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Posted, Jan. 19, 2005
Updated, Jan. 19, 2005

QuickLink: A76307

Writing Tool #40: The Broken Line
Use this tool to combine storytelling with reporting.

By Roy Peter Clark (more by author)
Senior Scholar, Poynter Institute

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Use the broken line to mix narrative and analysis.

Some writing tools work best for straight reports. Others help the writer craft fully realized narratives. But the author will often need tools to do both: construct a world the reader can enter, and then report or comment upon that world. The result is a hybrid, best exemplified by a story form I call "the broken line."


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To understand the broken line, think of its opposite, the unbroken line. Most movies are unbroken narrative lines. Frodo takes possession of the ring of power and sets out on a journey to destroy it. James Bond receives an assignment, saves the world, and gets the girl.

On occasion, a director will break the line of the narrative for some other purpose. In the movie "Alfie," the main character stops the action, turns to the camera, and speaks directly to the audience. These surprise soliloquies reveal the nuances of his character and foreshadow the plot complications.

In ancient pornographic movies, the sex would be interrupted by a "doctor" in a white coat, who would supply redeeming social value by commenting on the importance of sex in a healthy married life. Of course, no one would keep watching such a flick without the expectation that the commentary would soon stop and the sex play return.

That is the secret and the power of the broken line. The writer tells us a story then stops the story to tell us about the story. Imagine this story form as a train ride with occasional whistle stops. Something that looks like this:


A master of this technique is Nicholas Lemann, now dean of the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism. Lemann writes books about big important topics in American life: the migration of Black Americans from South to North; the tension between merit and privilege in higher education. Wonderful insights and explanations are hung like rubies upon a strong narrative string. A story invites us into a new world. Then the writer explains that world to us.

The pattern begins early in Lemann's book "The Promised Land," when the author introduces us to an African-American family from Clarksdale, Mississippi:

During that year, 1937, Ruby saw her father for the first time. After World War I, he had moved back to the hills, living here and there. Sometimes he would write letters to Ruby and Ruth in the Delta, or send them dresses. Now that they were grown, they decided to visit him. They traveled by train and bus to the town of Louisville, Mississippi, where they had arranged to meet him in front of a cotton gin. Their first glimpse of each other was a crystal-clear memory for Ruby into old age: "Oh, my children," he cried out, nearly overcome with emotion, and embraced them.

Lemann then pulls the camera back and up from this emotional moment. His next perspective, from high atop the ladder of abstraction, draws upon history, sociology, anthropology, ethnography:

Americans are imbued with the notion that social systems proceed from ideas, because that is what happened at the founding of our country. The relationship of society and ideas can work the other way around, though: people can create social systems first and then invent ideas that will fulfill their need to feel that the world as it exists makes sense. White people in the Delta responded to their need to believe in the system of economic and political subjugation of blacks as just, fair and inevitable by embracing the idea of black inferiority, and for them the primary evidence of this was lives like Ruby's.

These are startling ideas. They give Lemann's story "altitude," a liftoff from the tarmac of scenes and events to a vantage of meaning from the sky. But too much ozone can leave the reader feeling oxygen deprived. Time to land. (Time to get back to the sex.) And so he does. Over the course of the book, the movement Lemann creates, back and forth, back and forth, between narrative and analysis is breathtaking.

Many newspapers have miniaturized this movement with a device called "the nut paragraph." Any story that begins without the news requires a phrase, a sentence, a paragraph, a zone that answers the question "So what?" The Wall Street Journal, over 30 years, has perfected this technique with whimsical front-page features off the news.

Ken Wells begins a story out of New York City:

Emma Thornton still shows up for work at 5 a.m. each day in her blue slacks, pinstripe shirt and rubber-soled shoes. A letter carrier for the U.S. Postal Service, she still dutifully sorts all the mail addressed to "One World Trade Center," and primes it for delivery.

But delivery to where and to whom?

Why is this an important anecdote? The answer requires a little altitude, a movement off the narrative line and up to a higher level of meaning:

Since Sept. 11, as many as 90,000 pieces of mail a day continue to flood in to the World Trade Center addresses that no longer exist and to thousands of people who aren't alive to receive them. On top of that is another mail surge set off by well-wishers from around the U.S. and the worlds -- thousands of letters addressed to, among other salutations: "The People Hurt,"  "Any Police Department" and "The Working Dogs" of "Ground Zero, N.Y." Some of this mail contains money, food, even biscuits for the dogs that were used in the early days to help try to sniff out survivors.

The mix of World Trade Center mail and Ground Zero mail represents a calamity for the U.S. Postal Service, which served 616 separate companies in the World Trade Center complex whose offices are now rubble or relocated.

This movement from anecdote to meaning would be nothing more than a cheesy bait and switch without a return to the narrative line, to the world of letter carrier Emma Thornton. The writer delivers: "Her route in the North Tower has been transformed into a 6-by-6 steel cubicle ... surrounded by tall metal racks of pigeonholes."

The broken line is a versatile story form. The reporter can begin with narrative and move to explanation, or begin with straight reporting and then illustrate the facts with an anecdote. In either case, the easy swing, back and forth, can feel like clockwork.

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1. Read the work of Nicholas Lemann for examples of the broken line.  Analyze his movement from narrative to analysis in books such as "The Promised Land: The Great Black Migration and How it Changed America" or "The Big Test: The Secret History of the American Meritocracy."

2. Review some of your own recent work. Try to find a story that might work better if you had used the structure of the broken line.

3. Read the collection of Wall Street Journal features titled "Floating Off the Page." Search it for interesting examples of the "nut paragraph," and the general movement between reporting and narrative.

4. As you review your own work, look for examples where you used the nut paragraph to reveal the higher meaning of the story. Pay special attention to what comes after the nut graph. Do you move back to narrative, or are you practicing "bait and switch" on the reader?  

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