Tag Archives: How to Write Nonfiction

An Interview with Óscar Martínez

12 Feb
Óscar Martínez is a staff writer and editor at El Faro and the author of The Beast: Riding the Rails and Dodging Narcos on the Migrant Trail

Óscar Martínez is a staff writer and editor at El Faro and the author of The Beast: Riding the Rails and Dodging Narcos on the Migrant Trail.

Óscar Martínez spent two years traveling with Central American migrants to the United States through Mexico. His reports were published in the Salvadoran online newspaper El Faro, collected in the book Los migrantes que no importan, and translated into English as The Beast: Riding the Rails and Dodging Narcos on the Migrant Trail. Martínez lives in El Salvador and edits El Faro‘s “Sala Negra,” a continuing investigation of gang violence and organized crime in Central America.

In this interview, Martínez discusses telling violent stories, the verisimilitude of a hit man, and planning trips into areas controlled by drug cartels. You can read Martínez’s original answers in Spanish, along with English translations. (Thanks to Chris Dammert for helping with translation and interpretation.)

To read the first chapter of The Beast and exercises on ending stories and distinguishing fact from fiction in essays, click here.

Michael Noll

You write about Saúl, a 19-year-old who is deported from Los Angeles to Guatemala. He is beaten and captured by a gang led by a man who turns out to be his father. The story ends this way: “He only got out alive by covering himself (and the 18 tattooed on his back) in mud and pretending to be insane.” That last sentence is stunningly short. How did you know or figure out which details to leave out and which to include?

Óscar Martínez

For me, there is a logic to the narration of violence: don’t embellish or elaborate what is already a very heavy subject. To add my assessment to Saul’s already convincing story would have been a distraction. His story is valuable just for that: how distinct and forceful it is. The only proof I have that it is true is because he told it to me in such a very frank way and with a context that made it plausible. I obviously never knew his father. Sometimes the narrator of nonfiction puts the reader in this dilemma: do you believe me or not believe me? It’s your decision.

Para mí hay una lógica en la narración de la violencia: no pretendas exagerar, no pretendas engordar lo que ya es pesado de por sí. Agregar mis valoraciones a la contundente historia de Saúl hubiera estado de más. Hubiera generado distracción. Su historia-mínima es valiosa por eso, por lo contundente, por lo integral, por lo sucinta. La única prueba que tengo de que es verdad es que así lo creo, que me lo contó de una manera que me pareció franca y que en el contexto su historia es verosímil. Yo, evidentemente, nunca conocí a su padre. A veces, un narrador de no ficción pone en ese dilema a su lector: ¿me crees o no me crees? Es tu decisión.

Michael Noll

You describe a migrant on the train as crucified on the front of the car and talking with his cousin and two Nicaraguans. Other writers might have focused on the danger but not the dull routine. How were you able to find this balance?

Óscar Martínez

Other writers would have ruined the story. This is how it happened, how it was told to me. It was right this way. The daily nature of the scene adds verisimilitude to the lives of these people: Who the hell flees, kills, dies all the time? People need to shit, get tired, play cards, eat, discuss, fall in love, and think. If they don’t, they don’t exist. Who empathizes with Rambo?  Can you see your brother or father as a hit man all the time? I don’t think so. Sometimes in nonfiction we create Martians, people who cannot exist. We take pieces of them that are thrilling. But that kind of story, without those real moments of calm, would be boring, empty.

Otros escritores habrían arruinado entonces la escena. Así ocurrió, así me lo relató. Así era justo contarlo. Lo cotidiano de la escena agrega verosimilitud a las vidas de estas personas: ¿Quién demonios huye, mata, muere todo el tiempo? Los personajes necesitan cagar, estar cansados, jugar cartas, comer, discutir, enamorarse, peinarse. Si no, no existen. ¿Alguien puede sentir empatía por Rambo? ¿Alguien puede ver reflejado a su hermano o a su padre en un sicario a tiempo completo? No lo creo. A veces, en la no ficción creamos marcianos, gente que no puede existir, de quienes solo recortamos aquello que es emocionante. La acción, sin sus remansos reales, es aburrida, vacía.

Michael Noll

El Faro is the first online newspaper in El Salvador and one of the leading sources of investigative reporting in Central America. Óscar Martínez edits Sala Negra, which focuses on organized crime.

El Faro is the first online newspaper in El Salvador and one of the leading sources of investigative reporting in Central America. Óscar Martínez edits Sala Negra, which focuses on organized crime.

