Building stronger middle sections of your stories
Finding ways to take the reader deeper by the halfway point
Admit it, you’re lead-obsessed. We all are. (This newsletter is.) There’s good reason: The lead not only determines whether a reader joins you for the ride, but it foreshadows many aspects of the journey and creates a rhythm for the writer to follow. But this obsession too often saps our concentration on the middle of the story-that place where the story gathers itself for the stretch run, where the difference between thin and full-bodied stories is decided.
One quality the middle of your story ought to have, particularly if it is a news feature, is a passage that takes the reader to a deeper, more intense understanding of the story. If you’re writing a story with a protagonist, the middle is the place to stretch out an anecdote that reveals him or her. If you’re writing a story with three or four characters or events that are part of a trend, the middle is where you choose one experience or event and peel back the layers. This is less a statistical calculation (we’re not talking about an exact middle) than a sensibility that defines the middle third of the piece.
A story by Hector Tobar about the spread of Spanish-language radio stations to middle American towns is a good illustration. The lead sent us on our way:
LIBERAL, Kan.-The Friday afternoon deejay has been known to miss his show because he’s at his other job, pounding nails at a construction site. The newscaster spends most of her day selling jewelry. And the guy running the station is simply glad to be there: It beats his last job, working behind the counter at an auto parts store.
So it goes at KYUU, the little ranchera station on the prairie, 1,000 watts of Spanish-language music and talk beamed 24/7 to the beef workers, housewives and young homies of southwest Kansas.
If black thunderclouds start to build over the high Plains and the wind kicks up, one of the station’s half-dozen staff members will rush to the microphone to transmit a tornado alerta. More often they broadcast the quirky musings of deejays like El Chulo de la Mañana, the Handsome Morning Guy.
KYUU is one of the newest outposts in Spanish-language radio’s long march across the United States…
The first 21 grafs set up a picture of these stations, gave us a quick look at the kind of people who operate them, the distinctive promotions they use and made brief references to two specific stations beyond KYUU.
And then it was time for the middle, and to take you deeper, with a 14-graf mini-profile of one DJ at another station:
In Rupert, Idaho, the local Spanish-language station, which calls itself La Fantastica, rises from a beet field on the edge of town. Former Mormon missionary Benjamin Reed holds court weekday afternoons as a Wolfman Jack-style deejay called El Chupacabras, the name of the mythical goat-devouring creature that was a 1990s boogeyman in the Caribbean and Mexico.
“Chupacabras, please play something by Los Temerarios,” one female caller asks.
“Of course,” Reed answers. As the song “I Did You Wrong” plays, Reed asks into the telephone: “What station has your sound?” (“Cual es la que suena?”)
“La Fantastica y El Chupacabras!” the caller shouts back. For Reed, an Idaho native who became fluent in Spanish while living in Argentina, becoming El Chupacabras is the fulfillment of a long-held ambition. After 14 years in English-language television and radio, he’s finally getting a chance to emulate his heroes, deejays like the legendary Pepe Garza of Que Buena, a Los Angeles station.
“Even though I was born here, I identify myself as Hispanic culturally,” Reed says. Slipping into Spanish, he continues: “The gringo is a closed person. A Latino is more open, warm. Working here is my dream job. Sure, I’m in a small market. Sure I’m in a beet field. But there’s so much freedom. When I’m on La Fantastica I become a different character.”
In English he’s simply Benjamin Reed, the host of a talk-radio show on KFTA’s sister English-language station, KBAR. But in Spanish, which he speaks without a noticeable accent, he is “Ben-ha-meen Roberto Reed!” He flavors his show with the sound effects that are the calling card of Latin American radio, a cacophony of “stingers” and “lasers,” and many echoes, all generated by turning the knobs on a machine.
“You’re listening to La Fantastica-a-a-a…”
“I want it fast, hard-paced. I try to get that out of my jocks too,” says Reed, who is training a handful of locals to be disc jockeys. “In Spanish, you get to do the fun stuff that people used to do on AM.”
Moments after Reed goes on the air, the phone starts to ring off the hook inside KFTA’s claustrophobic control room. From all around the towns that surround Rupert, the Spanish-speaking people of southern Idaho’s Magic Valley call in with requests.
“People out there are working hard. They’re in the fields, they’re milking cows,” Reed says. “But when they hear me, they feel they have a friend.”
The next morning, when Reed takes up his other job at the English-language talk-radio station, the mood couldn’t be more different. He tries to strike up a conversation with his listeners about Elian Gonzalez and Janet Reno, taking a conservative tack. No one bites.
“No is one calling,” he says on the air. For a moment, he turns surly. “It’s kind of frustrating. I guess they’re part of the 60% of the public that’s apathetic. They don’t care what dictator Reno is doing.”
Most Spanish-speaking listeners in southern Idaho don’t know that Reed has this other radio persona. They aren’t much inclined to listen to English-language radio, which is dominated locally by country music and syndicated talk-radio programs. KFTA has the Spanish-language audience all to itself.
And, with that, Hector transitioned back to the station that was the anecdotal lead…
But in southwest Kansas, KYUU in Liberal does face some local competition from another Spanish radio station, KZQD, Radio Libertad.
…for 14 more grafs about KYUU’s heritage and struggles, which would end the story.
Hector said he was attracted to Benjamin Reed on KFTA because “he brings something unique to the story-someone’s love for another culture. It adds texture and depth to the story. It doesn’t just advance the thesis. It offers a deeper picture of the world the story’s about. And it’s an illustration of the surprises you find when you’re reporting one thing and find a tangent.”
It illustrates, too, why in some cases we need to publish long stories. Hector’s piece was 77 inches-long for a discussion of yet another example of the spread of Latino culture, but appropriately long because of the insight the reader gained by meeting Benjamin Reed in the middle of the journey.