Episode 22: After Show: The "And" Rule
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Hello and welcome to the after show for Now That's a Great Story. I want to go full Professor Paul today.Because Patrick Radden Keefe on Monday, when we were talking about his book Say Nothing, he said how this was a story…. this originally appeared as a magazine piece and one that was 15,000 words long, and yet he thought there was more there that he could do. This is something that when I talk with other writers or even in my own work, that's a lot of trying to figure out, right, well, like, what sort of length is this story deserve to be? And there's a principle that I've used that's helped me and I hope it's helped others that I've worked with over the years.
And that principle is called simply the And rule. And the And rule is, every time you have one narrative element in a story… Well, for every narrative element you can add to that story, the longer the piece will be so let's take an example. And maybe the easiest thing to do is actually pull from pieces that I've done. I'll use a piece that I did a few years back for GQ.
There was this prison break in Orange County Jail. And three inmates escaped from the jail. And they ended up getting in this cab… they ended up finding this Vietnamese cab driver in Orange County, and they basically took him hostage, where over the course of the eight days according to the cab driver, they threatened his life, and he was out there on the run with them, and ultimately they are… the guys are confiscated, the inmates are confiscated. So this was a big story in the Los Angeles area.
I first heard about it as a news brief. I first read about it as a news brief I want to say in the Wall Street Journal. I've got these files in my email, they're just like, you know, possible story ideas. And I saw this Orange County jailbreak and I put it away. And then a couple weeks later, I wasn't following the news all that closely from LA and so I missed some of the coverage around this. When I came back and I googled to see all of it, there have been a fair amount of coverage of the LA Times or been a fair amount of coverage in the Orange County Register, and what these stories highlighted was mostly some of it was just the drip, drip, drip, of daily coverage, you know? Today the Sheriff's Department has released a statement saying that they are on the lookout, the next day they found a van that matches the van that the inmates. And the day after that, you know, it's just searched last about a week and it goes from Los Angeles to the Bay Area, and ultimately the three escaped inmates are found in the Bay Area. And this is like that's some of the daily coverage. All right.
Then there is the newspaper, week by week coverage and sometimes those would be like, all right, let's try to tell the story of let's get behind the scenes, so they talked with the cab driver. And that cab drivers name was Long Ma, and what Ma told them was just what his experiences like, All right, great. Now I want to talk about the difference between how that would work for a newspaper and what it how it ended up working for me and the piece that I did for GQ. This goes back to the And rule
Okay, so the first bit is, okay, well there's something that happened, right? That's the daily coverage. Right? So when you take something that happens and then you apply, how this person interpreted it. Now you've got more times than not a newspaper feature, and there were some great newspaper features around. There was one of the Orange County Register. I remember reading that I love the second in the Los Angeles Times that I remembered reading and really liking.
But I thought I could do something with GQ because there was now a third narrative element that I could add to it, one that was hinted at some of the coverage but I thought I could fully explore and make the focus of my piece, and that was one of the cab driver Long Ma, he was on the road for eight days with these three inmates.One of them was a Vietnamese immigrant like himself that immigrants name was Bach Doung, as well, it spelled Duong, but I believe, at least according to the Vietnamese translator I used that it was actually be pronounced Zwong. If I'm butchering that pronunciation please hit me up on Twitter or email me to let me know how I should have been pronouncing it, but in any case, I'll go with first names because that way I won't be continually offending.
Alright, so you've got the drip, drip, drip of what happened, day by day, and you've got.
how long interpreted those events and how scared he was right. So those are two narrative elements. But then I thought it would work for a magazine piece because there was be the third narrative element to it, which is that Long and Bach over the course of those eight days, they get really close to each other, so much so that Bach when they started this relationship he was the one that was pointing the gun at Long and saying that you need to help us. And then by the end of this relationship Bach was the one who was defending Long against another inmate who wanted to kill Long. So this this bond gets really close.
And they end up in some sense filling a void in each other's lives. For Long He, he had been a little bit of strange from his family, for reasons that are complicated and I dwell upon the piece. And for Bach he too had kind of been estranged from his own family, for reasons having largely to do with his own criminal activity and perhaps some mental disorders and drug abuse that he'd had since coming to the States in the early 1990s.
Alright. So in any case there's, there's this almost father son relationship that happens. So that's when I knew that oh now there's a…. once I started to dig into that and realize that there might be some truth behind that. That's when I realized, oh, now this is a story that I can tell there. Now there are three, there are well, there are three new developments there are two Ands, there's the….there's a Hey what happened. There's the Hey, how did the people contextualize this and internalize this and what were their perceptions of it and then thirdly, there was this whole other relationship that was happening. And there was eight days on the run. Right?
So, so that's what I knew. Okay now we had a great magazine piece here to do and GQ published it in 2016. And I think I'll link to it. I'll link to in the show notes I forget when. But since then, there's been a little bit of interest from Hollywood and knock on wood it appears as though that that might actually become a movie, and if it does, I think it's because of the same thing that Patrick was talking about on Monday, you know, there are certain stories that are big enough to end up translating to ever larger mediums and in Patrick’s case, he wrote a 15,000 word magazine piece, and he realized there was actually a book there why was that? Well, I would argue that Patrick felt that even though he had explored this murder mystery relationship with Jean McConville, there was an entire other element, or rather, AND there wasn't an entire other narrative and historical element where he could trace the whole history of The Troubles and how the people who had lived through it, interpreted it and how they felt guilty about. See all those ads that I just said right there? That's all leading back to the idea that there was more than just even this 15,000 word magazine piece for Patrick, there was an entire book you could do.
I would just say to anybody that's a young and inspiring journalist to just start to think of stories in terms of how many narrative elements they actually have. You have something that's happening, and if you have something else that's probably at least 1000 words story, the 1500 word story but the more time you just spend with it, the more time you just think about it and then apply those principles to your work, you'll begin to demarcate, better categorize. How long certain pieces should be based on nothing more than how many hands, you have. So, kind of a wonky issue. And like I said at the top. I wanted to go full on Professor Paul here today. But it's something that since I first heard the Andrew when I was like 22 or 23, years old, it's really guided me through my career.
The music for Now That's a Great story comes from Jeff Willett. If you would like an email from me that talks about the things that I've learned from other writers are the things that are just inspiring me and hopefully inspire you, go to Paulkix.com/newsletter and sign up for my newsletter. I'll be back next week with more so. Till then, have a good one, everybody. Bye bye.