You often became a participant in your story. For example, your photographer frightened bandits off the train by shining all of his lights at them. As a result, I wondered why the cartels allowed you to move about in their areas. Are they so powerful that they simply don’t care if anyone finds out what they’re doing? Are they so focused on drugs that someone interested in migrants doesn’t matter? Now, you’re working with Sala Negra. Have the cartels and organized crime organizations become less tolerant of your reporting?

Óscar Martínez

The simple reason: time. I had time, we created a project with my paper that allowed me to do pre-production on each one of my trips. I had time to find a reliable source to plan my route, to find hostels. In short, to crack the system of the criminal world. Sometimes we would get counterintelligence against the mafias in order to penetrate their areas. With respect to life at Sala Negra: yes, it is more difficult. El Salvador is not Mexico, where I could take a trip to Tamaulipas or a trip by train to Tenosique and then return to a city like Mexico City, where I was anonymous. We would go one month and then we would take time to write what we had seen, to edit the photographs. In San Salvador, even though I live a privileged life, I live much closer to that black mass all the time.

La respuesta es sencilla: tiempo. Tuve tiempo, creamos un proyecto junto a mi periódico que me permitió hacer pre-producción de cada uno de mis viajes. Yo tenía el tiempo que deseaba para encontrar a la fuente de confianza, para planificar mi ruta, para permanecer en un albergue. En fin: para quebrar esa lógica de dominio criminal. A veces, hacíamos contra-inteligencia ante las mafias para poder penetrar en sus zonas. Respecto a la vida ahora en Sala Negra: sí, es más difícil. El Salvador no es México, donde yo realizaba una incursión a Tamaulipas o un viaje en tren o una visita a Tenosique y luego volvía a una ciudad como DF, donde era anónimo. Íbamos un mes y luego nos retirábamos para escribir lo que habíamos visto, para editar las fotografías. En San Salvador, aunque mi vida es privilegiada, vives mucho más cerca de esa masa oscura todo el tiempo.

Michael Noll

In an interview with The Texas Observer, you said that people in the United States have “no idea at all that what the migrants are going through is actually a humanitarian crisis.” The same is true in Mexico. Many people don’t know or don’t want to know. How does it affect the way you tell the story when you’re one of the first people to tell this story?

Óscar Martínez

For me it was a luxury. Being one of the first was what gave us such a wide, panoramic view, unlimited possibility, virgin territory in many places. Tenosique criminals never imagined that an international reporter would be interested in getting to Ranch La Victoria or Macuspana, which was why they didn’t have any way to detect us. That being said, it was a ninth-month process to organize the book. To tell what hasn’t been told much makes the task even greater because you have a blank page and the possibilities are unlimited. You have notebooks that are full, hours of recording, videos, photographs, and yet a blank page that’s asking, from all of this, what will you tell? And what will you leave out?

Para mí eso fue un lujo. Ser de los primeros fue justamente lo que nos dio un panorama tan amplio, unas posibilidades ilimitadas, un terreno virgen en muchos lugares. Los criminales de Tenosique nunca se imaginaron que un reportero internacional se interesaría por llegar al Rancho La Victoria o a Macuspana, por eso no tenían controles para detectarlo. Eso sí, fue un reto de nueve meses ordenar el libro. Contar lo que se ha contado poco duplica el reto ante la página en blanco, porque las posibilidades siguen siendo interminables. Tienes libretas llenas, horas de grabación, videos, fotografías, y una página en blanco que te pregunta: ¿Qué de todo eso contarás? Y por tanto, ¿qué dejarás de contar?

Originally published in May 2014

Michael Noll

Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.

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10 Exercises for Creating Characters

3 Jan

Happy new year! To celebrate the arrival of 2017, let’s look back at ten exercises on creating, describing, and developing characters from 2016.

1. Introduce Characters through Misdirection

Kaitlyn Greenidge is the author of We Love You, Charlie Freeman, has been called "auspicious," "complex," and "caustically funny."

Kaitlyn Greenidge is the author of We Love You, Charlie Freeman.

The introduction of one of the most famous characters in literature happens without the reader’s knowledge. In The Great Gatsby, Nick Carraway attends a party at Gatsby’s house but nobody’s seen Gatsby. People are trading rumors (“I’ll bet he killed a man”), and so Nick goes searching—into Gatsby’s mansion, into his library—before finding himself outside again, talking to a guy about the army. Someone asks if he’s having a good time, and Nick says, “I haven’t even seen the host.” That’s when the introduction happens: “I’m Gatsby,” the other man says.

This is an important piece of strategy on Fitzgerald’s part because the reader badly wants to see Gatsby. In a way, he’s the entire point of the novel, as the title indicates. But if Fitzgerald had introduced this great character directly, the reader might have been disappointed. No description would have matched the hype. So Fitzgerald snuck him onto the page.

