Using Literary Techniques in Narrative Journalism

In this article, author Dustin Grinnell examines Jon Franklin’s award-winning article Mrs. Kelly’s Monster to help writers master the use of literary techniques in narrative journalism.
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“There is no more fiction or nonfiction, only narrative.”

—E. L. Doctorow

An inventive and enterprising writer, Jon Franklin won the inaugural Pulitzer Prize in Feature Writing for his article Mrs. Kelly’s Monster, a 3,539-word story about a failed brain surgery in 1979. Six years after its publication, Franklin won a second Pulitzer in Explanatory Journalism for an article series on brain science. Now a writing professor at the University of Maryland, Franklin pioneered the use of literary techniques in nonfiction with other writers of “new journalism,” such as Tom Wolfe, John McPhee, and Truman Capote.

In Franklin’s book on the craft of writing, Writing for Story: Craft Secrets of Dramatic Nonfiction by a Two-Time Pulitzer Prize Winner, he shares the storytelling techniques that made his nonfiction so exciting to read. In the book’s appendix, he annotates his most famous Pulitzer Prize-winning true story, Mrs. Kelly’s Monster, for readers. The careful analysis of his famous true story offers writers a valuable glimpse into his process and offers ways to improve one’s creative nonfiction.

Grinnell_Literary Techniques

Pick a winning story

To write Mrs. Kelly’s Monster, Franklin followed a brain surgeon while he operated on a woman named Edna Kelly, who was burdened with a dangerous aneurysm in her brain, which she called her “monster.” Without an operation, Mrs. Kelly would die.

Having already written a book on shock trauma about the first civilian trauma unit in the US, a medical narrative was in Franklin’s wheelhouse. In a 2011 interview with Paige Williams, Franklin said he knew the article would be one hell of a story and advised writers to make sure they were picking a winner before committing.

Later in the interview, Franklin said that he couldn’t write when he was bored with the subject matter. As a writer, you may spend weeks, months, or even years with a subject matter, so choosing material you’re passionate about is crucial.

What does the main character want?

Early in the story, Franklin lets readers know what Mrs. Kelly wants. He describes with concrete examples how the aneurysm has destroyed her life. She’s lost senses, had seizures, and experienced paralysis—and it’s only likely to get worse. She can’t go on like this. “For 57 years Mrs. Kelly shared her skull with the monster: No more.” It’s do or die for Mrs. Kelly. We know what she wants—to see the operation succeed.

(Characterization: Exploring Character Development in Your Writing)

Structure, voice, point of view, and mood

Structurally, Mrs. Kelly’s Monster has a clear and satisfying beginning, middle, and end. Franklin tells the story in the present tense, starting in the morning and ending in the afternoon after the operation. He moves the reader through the true account with scene-based writing, vivid descriptions, and tight dialogue. He employs a highly cinematic and dramatic style, panning the camera, zooming in and out, using flash cuts to break up sections.

A journalist, Franklin reports and writes in an objective, detached way. The voice is authoritative and credible. It’s no-nonsense and unsentimental. In terms of point of view, Franklin stays out of the story. He watched the operation on a television in a viewing gallery. Everything he wrote, he saw with his own two eyes. He urges writers of similar true stories to keep themselves out of the copy; the subject should talk to the reader. “Remember, as a future reader who will put himself into the action, you are a surrogate for your reader, and your existence on the scene is totally unimportant.”

Franklin was also deliberate in setting the story’s mood. He began the narrative in the cold hours of a winter morning. Franklin says, “Dr. Ducker also rose to a warm house and a bright future, but those facts are not relevant to the story being told.”

The story’s chronology

According to Franklin, the purpose of the narrative is to guide the reader’s thoughts from one action to the next. In Mrs. Kelly’s Monster, when he introduces the optic nerve, it’s not to teach readers about brain anatomy but rather to orient them. He writes that the reader invests time in a story to find out what happens next and how the story turns out. In order to take the reader on this journey, the writer must have the story mapped out.

Franklin says that he doesn’t put anything on paper until his story’s plot is crystallized. He must know the beginning, middle, and end and have clear plot points and compelling characters. For Mrs. Kelly’s Monster, Franklin mapped out his first draft by creating a sequence of events, a “road map” he calls it, that consists of: this happened, then this happened, and so on. After he established the story’s chronology, Franklin fills in his outline with details, dialogue, and insights that he collected during his reporting. He likens this process of reconstructing events and adding in detail to setting up dominoes, which he calls “a tedious task, but knocking them over is fun.”

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The use of sensory details

What puts readers in the story? According to Franklin: sensory details, including sounds and smells. He says a good feature writer should learn to observe noises and, when possible, bring them to his reader. In Mrs. Kelly’s Monster, he uses specific, concrete, and sensual language: the spatter of blood, the crackle of a television screen, and an “electrical bzzzzzt as he [Ducker] burns the bleeder closed.” The sound of Mrs. Kelly’s heartbeat produces a “steady pop, pop, popping.” “Dr. Ducker’s gloves snap sharply as a nurse pulls them off.”

