. (So it’s trite. Believe me, the average newspaper reader doesn’t have a problem with trite quotes in a story like this. )
Inside, Mr. Z is laying back in a recliner at the Zabriskie home. His nurses are leaving the house, having prepared him for another day. (I remind the readers Mr. Z is terminal with cancer. At this point in the story, that detail is a bit fuzzy for some readers. The recliner is also one of those condiment issues. I could have said he was sitting, or just said Mr. Z was in the home. By mentioning recliner, I have made Mr. Z even more real as a person to the reader because the reader can identify with laying back in a recliner. Give the reader something to hang onto and identify with in your feature article. )
“It was good. He took me for a nice ride. We got a good view of what Ashburn, Ga., looks like from the air,” he said. (Not much of a quote, but it needs to be a quote. Mr. Z has to put it in his own words. He continues shortly. )
The first destination in the air was the Z family house and the shop. From there, they flew around the County. Mr. Z said he saw big drainage ponds—somewhere. (I chose to paraphrase this because Mr. Z’s quotes were not very good. Besides which, the county I live in is dotted with irrigation ponds. So, the reader could imagine Mr. Z flew over their house. This makes another connection. )
The afternoon ride was rescheduled from Thursday morning. Late Thursday morning the winds picked up. Mr. Leatherwood was concerned it would be too rough in the air for Mr. Z so the flight was rescheduled with hopes for calmer winds. (Creates tension. This is important in any good story. But, we already know what happened, so why is this important? “Mr. Leatherwood was concerned” is the central element of this paragraph. It puts a link between the pilot and Mr. Z and the reader. Also, this graph will become important with the next graph. )
“He was afraid of shaking me. He could have shaken me like a salt shaker and I would have gone,” Mr. Z said. (WHAM! Now you see why the turbulence graph was so important where it was place. Again, luck of the draw on quotes. )
He said the flight was more and better than he expected. (segue .)
“I got to get up and see everything. It looked real good,” he said. As for what was best, “Everything. I can’t put my finger on it,” he said. (His own words. Very important because this is an emotional statement, not a factual observation like what he saw from the air. )
There were no surprises either. (In interviews with someone achieving a goal or doing something new I find one of the most revealing questions I can ask is “Did anything surprise you?” Sometimes it’s a bust, sometimes not. This appears to be a bust, but isn’t as you’ll see. )
“I was well pleased with everything. It was a good takeoff and landing, not that I’m an authority,”” he said. (This shows why no surprises is not a bust. Also, an emotional statement so it needs to be in his words ).
“I told him just don’t go kamikaze on us with a smile on your face,” Craig Z said. “We want you around a while longer.” (Luck of the quote draw. )
Mr. Z said he wouldn’t do that. He also wasn’t worried about the landing; he knew the plane was going to land. The important part was getting airborne. (Reinforces the dream realized. Also links kamikaze crash landing to walk away from it landing. )
Mr. Z retired from a lifetime of working the carnival routes. He plans to be cremated and wants his remains poured on Interstate 90 North and South. He wants that because he spent so much of his life on that road with the carnivals. (Segue. Background information with ZING! We know what Mr. Z did and cremation is a rarity down here. To have his ashes poured out of a plane, what an image. Again, I got lucky with this interview. )
“I said, will it be OK if we dust you out the airplane? He said ‘Hell yeah, that will be even better,’” Craig Z said. (Even more luck. Craig Z is just a great interview. Use of the word “fart” and “hell” did give me pause since my paper serves a VERY conservative Bible belt readership. But I made the decision to use the words for two reasons: It was a direct quote. It made a major emotional impact. )
But now, he’s somewhat changed his mind. He said he’d be happy to have his remains spread over Turner County, but do it from the air. (Errrr, WHAT?! is what the reader is now thinking. A sudden unexpected shift of direction which was the luck of the draw. )
“What the hell. It’s better than being shot from a cannon. That’s a one shot thing,” he said. “They sprinkle me everywhere. They’ll know Jim Zabriskie was there.” (Now some readers are horrified, which is good because I know this story has connected on a gut level. As much as I hate to admit it, again luck of the draw on quotes. )
Craig Z jokes that this year’s cotton crop should be a bumper one, growing off his Dad’s ashes. (More Z family humor. May be disturbing to some, but it is who they are. As a writer I have an obligation to present them as real as I can. )
Mr. Z will celebrate his birthday in April. If he’s able to, he’ll fly again on his birthday. (A promise to repeat the dream. Readers are now cheering Mr. Z on. )
Again, if he’s able, Mr. Leatherwood has promised to let Mr. Z take over the controls for a little while. As far as Mr. Z is concerned, that’s a promise Mr. Leatherwood will have to keep. (And the crowd goes wild! They storm the field! They tear down the goal post! They throw Mr. Z from one end zone to another! Sorry. Got a little carried away myself .)
“I’m going to make it,” he said. (More cheering!)
A SURPISING ATTITUDE (Another subhead break to announce a change in the story. This was also included at the request of the Z family. This being a feature about Mr Z, I felt it was important to put it in because it adds even more substance to the flesh of the man I have built to this point.)
The one thing about South Georgia which has surprised him is the reception he and the family have received.
“I didn’t realize we had so many good friends here,” Mr. Z said. “They didn’t do that when we went to Okechobee. We had to pay for everything. (Here) everyone cares.” (It’s called Southern Hospitality baybee! We like it when someone compliments us on it, which, combined with the next two comments, is the cement that binds the reader to the Z family in a very personal way. )
“Here, everybody took us in just like family,” Craig Z said.
“We thank you for the love and support in this community,” Mr. Z said.
Post-story note since I don’t wanna leave readers of Absolute Write hanging—Mr. Z died 11 days before his birthday. Pilot Jay Leatherwood said Mr. Z is going to get his plane ride anyway ride. Mr. Z did on Sunday, May 13. Mr. and Mrs. Z’s ashes were combined into one bag. The combined ashes were dumped over Craig Z tent plant and the surrounding fields. Working on this story now.
Ben Baker is a South Georgia newspaper editor, author and evangelist. He’s a member of the Southern Humorists .