Kaitlyn Greenidge does something similar in her novel We Love You, Charlie Freeman. The novel is named after a character who is surrounded, early on, by intrigue so substantial that any direct description might disappoint. You can read her approach in this exercise.

2. Describe Characters Without Relying On Mirrors

Kelli Jo Ford is a former Dobie Paisano fellow and recent winner of the Elizabeth George Foundation Emerging Artist Grant.

Kelli Jo Ford is a winner of the Elizabeth George Foundation Emerging Artist Grant.

We’ve all written this type of character description: the character walks past a mirror, stops, and examines the face and person it reveals. It’s a simple strategy that allows the story to tell the reader, “Here is what this person looks like.” The problem is that it’s overused. People really do look in mirrors, of course, and sometimes it’s necessary in fiction. I’m not suggesting that mirrors should never appear in our writing. But they shouldn’t be used as a crutch. There are other ways to describe characters, and some of them can feel so active that we don’t even realize a description has occurred.

An excellent example of an active character description can be found in Kelli Jo Ford’s story, “You Will Miss Me When I Burn.” You can read an exercise based on it here.

3. Add Physical Description to Dialogue

Saslow

Eli Saslow is a Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist for the Washington Post.

A key difference between beginning and experienced writers is the ability to handle the attributions and descriptions within dialogue. As we improve our craft, we work from “he said with glittering eyes” to “he guffawed” to “he said” to “he said, looking hard at her” to, finally, something better. Well-written dialogue uses carefully chosen physical details to push forward or expand the dramatic moment and the reader’s understanding of it.

An excellent example of this skill (and, frankly, an excellent example of pretty much every type of good writing) is “A Survivor’s Life,” Eli Saslow’s article about a 16-year-old girl who survived the mass shooting in Roseburg, Oregon. It was published in The Washington Post. Find an exercise based on it here.

4. Create an Emotional Backdrop for Characters

Hannah Petard's latest novel, Listen to Me, has

Hannah Pittard’s latest novel is Listen to Me.

Most of us have had this experience: we’re upset about something and chew it over in our minds, over and over, becoming dead certain about the rightness of our feelings and thoughts—and then we share them with someone. Suddenly, we understand how wrong and ugly our thoughts have become, perhaps as soon as they leave our mouths or maybe not until the other person puts us in our place. If we’re lucky, our ugly thoughts are about someone or something not present, and we feel relieved: “Whew, I’m glad I said this here instead of out in public.” If we’re not lucky, our ugly thoughts are directed at the person we’re talking to. In that case, our lives are about to get unpleasant. When it happens in fiction though, the drama is about to get interesting.

This is exactly what Hannah Pittard does in her novel, Listen to Me. Find an exercise based on it here.

5. Give Characters a Frame of Reference

Tom Hart

Tom Hart is the author of the graphic memoir Rosalie Lightning.

When people face tragedy, they rely upon the philosophical framework they’ve built their entire lives. You can hear this framework in the stories they tell, the rituals they follow, and the words of wisdom they recall. Our characters should be no different, yet it’s easy to think only in terms of the questions a character must grapple with in the aftermath of something life-changing: where to live, who to be with, how to cope with what they’re feeling. But all of these questions are answered within a frame of reference. Characters, like us, do not invent every feeling and bit of knowledge or instinct from scratch. Instead, they build their experience of the world hand-in-hand with the books, art, religions, and stories that exist around them.

An excellent—and heartbreakingly beautiful—example of this essential human practice can be found in Tom Hart’s new graphic memoir, Rosalie Lightning. You can read an exercise based on it here.

6. Describe a Character from the Perspective of Others

Unknown

Tristan Ahtone is a journalist and Vice President for the Native American Journalists Association.

The easiest and most common way to describe a character is directly, like this: She’s tall and loves Adele but believes people who sing along with the music are disrespecting the artist. The first part of that description (she’s tall) can be deduced from observation, and perhaps the second part (loves Adele) can be as well if the music is audible. But the final part (disrespecting the artist) requires knowing her thoughts, which means that she speaks them aloud. For most characters, this isn’t a big deal. But what about characters who can’t or won’t speak?

A good example of using every  available resource to describe a character can be found in a recent series, “The United States of Bus Travel,” from Al Jazeera America. Journalist Tristan Ahtone traveled the United States by Greyhound bus and wrote short vignettes about the people he encountered. You can find an exercise based on it here.

7. Manipulate Chronology to Build Character

Chinelo Okparanta is the author of the novel Under the Udala Trees and the story collection Happiness, Like Water

Chinelo Okparanta is the author of the novel Under the Udala Trees.

