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Joel Achenbach: Gary Smith and the endangerment of detailed, long-form stories

Telling the tale: Long-form narratives such as (counterclockwise from top) the St. Petersburg Times' feature "The Girl in the Window," the Bible, Gary Smith's "Beyond the Game" and Leo Tolstoy's novels on 19th-century Russian life would need more acreage than what's available on tiny cellphone screens.
Telling the tale: Long-form narratives such as (counterclockwise from top) the St. Petersburg Times' feature "The Girl in the Window," the Bible, Gary Smith's "Beyond the Game" and Leo Tolstoy's novels on 19th-century Russian life would need more acreage than what's available on tiny cellphone screens. (Screenshot From Tampabay.com; Tolstoy Portrait By Vladimir Voinovich: David Hoffman/the Washington Post; Cellphone: Joel Garreau/the Washington Post)

At the risk of picking a fight with a professor, it's not simply the appreciation of fiction that's adaptive. It's the appreciation of any kind of narrative. Kids at bedtime don't specify true or false: They just say "tell me a story."

Stories have certain basic rules.

"There is always a protagonist," Mary Pope Osborne, author of the Magic Tree House books, says of her stories. "The protagonist really wants something. There are obstacles. The protagonist goes through a crisis, most often, and either fails or succeeds."

Another key element of a story: Information unspools. The payoff is delayed.

"You're not just reporting information but you're revealing an unfolding of information," Osborne says.

Kids today have no attention span, we are told -- and then devour all seven of the Harry Potter books multiple times.

Courting eyeballs

Ron Suskind is on the road, in Michigan, reporting his next book, another epic of narrative nonfiction. Suskind figures the biggest challenge is getting a reader's attention at all. A news peg helps. A headline. The crackle of scandal. But there is so much competition for eyeballs.

"It puts inordinate pressure on getting them in the tent," Suskind says. "The hook, the sell, the draw, the scent."

Storytellers will have to be more disciplined or get a new line of work. This is not a crisis, this is progress. Fewer "jello ledes," quote-dumps, the whole notebook disgorged upon the page. Less overwriting by frustrated novelists. Sorry, we don't need to read Proust's version of the zoning hearing.

"There's this inevitable movement toward shorter, tighter, quicker," says Roy Peter Clark, a senior scholar at the Poynter Institute, a school for journalists.

Some long stories have managed to go viral on the Web. A recent example was "The Girl in the Window," a feature by reporter Lane DeGregory and photographer Melissa Lyttle in the St. Pete Times about a 7-year-old feral child. It has received more than a million hits on the Web.

What this means is that the Internet can be, for the very best stories, an accelerant, not a retardant, of great narrative. But mediocre stories need not apply. And even with the best stories, Gary Smith is still correct: It's a drag, usually, to read a long story online. This is why they invented the Print button.


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