Learn for yourself the secret of a storytelling master.
In the next couple weeks I’ll wrap the reporting on a feature for The Atlantic I’ve been working on for months. It’s a story that spans generations and settings and with a central character, a lawyer, whose life influences everyone else’s around him. With all those storylines and perspectives, the thing could get unwieldy when I start to write it. My only guard against such sprawl is the Gary Smith Rule.
You probably know of Smith, but in case not: He wrote features at Sports Illustrated for 30 years, re-imagining and expanding what a magazine story could do, how it could read, the insights it could offer. He influenced generations of writers and well beyond sports. Buy his collection if you don’t have it, or read the story that made me want to write when I was 17, Smith’s profile of golfer David Duval.
Smith’s rule is basically how he tried to attack every story he wrote. Paraphrased, the rule goes like this:
Every person has a central conflict to their lives and a daily manifestation of that conflict. Find the central conflict, find its daily manifestation, and what you’ve actually found is that person’s soul.
Let’s take the David Duval story above. It’s about David’s sick brother Brent and the bone-marrow transfusion that attempted to save Brent’s life when he and David were boys. The transfusion came from David, only it didn’t work. David’s bone marrow didn’t save Brent’s life. It hastened his death. That death destroyed the Duval family and destroyed David, too. The central conflict of Smith’s story then is David’s decades-long search for peace and absolution. The daily manifestation of that conflict is David’s attempt to find forgiveness on the golf course, a solitary place where David had the time to think about evil and guilt and justice and God, and also the space to hammer out any frustration by pouring another bucket of balls at his feet and hitting them to the practice range’s far reaches.
So that’s why David golfed. But what the golf did to him is it made each course a prison, within which David chose to wall himself from the rest of the world. Smith wrote the story because he wanted to see what happens when David realizes he must break through the wall in order to live.
The Gary Smith rule — the central conflict, its daily manifestation, the revealed soul — is in pretty much every great story you read. Last week we talked about “Lucky Jim.” The central conflict there is Jim realizing that the indomitable will that brought him to Yale and then Wall Street and then to the finish line of various triathlons — that same will cannot help him after his accident, when he wakes up and is told he’s a quadriplegic. He cannot will himself to walk again, no matter how hard he tries. The daily manifestation is him trying anyway, and when he fails, the despair that follows those attempts, a despair that lingers, that clouds Jim’s life until everything is black. Elizabeth Gilbert’s story is really about whether Jim has any will left to find his way out of his mental darkness.
I could go on, and frankly plan to, in a free Masterclass that goes a lot deeper on the Smith rule and a ton of other writer tips, the details for which I’ll describe in the coming weeks. For now hopefully you get the gist. The Gary Smith rule is a way to organize a story. It gives each piece a through line. When I was at ESPN, Wright Thompson and I talked about Gary Smith all the time because Wright’s pieces are so very ambitious and Smith’s rule is a great way to corral big ideas and sprawling narratives.
I’ll be using the rule in a couple weeks when I finish reporting and sit down to structure the story I’ve been working on since March.
Feel free to use the rule to structure your future stories, too.
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