“The senses of hearing and smell are ancient and are more closely connected to the emotional brain than is the sense of sight,” writes Franklin in the appendix. “That’s a good anatomical fact for a professional writer to know.”

Franklin also uses imagery to speed and slow the action. For example, the surgery is moving along quickly; he slows the action by writing “the smell of ozone and burnt flesh hangs thick in the air.” He advises doing this only if you have enough action that you can afford some slow passages. “If you don’t have enough action to withstand the imagery slowdowns, you’ve probably got a boring story.”

Record everything while reporting

Writing nonfiction that’s as detailed and evocative as Franklin’s requires neurotic note-taking. If you don’t record what you saw, smelled, heard, and touched, these details are likely to be lost forever. While reporting, Franklin captured every detail, including the times when events took place. This involves “turning yourself into a kind of recorder,” he says. Franklin told Williams that he took such careful notes that he didn’t need to follow up with Ducker with questions.

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The use of foreshadowing

In Writing for Story, Franklin illustrates the idea of foreshadowing with the old chestnut from the writer Anton Chekhov: If the opening scene of your story shows a gun hanging up on the mantelpiece, the gun must be fired by the end.

The dramatic principle of “Chekhov’s Gun” urges writers to make sure every element of a story is relevant and that every promise made to the reader is kept. “Nothing is more damaging to narrative than a good example of something that isn’t germane,” says Franklin.

During the operation, Franklin describes Mrs. Kelly’s heart beating with regularity. The description was deliberate, writes Franklin. “This implies that irregularity is not reassuring and foreshadows trouble ahead. When the heart slows, the reader will know instantly something is wrong.”

Franklin foreshadows with word choice too. Early in the story, he writes that Mrs. Kelly is covered during surgery, but he uses the word “shrouded.” This kind of foreshadowing operates on the reader’s mind at a subconscious level, according to Franklin. “With subliminal devices, the reader never knows what hits him. But hit him it does.”

Dr. Ducker finally decides that the battle against Mrs. Kelly’s monster can’t be won, which could leave the reader thinking that the neurosurgeon has failed. At this moment, Franklin inserts a flashback, dialogue from Mrs. Kelly, reminding the reader that she would rather die than live with the pain any longer. The flashback that late in the story offers dramatic perspective, reminding the reader that Mrs. Kelly went into the operation with her eyes wide open. Without the flashback, Dr. Ducker (“the hero”) would be tarnished by failure. Writes Franklin: “One of the points of the piece is that he is not tarnished, because he tried.”

Show don’t tell

It’s Rule #1 in creative writing classes: Show don’t tell. Franklin is masterful in this regard, bringing the surgical room to life: “A technician checks the brain surgery microscope and the circulating nurse lays out bandages and instruments.”

A tangled knot of blood vessels grows, balloons, and then bursts. When it bursts, Franklin shows: “one of the abnormal arteries, stretched beyond capacity, burst. Mrs. Kelly grabbed her head and collapsed.”

Franklin also “shows” by hinting at action. After Dr. Ducker clips the aneurysm, instead of saying “he smiled behind his mask,” Franklin wrote, “Smile wrinkles appear above his mask.” Both are accurate, says Franklin, but the second is more dramatic.

(Show and Tell)

The effective use of telling

Franklin occasionally delivers what he calls orientation paragraphs, where he steps out of the action to tell the reader what’s happening. It’s a necessary evil, especially in a story like Mrs. Kelly’s Monster, where few readers are familiar with a neurosurgical operation. For example, when Dr. Ducker first enters the operating room, he studies the two aneurysms on Mrs. Kelly’s X- ray. Franklin tells the reader the aneurysm behind her eye is most likely to burst. He says that’s first.

Orientation (“telling”) paragraphs can have the effect of slowing the action. In one paragraph, Franklin tells readers Ducker’s intentions for the surgery. Franklin used the telling to keep the action from getting too fast. Instead, he wanted to build tension.

Later in the story, he deploys a “Greek chorus” to comment on the dramatic action. For example, after Mrs. Kelly’s brain is exposed, a nurse dramatically says, “There it is . . . That’s what keeps you working.” Franklin advises not to explain any more than the reader needs to understand the story, though. Explanations beyond that are flab.

Word choice

Franklin dedicated Writing for Story to his father, who taught him that “words are sharper than switchblades,” and to G. Vern Blasdell, who showed him “how to use them without cutting myself.” Words certainly matter to Franklin.

Franklin says that “verbs are everything.” He describes a pulsing artery: “The carotid twists and dances.” As Dr. Ducker examines Mrs. Kelly’s X-rays, Franklin uses the word “commune,” a verb that means to “communicate intimately,” which is a more potent word than “study” or “evaluate.” It connotes that there’s more than knowledge at play: intuition, even a spiritual dimension.

When exposing readers to what may be an unfamiliar place, Franklin advises writers to anchor readers in familiar images. For example, Franklin compared Mrs. Kelly’s aneurysm to a “lumpy, overstretched bag, the color of rich cream.” He wrote that the arterial wall was swelling, like “a tire about to blow out, a balloon ready to burst, a time-bomb the size of a pea.”

