Crime Scenes: Building scenes and finding the universal in criminal justice stories

By Neil Shea

Narrative writers are scene-obsessed. We mine scenes, collect them, hoard them and endlessly chase them. This can be a problem. Scenes can be show stoppers. Scenes, as Pulitzer-prize winner Barry Siegel said, are not narrative.

In his discussion on building scenes in writing about crime, Siegel said that scenes are the windows that allow us into a community, into a life; they’re the points along our narrative trip where we stop to look around. But too many scenes—and poorly chosen ones—transform a story into a series of long pauses.

Scene overload is especially tempting in crime writing, Siegel said, because usually there’s a haul of court transcripts, police reports, and previous media interviews that a writer can use. But equally important to a story are the narrative threads that connect scenes and keep readers moving from window to window.

When choosing scenes, find the most telling and dramatic ones, the scenes that reveal character. The crime itself isn’t necessarily what interests Siegel. Probe for scenic details in the gray area surrounding the crime, he recommends. In the U.S. we tend to use the court system as a kind of adjudicated therapy, where judges must carve black and white decisions from a body of gray evidence. Examine the impact of the crime on the people involved and on the community; this is often where the story lies and where writers discover universal themes that reach larger audiences.

As you search out scenes, Siegel said, know that some of your best ones will never make it into the story. Avoid overload. Learn to recognize which scenes are the most revealing. Then, Siegel said, remember that scenes need narrative threads—the timelines, the movement, the authoritative insight—to make a story complete.

Neil Shea is a reporter for The Providence Journal.

Posted in crime & law, scene reconstructions, scenes, sessions.Crime Scenes, speakers.Barry Siegel on December 12, 2003 at 05:14 PM | Permalink

Best Beat for Narrative Journalism?

By Bill Mitchell

David Halberstam says it’s cops -- the beat with “maximum human collision…the place where the best stuff happens.”

Halberstam acknowledged the burden of daily stories that falls to police reporters. But he said cops and court slots yield the best shot to uncover stories that, given some digging and some time, can blossom into compelling narratives.

When told by young journalists that they're starting out on cops, he says he has a stock answer: “Best beat on the paper.”

If you can’t cover cops or courts, Halberstam recommended general assignment as fertile ground for narrative journalism.

“The most interesting stuff falls outside the bureaucratic beats that newspapers tend to create,” he said.

Bill Mitchell works for Poynter.

Posted in crime & law, sessions.Keynote: The Pleasures of What We Do, speakers.David Halberstam on December 12, 2003 at 05:14 PM | Permalink