Chronology is something most writers and readers take for granted. Time moves forward, and so does narrative. There are exceptions, of course. Memory isn’t constrained by the inexorable march of time. It can leap backward at will, or against it—and can even get stuck in the past. But we understand memory to be unusual, unlike the rest of our lives, which move forward. This fact highlights the extraordinary achievement of fictions that move differently. Charles Baxter’s novel First Light, for example, starts at the end and moves toward the beginning. And Nicholson Baker’s novel The Mezzanine takes place completely within the time required to ride an escalator. Most writers will never attempt such ambitious structures. But it can be useful to try them in miniature.

An  example of this kind of chronological experiment can be found in Chinelo Okparanta’s novel Under the Udala Trees. You can find an exercise based on it here.

8. Reveal Tension Between Characters Indirectly

Daniel Oppenheimer's book Exit Right has received glowing reviews, like this one from the Washington Post: "This book proves so satisfying precisely because it leaves you wanting much more."

Daniel Oppenheimer is the author of Exit Right: The People Who Left the Left and Reshaped the American Century.

One of the most famous writing exercises is John Gardner’s barn assignment from The Art of Fiction: “Describe a barn as seen by a man whose son has just been killed in a war. Do not mention the son, or war, or death.” The goal is to write a passage that does not address its main subject directly, head on. In some ways, the exercise is the ultimate statement about the purpose of craft. In first drafts, we attempt to figure out what we want to write (a man’s son died in the war), but in revision, we find the best way to write it (by describing a barn, with no reference to anything on the man’s mind).

Indirectness isn’t only important in description. The best writers can surprise us at any moment, in any type of passage. A terrific example of artful indirectness can be found in Daniel Oppenheimer’s new book Exit Right: The People Who Left the Left and Reshaped the American Century. You can find an exercise based on it here.

9. Build Character within Action Scenes

Manuel Gonzales is the author of The Regional Office Is Under Attack!, which the New York Times called "rollicking good fun on the surface, action-packed and shiny in all the right places" and also "thoughtful and well considered."

Manuel Gonzales is the author of The Regional Office Is Under Attack!

The most boring prose is often supposed to be the most exciting: action scenes. No matter how exquisitely detailed and choreographed a scene’s punches, kicks, shouts, commands, charges, and retreats, the reader can bear only so much. After more than a few sentences—or perhaps a paragraph or two at most—it simply washes over us, unseen. Our eyes glaze over. So, good writers will mix something into their action sequences, and usually that somethingbuilds character.

One of the best at this strategy is Manuel Gonzales, who does it again and again in his weird and wonderful new novel The Regional Office Is Under Attack! Read an exercise on how he does it here.

10. Create Stand-Ins for Characters

Katie Chase is the author of Man and Wife, a story collection that Edan Lepucki calls "comic and horrific."

Katie Chase is the author of the story collection Man and Wife.

For my money, one of the most intense scenes in any film is the moment in Ridley Scott’s Alien when a character goes into an air duct with the goal of pushing the Alien toward an air lock so it can be sucked out into space. (If you’ve seen the film, you know the scene; it’s everybody’s favorite.) We barely see the Alien. Instead, we track it with a motion sensor which registers both the man in the air duct and the Alien as dots on a grid. One dot draws closer to the other. It’s terrifying—as suspenseful or more than if we saw the actual Alien racing toward the man.

A lot has been written about the scene, in particular how it resulted from Ridley’s small budget. He couldn’t afford crazy special effects. In prose, writers often work under similar restrictions. Every word costs the same, but they aren’t always equally available. So, it’s useful to keep the dots from Alien in mind. A stand-in for the real thing is often as effective or more than the thing itself.

A great example of this approach can be found in Katie Chase’s story “Man and Wife.” You can read an exercise on how she does it here.

An Interview with Óscar Martínez

1 May
Óscar Martínez is a staff writer and editor at El Faro and the author of The Beast: Riding the Rails and Dodging Narcos on the Migrant Trail

Óscar Martínez is a staff writer and editor at El Faro and the author of The Beast: Riding the Rails and Dodging Narcos on the Migrant Trail.

Óscar Martínez spent two years traveling with Central American migrants to the United States through Mexico. He visited places and people (sites of cartel massacres, coyotes who work for the cartels, mountain trails where migrants take their chances) that almost no journalist had ever seen. His reports were published in the Salvadoran online newspaper El Faro, collected in the book Los migrantes que no importan, and translated into English as The Beast: Riding the Rails and Dodging Narcos on the Migrant Trail.

Martínez lives in El Salvador and edits El Faro‘s “Sala Negra,” a continuing investigation of gang violence and organized crime in Central America.

