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Start being dramatic: Craft compelling tales in everyday stories

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BY BOB FRYE 
Did you see the movie about the guy going to work?
He gets out of bed, showers and gets dressed. Then it’s a cup of coffee, a couple of slices of toast, and out the door. He puts in eight hours in the office with time in the middle for a brown bag lunch, then drives home. He eats dinner, cuts the grass, then plops down in front of the TV for an hour.
What, you missed that one? Yeah, me, too.
Or we would if anyone actually made such a film.
Of course, they won’t. Why? Because it would be so mind-numbingly boring. Theater-goers would revolt, demanding ticket refunds and filing lawsuits after having nearly choked on the popcorn and Jujyfruits they were eating when the movie inevitably put them to sleep.
When we go to the movies, we expect certain things — car crashes, fights, tragedy, romance and perhaps an epic battles with dragons or zombies.
People who read about the outdoors want the same thing. They want stories. Luckily for us, there are plenty of them out there. The key is telling them in a compelling way.
Drama exists everywhere. There’s an element of conflict in every good story.
Sometimes it’s obvious.
If you’re writing about an Alaskan moose hunt that turns into an all-out struggle for survival, with marauding bears and snows that keep the float plane from arriving for days after its due and a shortage of food, there’s plenty of excitement.
But drama, conflict, angst and trouble are just as present — albeit in smaller, more subtle ways — in stories closer to home.
Maybe you’re writing a profile piece for the local newspaper about an angler who’s become “the” trout fishermen on your local river. He catches more and bigger fish than anyone, year after year, in good conditions and bad.
How did he earn that reputation? What did he have to overcome? How does he do it? Chances are he’s probably had to make sacrifices in order to put in enough time on the water to become so good. Maybe his house shows so much neglect it looks like it’s abandoned; maybe he drives a decades old car that spews so much smoke it looks like it burns coal instead of gasoline; maybe he’s gone through three wives.
There’s something about him that makes his story more than just a tutorial on what lure to cast to catch more fish. Find that something and you’ve got a tale that even someone uninterested in trout or fishing might want to hear.
That brings up the second point of focus.
Its details.
Think back to the movies. Do you feel yourself gripping the arm of your seat when there’s a battle raging? Do you jump when the monster pops out from behind the door? Do you cry when the good girl loses her true love to cancer?
You do because you feel like you’re there, in the scene, experiencing those things.
When it comes to a written story, its details that bring the reader into the scene. It’s you, and not them, on the water with our famous trout fisherman. So you’ve got to relay what it’s like.
That means more than just asking questions of your source and dutifully writing down those answers.
Quotes are certainly important, but remember to use all of your senses to bring people into the story. Take note of what you hear around you, what smells you encounter, what you’re feeling when in the moment. And as specific as possible. That’s vital.
It’s not enough to say that our fisherman in the example above has sacrificed a lot to become good. You’ve got to show readers what you mean in a real way. If his house is decrepit because he spends all of his free time fishing, how so? Maybe the grass is so tall that you can feel it brushing your fingertips as you walk up to the front door. Maybe the screen door is hanging on by one hinge. Maybe, when he tells you to have a seat while he gets ready, you glance down and there’s a fast food bag on the floor, so sun bleached that you can tell it’s been there for days if not weeks.
How about his car? Does it smell like an odd combination of old bait containers and cigarette smoke and wet rubber waders? Provide your readers with those kinds of details and they can picture themselves there with you. They’ll feel for the people involved, share their joys, agonize over their sorrows and find themselves mad or happy or excited.
And that make a good story.♦
 
— Bob Frye is outdoors editor for Trib Total Media, an online and print newspaper chain based in Pittsburgh. He’s spent 25 years writing for newspapers, magazines and book
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