Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Writing Workshop Lesson 12: Stacking the Quotes

Howdy, writerkins! Sorry class is late this week. We're winding up our lessons on how to get and write interview/profiles.

Long ago, all on my own (since I didn't go to journalism school), I figured out the "recipe" for writing the interview/profile feature story. By taking scissors to stories in People magazine, Vanity Fair and other pubs, then cutting the stories apart paragraph by paragraph and outlining the order that they were in, I discovered that most celebrity interview/profiles (as opposed to the Q&A format) followed pretty much the same template.

Here it is:
1. Opening scene. Describes where the interview is taking place (location, time, day, season of the year... as in "Close to 4 p.m. on a warm autumn day, Jennifer Aniston sweeps into the tiny cafe just off Sunset Boulevard...). Written in the present, active tense, this opening paragraph pulls the reader right into the story with a "you are there" immediacy.

2. Introduce the subject. Here, the writer describes the person being profiled. Who they are, what they do, what they're wearing at the interview (don't forget accessories!) and whether they're early or late for the appointment (almost always mentioned, don't know why).

3. Let the subject start talking. The first big hunk of quote-age by the interviewee is usually something colorful, slightly revealing, maybe a little cheeky. A nice anecdote is good, if your person is capable of relating a good anecdote (watching Ms. Aniston on umpteen talk shows this week, she obviously isn't).

4. The news peg. This is the "What are we here for?" paragraph that provides the "plug" for whatever movie, book, CD or sex tape the celebrity is pushing at the moment (and thus is sitting for interviews).

5. The bio. Somewhere toward the middle of the story, the writer gets in the wayback machine and rehashes the life and career of the celeb. More quotes are interjected. Quotes from other published profiles can show up here (fully attributed, of course). Ex-wives' names are mentioned. Stints in rehab are chronicled. The rehash should move in chronological order up to the present and right back to...

6. More about the current movie/book/CD/sex tape. They get another plug right about here. Some quasi-fascinating discussion of character, co-stars, director, etc. You know, a mention of "Oscar buzz" or "stretching with this character." Blah, blah.

7. A look toward the future. This is where the subject talks about what he or she is doing next or wants to do next. Don't spend a lot of time here. Just a sentence or two.

8. Back to the scene of the crime. Wind up the story with another "setting the scene" description. "As the sun sinks slowly into the west..." or "Draining the last droplets of dry martini from the finger-smudged glass..."--man, writers just love stuff like this. This paragraph sort of escorts the subject and the reader out of the restaurant (or wherever) together.

9. Walkaway quote. Usually these stories give the subject the last word. Keep in mind throughout the writing of these pieces that it's up to the writer how to "stack the quotes." You don't necessarily (and rarely will) place quotes in the order in which they were said. It's kosher to "juggle quotes" within a piece to make the story flow. Just be sure you stay honest and keep the quotes accurate. You'll frequently hear the "walkaway" while your subject is talking. Make a note to yourself right then that it would make a good "snapper."

10. The end.

Here are links to three interview/profiles from the Guardian newspaper. Although their writers tend to use "I" a little too often (so much nicer when the writer in a story remains "invisible"), they do follow the template fairly closely. Profile of Jake Gyllenhaal. Of Kevin Spacey. And Donald Sutherland.

Questions? Leave them in comments here. Or give us links to pieces you find in your reading that either follow the template or bust it in some interesting way.

You don't have to write by the numbers, you know. This is just a surefire way to get started when you have one of these stories staring at you on deadline. Like any recipe, it's a basic list of ingredients that welcomes creative improvisation.

OK, kids! I'm off to a conference in Miami and won't be blogging again until after November 15. But keep in touch and I'll answer all email when I return. Write on!

10 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Taken from an Australian talk show where the subject was a former leader of the opposition party after he released a "tell all" book:
http://www.abc.net.au/tv/enoughrope/transcripts/s1463685.htm

10:36 PM  
Blogger theprofessor said...

Very interesting, that Aussie interview. Love the reference to "Comb-over" and "Junket Guts."
Thanks for the linkage!

10:45 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

prof!!! i'm missing those amazing stories-stright-from-uni !!! i know u r very dedicated 2 this workshop thing, but PLEASE go back to more of your own stories! they were wonderful...

11:06 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

8:58 AM  
Blogger Superdestroyer said...

This one came to mind from your discription. Some interviewers seem to also get away with pointing out that the "artist" actually has very little to say.


http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2005/10/26/AR2005102602558.html

9:04 AM  
Anonymous beekay said...

Great story. One of my all-time favorites. Hope the long link works here:

http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/tg/detail/-/B00005LDGG/ref=pm_dp_ln_b_3/002-7595409-7167254?v=glance&s=books&vi=excerpt

1:02 PM  
Blogger Gardner said...

Good 'un. Big question: after one has used the recipe successfully several times, how can one keep cynicism or smug NewYorkeritis from creeping into the prose?

7:15 AM  
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