In this interview, Martínez discusses telling violent stories, the verisimilitude of a hit man, and planning trips into areas controlled by drug cartels. You can read Martínez’s original answers in Spanish, along with English translations. (Thanks to Chris Dammert for helping with translation and interpretation.)

To read the first chapter of The Beast and exercises on ending stories and distinguishing fact from fiction in essays, click here.

Michael Noll

You write about Saúl, a 19-year-old who is deported from Los Angeles to Guatemala. He is beaten and captured by a gang led by a man who turns out to be his father. The story ends this way: “He only got out alive by covering himself (and the 18 tattooed on his back) in mud and pretending to be insane.” That last sentence is stunningly short. How did you know or figure out which details to leave out and which to include?

Óscar Martínez

For me, there is a logic to the narration of violence: don’t embellish or elaborate what is already a very heavy subject. To add my assessment to Saul’s already convincing story would have been a distraction. His story is valuable just for that: how distinct and forceful it is. The only proof I have that it is true is because he told it to me in such a very frank way and with a context that made it plausible. I obviously never knew his father. Sometimes the narrator of nonfiction puts the reader in this dilemma: do you believe me or not believe me? It’s your decision.

Para mí hay una lógica en la narración de la violencia: no pretendas exagerar, no pretendas engordar lo que ya es pesado de por sí. Agregar mis valoraciones a la contundente historia de Saúl hubiera estado de más. Hubiera generado distracción. Su historia-mínima es valiosa por eso, por lo contundente, por lo integral, por lo sucinta. La única prueba que tengo de que es verdad es que así lo creo, que me lo contó de una manera que me pareció franca y que en el contexto su historia es verosímil. Yo, evidentemente, nunca conocí a su padre. A veces, un narrador de no ficción pone en ese dilema a su lector: ¿me crees o no me crees? Es tu decisión.

Michael Noll

You describe a migrant on the train as crucified on the front of the car and talking with his cousin and two Nicaraguans. Other writers might have focused on the danger but not the dull routine. How were you able to find this balance?

Óscar Martínez

Other writers would have ruined the story. This is how it happened, how it was told to me. It was right this way. The daily nature of the scene adds verisimilitude to the lives of these people: Who the hell flees, kills, dies all the time? People need to shit, get tired, play cards, eat, discuss, fall in love, and think. If they don’t, they don’t exist. Who empathizes with Rambo?  Can you see your brother or father as a hit man all the time? I don’t think so. Sometimes in nonfiction we create Martians, people who cannot exist. We take pieces of them that are thrilling. But that kind of story, without those real moments of calm, would be boring, empty.

Otros escritores habrían arruinado entonces la escena. Así ocurrió, así me lo relató. Así era justo contarlo. Lo cotidiano de la escena agrega verosimilitud a las vidas de estas personas: ¿Quién demonios huye, mata, muere todo el tiempo? Los personajes necesitan cagar, estar cansados, jugar cartas, comer, discutir, enamorarse, peinarse. Si no, no existen. ¿Alguien puede sentir empatía por Rambo? ¿Alguien puede ver reflejado a su hermano o a su padre en un sicario a tiempo completo? No lo creo. A veces, en la no ficción creamos marcianos, gente que no puede existir, de quienes solo recortamos aquello que es emocionante. La acción, sin sus remansos reales, es aburrida, vacía.

Michael Noll

El Faro is the first online newspaper in El Salvador and one of the leading sources of investigative reporting in Central America. Óscar Martínez edits Sala Negra, which focuses on organized crime.

El Faro is the first online newspaper in El Salvador and one of the leading sources of investigative reporting in Central America. Óscar Martínez edits Sala Negra, which focuses on organized crime.

You often became a participant in your story. For example, your photographer frightened bandits off the train by shining all of his lights at them. As a result, I wondered why the cartels allowed you to move about in their areas. Are they so powerful that they simply don’t care if anyone finds out what they’re doing? Are they so focused on drugs that someone interested in migrants doesn’t matter? Now, you’re working with Sala Negra. Have the cartels and organized crime organizations become less tolerant of your reporting?

Óscar Martínez

The simple reason: time. I had time, we created a project with my paper that allowed me to do pre-production on each one of my trips. I had time to find a reliable source to plan my route, to find hostels. In short, to crack the system of the criminal world. Sometimes we would get counterintelligence against the mafias in order to penetrate their areas. With respect to life at Sala Negra: yes, it is more difficult. El Salvador is not Mexico, where I could take a trip to Tamaulipas or a trip by train to Tenosique and then return to a city like Mexico City, where I was anonymous. We would go one month and then we would take time to write what we had seen, to edit the photographs. In San Salvador, even though I live a privileged life, I live much closer to that black mass all the time.

