Observational stories put readers in the scene
For his latest book, Uncommon Carriers, John McPhee:
- Rode from Atlanta to Tacoma alongside Don Ainsworth, owner and operator of a 65-foot, 18-wheel chemical tanker carrying hazmats
- Attended ship-handling school on a pond in the foothills of the French Alps, where skippers of the largest ocean ships refine their capabilities in 20-foot scale models
- Traveled by canoe up the canal-and-lock commercial waterways that Henry David Thoreau navigated in a homemade skiff in 1839
To get their stories, other writers have journeyed with a teenage boy from the Honduras to North Carolina to find his mother, eaten nothing but Big Macs for a month and traveled cross-country with Einstein’s brain.
When it comes to description, there’s nothing like being there. And there’s nothing like taking your reader to the scene through observational stories.
For an observational story, you go on an adventure, then recreate that experience in a collection of scenes for your reader.
Make mine short.
Most of us don’t have the rest of our lives to research a story. But you don’t have to drive Einstein’s brain around America to pull this story form off.
You can research an observational story in:
- One day. As an editorial assistant for Folio: magazine, Steve Wilson once spent 14 hours hanging out at a Manhattan bookstore to write an observational story about how people looked at magazines.
- Half a day. Wilson’s previous job was tougher: He tested rain gear for another magazine by going through a car wash on foot nine times. (Even I have never asked an writer to get pressure-washed and sprayed with hot wax more than eight times.)
- A few hours. I once turned a profile of a personal nutritionist into an observational story by having her give my pantry a makeover (she discovered a Chef Boyardee pizza mix from 1989), then going grocery shopping with her.
- Two hours or less. A friend who works for H&R Block tries out the company’s tax software before writing an observational pitch about it.
For a profile of a Farmland Industries CEO, I once spent a day with Harry Cleberg touring the Kansas City Farmland facilities. Rather than a traditional profile, I used vignettes from the road to reveal Cleberg’s character in little glimpses, as it had been revealed to me. Here’s the lead:
“His desk sits in the corner office of Farmland Industries’ headquarters building in North Kansas City, but Harry Cleberg’s heart is here: among the 50-pound bags of fertilizer, soybean seed and milk replacer for calves at the Central Cooperative Inc. in Adrian, Mo.
“He gossips and teases, chatting with owner Ben Griffith and manager Owen Highly about the height of corn in Colby, Kan., and how much milo got planted before this early-June rain turned the fields into muck.
“’How many people work at a local co-op?’ he asks the staff at large, scooping a fistful of dried molasses out of a bag and offering me a taste of the feed sweetener.
“’About half!’ he answers with a squeal, his eyebrows jutting like exclamation points from his wire-rimmed glasses. And Owen and Roger and Chuck, gathered around to shoot the breeze on this grizzly morning with Harry — Harry, just plain Harry, none of this ‘Mr.’ stuff for him — bust out laughing, too.”
Granted, I’m no McPhee. But I did wind up with a much livelier story because of the time I spent in the field.