This is part one of the anticipated five-part Sonia Nazario Series for Writers. Read the rest of the series for writing insights from this Pulitzer Prize winning investigative journalist and author.
Mandy: You said you look for ten things in a story to know if it’s worth writing. What are those ten things, and why do they matter?
Sonia: I love to write about big social issues. So I pick an issue I’m interested in—hunger, drug addiction—and try to find something new happening within that larger issue.
I do that by reading studies and interviewing experts and academics.
Once I know what I want to write about, I find a narrative thread to tell it through. If it’s hunger among schoolchildren, I find a district or school that can be the narrative thread. I then look for stories that have:
#1 Gut Emotional Appeal
The story has to move me on an emotional level. When I hear about them, they make the hair on my forearm go up. If they move me, they will likely move my readers.
#2 Universal Themes
The story needs a universal theme any reader can identify with. That broadens the audience. Themes like greed, revenge, redemption. In Enrique’s Journey, it’s a boy’s willingness to go through a hostile world to be with his mother. Themes anyone can identify with are what makes the audience want to read on.
#3 Compelling Characters
Great characters are characters who change and grow over time. In Enrique’s Journey, you have gangsters who ride on top of trains. They wear rosaries to seem like good people, to get closer to migrants who ride on top of the trains.
The gangsters spend time with the migrants, so they can figure out who is carrying money and where they hide it. But once the train starts, those same gangsters rob and rape migrants. They throw pregnant women down to the churning wheels below.
#4 A Central Question
I look for a central question that drives the story. The central question provides the engine to the story, because it’s a question the reader wants answered.
In Enrique’s Journey, the question is: will Enrique make it to his mother’s arms? This can be powerful even if we know the answer. In Ann Frank’s diary, we know she dies in the end, but we are still hoping the Americans will arrive in time, liberate Holland, and save her.
#5 Dynamic Scenes
A good story can be told in compelling scenes, ones I can take the reader into so they feel they are there as they are happening.
#6 Classic Story Structure
The story needs a beginning, middle, and end. Hopefully, the end is circular in some way.
#7 Inherent Conflict
People are trying to kill Enrique during most of his journey.
A journey, whether spiritual or emotional. The best stories have journeys as a central element.
#9 A Different World
A story that takes you inside worlds you wouldn’t otherwise see. A crack house. The top of a freight train.
#10 A Big Issue with a Narrative Thread
A big issue that will have inherent appeal to a broad audience and a compelling narrative thread to tell whatever is happening that is new within that big issue in a compelling way.
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