La respuesta es sencilla: tiempo. Tuve tiempo, creamos un proyecto junto a mi periódico que me permitió hacer pre-producción de cada uno de mis viajes. Yo tenía el tiempo que deseaba para encontrar a la fuente de confianza, para planificar mi ruta, para permanecer en un albergue. En fin: para quebrar esa lógica de dominio criminal. A veces, hacíamos contra-inteligencia ante las mafias para poder penetrar en sus zonas. Respecto a la vida ahora en Sala Negra: sí, es más difícil. El Salvador no es México, donde yo realizaba una incursión a Tamaulipas o un viaje en tren o una visita a Tenosique y luego volvía a una ciudad como DF, donde era anónimo. Íbamos un mes y luego nos retirábamos para escribir lo que habíamos visto, para editar las fotografías. En San Salvador, aunque mi vida es privilegiada, vives mucho más cerca de esa masa oscura todo el tiempo.

Michael Noll

In an interview with The Texas Observer, you said that people in the United States have “no idea at all that what the migrants are going through is actually a humanitarian crisis.” The same is true in Mexico. Many people don’t know or don’t want to know. How does it affect the way you tell the story when you’re one of the first people to tell this story?

Óscar Martínez

For me it was a luxury. Being one of the first was what gave us such a wide, panoramic view, unlimited possibility, virgin territory in many places. Tenosique criminals never imagined that an international reporter would be interested in getting to Ranch La Victoria or Macuspana, which was why they didn’t have any way to detect us. That being said, it was a ninth-month process to organize the book. To tell what hasn’t been told much makes the task even greater because you have a blank page and the possibilities are unlimited. You have notebooks that are full, hours of recording, videos, photographs, and yet a blank page that’s asking, from all of this, what will you tell? And what will you leave out?

Para mí eso fue un lujo. Ser de los primeros fue justamente lo que nos dio un panorama tan amplio, unas posibilidades ilimitadas, un terreno virgen en muchos lugares. Los criminales de Tenosique nunca se imaginaron que un reportero internacional se interesaría por llegar al Rancho La Victoria o a Macuspana, por eso no tenían controles para detectarlo. Eso sí, fue un reto de nueve meses ordenar el libro. Contar lo que se ha contado poco duplica el reto ante la página en blanco, porque las posibilidades siguen siendo interminables. Tienes libretas llenas, horas de grabación, videos, fotografías, y una página en blanco que te pregunta: ¿Qué de todo eso contarás? Y por tanto, ¿qué dejarás de contar?

May 2014

Michael Noll

Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.

How to Write a Story Ending

17 Apr
Óscar Martínez spent two years traveling with Central American migrants through Mexico on their way to the United States. His essays about the migrants were published in the Salvadoran online newspaper El Faro and collected in The Beast: Riding the Rails and Dodging Narcos on the Migrants Trail.

Óscar Martínez’s essays about traveling with Central American migrants were published in the Salvadoran online newspaper El Faro and collected in The Beast: Riding the Rails and Dodging Narcos on the Migrants Trail.

The easiest part of writing any story ought to be finding the beginning, middle, and end. So why is it often so hard? And why does so much ride on making the right choices?

The Salvadoran journalist Óscar Martínez has written one of the best story endings I’ve ever read in his nonfiction book The Beast: Riding the Rails and Dodging Narcos on the Migrant Trail. Martínez spent two years traveling with Central American migrants through Mexico on their way to the United States. The essays were originally published as dispatches in the Salvadoran online newspaper, El Faro, and translated in this collection from Verso Books. You can read the first chapter at Dazed.

How the Story Works

Martínez tells stories about many different migrants in the book, and one of them is about a teenager named Saúl, who was born in El Salvador but raised in Los Angeles, where he joined the M18 gang. He was deported after robbing a convenience store. The problem was that he didn’t know anything about El Salvador—hadn’t been there since he was four years old—and so he started walking and searching for the man who was supposed to be his father:

And what happened to him is what happens to any kid who doesn’t know what he’s doing in Central America, who thinks any neighborhood is just any neighborhood. A group of thugs turned out of an alleyway and beat him straight to hell.

So, the beginning of the story is pretty simple. The thugs, members of the Mara Salvatrucha gang, take Saúl to their leader, who, in turns out, is his father. Now, watch how Martínez sets up the story’s ending—and how he wraps it up:

“I’m Saúl,” Saúl said, breathless, “I just got deported. And, I swear it, I’m your son.”

The man, as Saúl recounted it to me on top of the hurtling train, opened his eyes as wide as possible. And then he exhaled, long and loud. And then a look of anger swept over his face. “I don’t have any kids, you punk,” his father said.

