Squeeze a Big Life Into a Small Space With ‘Narrative Shorthand’

February 1, 2016

“The West Wing’s” President Bartlet introduces Lord John Marbury to Kate Harper, deputy national security adviser:

Marbury: “I’m Lord John Marbury, the hereditary Earl of Sherlbourne, the great-great grandson of the former viceroy. I have served as the queen’s minister in India, the queen’s minister in Pakistan and I am presently the British Ambassador to the United States. Oh, and I have an uncle who once performed in the London Opera Company’s production of  ‘The Mikado’ in the role of Nanki Poo.”

Harper: “It’s a pleasure.”

Marbury: “Yes, isn’t it?”

How do you pack a large life into a tight space?

Try a “pocket profile.”

That’s the technique Anjelica Huston used to describe her great-great-great grandfather in her memoir, “A Story Lately Told”:

“… a prospector, John Gore, who started up several newspapers from Kansas to New York. A cowboy, a settler, a saloon owner, a judge, a professional gambler and a confirmed alcoholic, he once won the town of Nevada in a poker game.”

Note that writing short doesn’t mean compressing all the life out of a person. Details count. The best line of that bio, obviously, is “he once won the town of Nevada in a poker game.”

Try “narrative shorthand.”

The Poynter Institute’s Roy Peter Clark calls this approach “narrative shorthand.” He praises Rosalind Bentley’s use of the approach in her piece about America’s poet laureate Natasha Trethewey for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution:

“The shorthand of Natasha’s life reads like words plucked from a free-verse poem: ‘Native Mississippian. Black mother. White father. Poet father. Poet daughter. Atlanta and DeKalb public school student. ‘A’ student. UGA head cheerleader. Trauma survivor. Big sister. Decatur resident. Meticulous housekeeper. Proud wife. Exacting professor. Historical poet. Nobody’s pushover.’”

I love the structure of that piece: Modified noun, period; modified noun, period.

Try sentence fragments.

Forbes packs big stories into little packages in pocket profiles of billionaire beverage-meisters. Here’s a sample:

“Sidney Frank, 85, Grey Goose. Net worth: $1.6 billion.”

“Connecticut farmer’s boy grew up poor, milking cows and churning butter. Enrolled at Brown University; couldn’t afford tuition, dropped out after one year. Married Skippy Rosenstiel, heiress to Schenley Distillers fortune. Started Sidney Frank Importing in 1972. Lost money first six years, sold beachfront property on Antigua for $500,000 to meet payroll.

“Tapped into first fortune by importing Jägermeister liquor from Germany and marketing it with scantily clad Jägerettes pitching to college kids. Created ultrapremium vodka Grey Goose at age 77; sold to Bacardi in April for
$2 billion. Now focusing on wine, tequila.”

Note the structure here. After introducing the subject in the first sentence, the author begins each of the subsequent sentences with a verb.

Try repetition.

Elizabeth Gilbert also developed a compelling structure for her pocket profile of Sir Joseph Banks, a real person who appears in her novel, “The Signature of All Things”:

“That daunting figure, who had once been the handsomest man in Europe, who had been the darling of kings, who had circled the globe, who had slept with heathen queens on open beaches, who had introduced thousands of new botanical species to England, and who had sent young Henry out into the world to become Henry Whittaker — that very man was dead.”

Now isn’t that a pleasure? 

Copyright © 2016 Ann Wylie. All rights reserved.

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Ann Wylie

Ann Wylie (WylieComm.com) works with communicators who want to reach more readers and with organizations that want to get the word out. To learn more about her training, consulting or writing and editing services, contact her at ann@WylieComm.com.


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