Monday, October 29, 2007

Floor your readers with amazing stories

Columnists are reporters with an opinion. The best columnists are also keen observers, precise writers, and excellent storytellers. Frequently, we forget that readers love stories. But that is difficult to do in 13 inches or 400 words. We need to expand columns on days when a writer finds a terrific story.

Columnists frequently write opinion pieces, offer notes, or playfully address an issue, but how frequently do columnists tell stories to get their points across? Not enough. That's why reading pieces by a great writer like Bill Plaschke is a treat. Plaschke's piece -- "Floored" -- is among the best column I've read in some time.

"Floored" is an amazing story, a column that might have fallen through the cracks had Plaschke not also been a curious observer and a diligent reporter. Ultimately, the column succeeds because Plaschke is an excellent storyteller. Readers love a good mystery, something he clearly understands. Consider the opening:

The name is in giant cardinal letters, stripped across two sides of the new basketball court in this city's new basketball treasure, the signature on USC's signature arena.

It will be stepped upon by generations of Trojans basketball players.

It will be seen by millions of Galen Center fans.

Yet it is cloaked in mystery.

Jim Sterkel Court.

"Are you sure?" asks his wife, Joanne Sterkel. "His name is on what?"


Plaschke starts with a simple detail and then pulls us in with the idea of a mystery before adding an intriguing detail -- that Sterkel's wife is shocked. Hmmm. How does his wife not know something major like this? What else doesn't she know? Tell me more.

Plaschke keeps the story rolling by focusing on conflict at several points. There is the sad moment when Sterkel finds out he has cancer. Then, readers learn that the anonymous donor's son is also dying. The reader, of course, will want to read further to learn the outcome in both situations

When Sterkel first noticed a lump in his testicles, he told Anonymous, who immediately drove him to the doctor for the beginning of his long and fatal relationship with cancer.

While Sterkel was dying, Anonymous' young son also contracted cancer. Sterkel wrote Anonymous a poem, sealed it, and ordered it only to be read if Anonymous' son died.

Plaschke also writes wonderfully, varying sentences as needed. He uses short, staccato sentences to re-emphasize points in longer sentences. He then counters with longer sentences that pack a lot of information within them.

After their senior years, the roommates set upon vastly different courses of life, but never strayed too far.

There's also this nice passage that summarizes the opening scene:

Anonymous became a business tycoon, while Sterkel became a suburban salesman and church leader, yet they still met for family dinners, fishing trips and pep talks on the phone.

Sterkel was the kind of guy who didn't smoke, didn't swear, and would lead his church in services and on its basketball courts.

He was the kind of guy neighbors phoned if they needed a television fixed or pipe unclogged. Giant and bespectacled and always smiling, he was the kind of guy who hugged everyone.

He also says much in the following sentence, a 22-word line of poetry. (Notice, also, how the second shorter sentence leaps out in comparison to its lengthier neighbor.)

A most amazing story in this city of stars, a sports centerpiece decorated in average, laced in ordinary, painted in a nobody.

Or was he?

Plaschke is also a tenacious reporter. He uncovers the name of the anonymous donor but does not reveal it to readers, knowing that detail is unnecessary to the telling of the tale. Just because we know something does not mean we should publish it. Consider how your words impact others. Plaschke speaks with many sources, everybody from Jim Sterkel's wife and daughter to a former teammate to USC's athletic director to Anonymous. He digs in to learn as many details about this story as possible from these people.

After so much work, Plaschke then tells an amazing story of friendship, dedication, and selflessness. It's a lovely story, one that sticks in one's mind (and heart) for a long time -- and one worth emulating.

-30-

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