But in the days following, the man gave Saúl a gift. The only gift Saul would ever receive from his father. He publicly recognized him as his son, and so bestowed to him a single thread of life. “We’re not going to kill this punk,” Guerrero announced in front of Saúl and a few of his gang members. “We’re just going to give him the boot.” And then he turned to Saúl. “If I ever see you in this neighborhood again, you better believe me, I’m going to kill you myself.”

They left him in his underwear in another Mara Salvatrucha neighborhood. He only got out alive by covering himself (and the 18 tattooed on his back) in mud and pretending to be insane.

In short, a gang member has been captured by a rival gang in a foreign country, and it turns out the rival gang’s leader is his father. What incredible tension, right? And how does Martínez handle that tension? He could have given us a moment-by-moment account of arguments, beatings, and who stared down who. Instead he almost everything that happens: “But in the days following.” Why?

To answer that question, it’s useful to ask what those skipped moments could have added to the story. Saúl has already been beaten “straight to hell.” He’s already had a stunning encounter with his father (go back and look at how well the father’s shifting emotions are handled). Whatever comes next must advance this conflict. The problem is that you can’t advance severe beatings and familial rejection. More violence is just more of the same. So, when Martínez skips to the father’s pronouncement, he’s simply finding the moment where something new and different happens. The father changes his mind and doesn’t kill Saúl.

Sometimes condensing scenes—or a series of scenes—of high action actually increases the story’s tension. This is exactly what happens in that final paragraph, the story’s ending. It’d be tempting to describe what happens to Saúl in that other neighborhood minute-by-minute. But nothing Martínez could have written would have been better than the weird, surreal, stunning way that he summarizes the action: “He only got out alive by covering himself (and the 18 tattooed on his back) in mud and pretending to be insane.”

When closing out a story, sometimes one conflict-filled sentence is better than several less tense paragraphs.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s write a story ending by summarizing action and scenes, using the passage from Óscar Martínez’s The Beast as a model:

  1. Summarize the situation and how the character entered it. The point is to get into the story as quickly as possible. The summary should highlight factors that will appear later. If read the entire story from Martínez’s essay, you’ll see how he highlights Saúl’s gang membership and lack of knowledge about El Salvador. Then he skips past everything that happened to Saúl before he ran into the gang members who beat him up. So, you should focus on drawing the shape of the conflict: why your particular person/character is an especially bad match for the situation. (Bad matches in life make for good matches for stories.) Then, find the first significant action that results from that poor match.
  2. Make an outline of everything that happens next. Simply list all of the noteworthy moments from beginning to end. You don’t even need to use complete sentences. It’s an outline.
  3. Mark the moments of highest tension or action. They might be the most tense because of what information is revealed or because of the extremity of what happens.
  4. Are the remaining moments different or similar? Now that you know what your most tense moments are, you can begin carving away at the rest of the moments so that the best ones stand out. To do this, ask yourself if what is left is any different from those tense moments. If not, you can either cut them completely or group them together into a quick summary (a sentence or two) that sets up whatever tense moment comes next.
  5. Offer an escape valve in a sentence or two that restate the conflict. This strategy of summarizing and highlighting can be carried through until the very end. A great way to finish a story is by pivoting sharply. One way to do this is to restate or remind the reader of the conflict that you first presented at the beginning. You can do this with an actual reminder or by finding a moment that distills the conflict (“They left him in his underwear in another Mara Salvatrucha neighborhood.”) Then, offer an escape valve, a way to leave the conflict. Releases tend to be quick (think of a needle and a balloon). Once the reader knows an escape will occur, the writer’s work is mostly done. The tension has been broken. As a result, there’s no need to draw the release out. The quickest version is often the most interesting, as Martínez illustrates: “He only got out alive by covering himself (and the 18 tattooed on his back) in mud and pretending to be insane.”

Good luck!

How to Distinguish Fact from Fiction in an Essay

15 Apr
Óscar Martínez's book of essays about migrants, The Beast, was published in English by Verso books and in Spanish by Icaria Editorial.

Photo Credit: Edu Ponces & Toni Toni Arnau                                 Óscar Martínez’s book of essays about migrants, The Beast, was published in English by Verso Books and in Spanish by Icaria Editorial.

Some stories have been told so many times that they become a genre with rules: when a particular thing happens, the character reacts a particular way. But what if those rules are wrong? For some stories, it’s not enough to tell the truth. You must also consciously distinguish the facts from the fiction that your readers expect. What hangs in the balance is often the humanity of the people you’re writing about.