When Dr. Ducker reaches a difficult point in the operation, he steps back from the operating table and sits on a stool. “This is a frightening place to be,” Dr. Ducker whispers. Franklin used the attribution “whisper” over “said” for dramatic purposes.

Franklin mostly avoids repetition in the story but notes that sometimes repetition is useful. Partway through the story, Mrs. Kelly’s heartbeat is strong: “70 beats a minute, 70 beats a minute.” Franklin says the repetition adds dramatic tension and emphasizes the building of tension into the story.

(Use Word Choice to Set the Mood)

Selecting material: Is the material relevant to the climax?

Despite the challenging subject matter, Franklin never confuses the reader with the use of technical terms. For example, during the operation, the other surgeon, Dr. Salcman, consults with Dr. Ducker. “They debate the options in low tones and technical terms.” Franklin doesn’t burden the reader with the incomprehensible terms the two surgeons may have used in their discussion. Franklin says to leave out technical material if it’s not necessary to the action. His iron rule: “If you don’t need it to make the climax work, then you don’t need it at all.”

Franklin writes his stories with the ending in mind and selects material based on whether it’s relevant to the known conclusion. Would using technical terms help the reader understand and interpret Dr. Ducker’s final realization that he can’t save Mrs. Kelly? If it won’t affect the story’s climax, leave it out. This mandate also makes it easier to kill one’s darlings.

This standard demands constant, almost neurotic tinkering with a work in progress: adding, deleting, cutting, refining, elaborating, shuffling. Good writing most resembles sculpting in this way. Add a piece of clay, shave some off, all while keeping the sculpture’s vision in mind.

Experiment

A nontraditional journalist, Franklin says he has the spirit of an inventor. He’s always experimenting in his nonfiction, trying different processes, styles, genres, etc. Franklin says he left the newspaper business because it became clear to him that he could’ve spent his life “writing Mrs. Kelly’s Monsters.” Instead, he ventured back into the wilderness and broke new ground.

Always be experimenting with techniques and process in your work. If you write on the computer, try longhand. If you outline (a “plotter”), try writing by the seat of your pants (a “pantser”). If you write about serious topics, try a humorous piece. If you prefer writing from the perspective of heroes, take a villain’s point of view. If you usually write in the first person, try third person. If you write happy endings, try a plot that ends with irony.

(Storyboarding For Success: Plotters vs. Pantsers)

Roll with the punches

Tragically, Mrs. Kelly did not survive, leaving Franklin without his happy ending. The story no longer had the uplifting conclusion of medicine triumphing over life-threatening disease. According to Franklin, Ducker said himself: “People don’t want Not Quite a Miracle—they want a miracle.”

Franklin realized the story was better this way because it was unexpected. “The story is a classic of white knight and maiden, and in this case the white knight failed. But... he had to get up after that and go in and work on somebody else.”

If you’re surprised, the reader will be too. Follow the unexpected.

Evoking emotion

It’s hard not to feel a sense of despair after reading Franklin’s Pulitzer Prize–winning story. He depicts Mrs. Kelly as terminal; her surgeons are powerless. However, as we accept her death, we find solace in the fact that she is free of the “monster” that’s terrorized her for years.

The story evokes emotion by not directly showing emotion. Franklin tells the story straight with details, vivid imagery, and tight dialogue. No spin or interpretation, and yet it evokes emotions because it’s greater than the sum of its parts, raising larger questions about the limits of medicine, the archetypal battle of good versus evil, and humans’ eternal struggle with making sense of our own mortality.

(Emotion vs. Feeling: How to Evoke More From Readers)

Give readers an extract of reality

Readers don’t want reality, according to Franklin. “Reality is confusing, boring, it lacks emphasis.” What the reader wants is an extract of reality. “The reader and editor want a story with a minimum of loose ends, a tale that’s been simplified and crystallized in such a way that it clarifies and enlarges the mind. They don’t want reality, they want Truth, and that’s not the same thing at all.”

Know thyself

Franklin had been regularly seeing a psychotherapist while writing Mrs. Kelly’s Monster. From his perspective, therapy improved his writing. He thinks of his brain as a tool and is continually striving to use it better. He said his second Pulitzer was a direct result of the psychotherapeutic process. “It [therapy] helped me recognize how my mind worked and what part of my mind was mine and what part was universal. Jung was right—at some level our brains are all alike and at some level they’re all different. The part that’s interesting is how they’re all alike. That tells you what story is.”

Writing with fire

Mrs. Kelly’s Monster was published in two parts on separate days. By the end of Part I, it wasn’t clear whether Mrs. Kelly would die, and hundreds of readers called the newspaper, jamming up the switchboard wanting to know the story’s outcome before Part II was released.

It was a potent story, the best of Jon Franklin’s illustrious career. Franklin says his heart was beating fast when he finished the first draft of Mrs. Kelly’s Monster. He knew the story was powerful. The story had scared him. He said it was frightening to be “in contact” with such a story: “living in the story just like the reader’s going to.” In his interview with Williams, he recalled a quote from the author John Steinbeck who told the Paris Review: “I’ve held fire in my hands.”

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