The Salvadoran journalist Óscar Martínez is telling this kind of story in his book The Beast: Riding the Rails and Dodging Narcos on the Migrant Trail. The essays were originally published as dispatches in the Salvadoran online newspaper, El Faro, and collected in an edition published first in Mexico and now, in English, by Verso Books. The original title in Spanish—Los migrantes que no importan (The Migrants Who Don’t Matter)—gives a sense for what is as stake in the essays. You can read the first chapter at Dazed.

How the Story Works

Martínez tells stories about many migrants, and, taken as a summary with only names and basic events, some of these stories begin to sound like a certain kind of fiction. For instance, Martínez interviews three Salvadoran brothers traveling to the U.S. to escape gang violence. The youngest brother is Pitbull, a 17-year-old who watched his friend Juan Carlos get shot in broad daylight. The next day, he found and put on a police uniform and “went to downtown Chalchuapa looking for the murderer’s accomplice who had gotten away. All day he searched through alleyways and makeshift street shops.” He eventually identified the killers to the police, but the killers recognized him, too, and soon threats were made against his life. If you’ve watched any gang movies, you may have an expectation for what comes next, but this is the point where fact and fiction part ways, as Martínez explains:

If he were a character in a movie, of course, Pitbull would have snooped around, hit up his barrio contacts, tried to put a name to the assassins, maybe put on the police uniform again.

But Pitbull lives in the real world. He ’s just an eighteen-year-old kid steeped in the violence of one of the most dangerous countries on the continent.

Once Martínez establishes that this story will depart from the usual story line, he explains why this departure matters:

What’s more, not even the police reports contain many details. When they killed Juan Carlos—January or February, he doesn’t exactly remember – nine other men between the ages of eighteen and twenty-five were killed, just in Chalchuapa. And Pitbull doesn’t even know if Juan Carlos was his friend’s real name.

“That’s what he called himself,” Pitbull says. “But he was in a gang and he had problems in some of the other barrios. I heard people call him a lot of different names.”

William, José, Miguel, Carlos, Ronal, Unidentified, any of these could have been Juan Carlos. All of these young men were murdered in Chalchuapa in the same month. And even if one were to know the facts of the murder, I have a hunch that, like the facts of so many other migrant murder cases, the details would be so scarce they’d simply disappear. Evaporate. It’d be as if nothing had ever happened.

The risk of turning “true” stories into a fictional genre is that the real people involved are turned into stock characters. When Martínez distinguishes fact from fiction, then, he is, in a way, giving life to the people in his stories.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s try to distinguish fact from fiction, using the passage from Óscar Martínez’s The Beast as a model. This exercise may be most useful as a tool for revision:

  1. Boil a character and story down to a tagline. To do this, choose a character and story (or person and essay) you’ve created and simplify everything about them. What is the quickest version you could tell someone. For help, think of movie posters. They use simple images that show you the essence of the main character and a phrase or short sentence to state the stakes. For instance, the new movie Draft Day has a poster that shows Kevin Costner in a suit and holding a football in front of signs for the NFL draft. The tagline is “The Greatest Victories Don’t Always Happen on the Field.”
  2. State the movie version. Imagine if your character and tagline were put in the hands of a movie producer hoping for a blockbuster—in other words, someone who will likely hew to convention. How would that person pitch your story, especially the conflict? Try to write the pitch as a series of actions in a single sentence. Here’s how Martínez does it: “If he were a character in a movie, of course, Pitbull would have snooped around, hit up his barrio contacts, tried to put a name to the assassins, maybe put on the police uniform again.”
  3. Explain how your character lives in the real world. Keep the explanation short and focused on the nature of the world and how it’s different from the world of movies. You’re basically tweaking the tagline you wrote earlier. Martínez started with barrio contacts and turned them into this: “He ’s just an eighteen-year-old kid steeped in the violence of one of the most dangerous countries on the continent.” How can you sum up your tagline so that it’s not about a character’s individual action but, instead, about the larger forces that operate around that character.
  4. Show how the world impacts the character(s). What choices do the characters make in reaction to the world you’ve just described? In Martínez’s essay, Juan Carlos created aliases to avoid the pockets of violence all around him. These aliases have the effect of making him hard to officially identify by the authorities—or even by the people closest to him. As a result, when he’s found murdered, no one can say for certain who he is. His identify has been spread so thin that he’s rendered almost invisible. Think about the choices your characters make. What are the consequences of these simple, necessary decisions? What impact do they have later on? Or, how do these choices affect the character’s actions once he/she is dropped into the plot or story you’re writing about?

This exercise should work for both fiction and nonfiction. In both, you’re keeping in mind the readers’ expectations about your story due to the previous way it’s been told.

Good luck!

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