The following is one case study of how important it is to use your senses at a scene. The actual assignment/story was done about five years ago. Heading into the assignment, it was well known that the punk band was controversial. So, with an opportunity to see the band live in its rehearsal studio, would a reporter be able to connect that controversy to the band members and their surroundings . . .? Read on
By Gregg McLachlan
A hard-core, rap-riffing band. A drawing on a wall in a rehearsal studio depicting a girl with a screwdriver through her eye. A guitar case emblazoned with a pro-marijuana slogan. A dented guitar. A band member with 24-inch dreadlocks.
Sounds like a scene that would be hard to forget. It was all in plain view for a reporter assigned to do a feature-length story on a controversial punk band.
Unfortunately, all of the above details were left out of initial drafts.
Such crucial details will not be left out of stories if you enter an assignment with a game plan to use your senses. Perhaps your game plan will have an emphasis on using hearing to capture dialogue between characters. Or maybe your sight to gather details about a room.
Conflict was a theme that appeared to follow this band. Conflict with attending college. Conflict with the law. Conflict with mainstream. Conflict with local bars (the band had been banned from some bars).
As part of the prep work, I encouraged the reporter to embrace developing a jot outline. Simple fact is, a game plan, outline or whatever you call it, helps plan your direction. If you were an adventurer, would you head into the wilderness without a map and compass?
The reporter would be seeing the band perform in a basement rehearsal studio. It was an ideal opportunity to capitalize on using the five senses to bring the scene to life.
We also talked about investing in the characters (their attitudes, life experiences, etc) rather than the basics of just age, home town, occupation, etc. After all, this band had an image. Itís the image that begged to be explored. Anyone can say - or write - that something or someone is "controversial." It takes a special effort to show the controversy.
"This story has the ability to be of interest to young readers who like the band, and to older readers who may be repulsed but still intrigued," I remember saying to the young reporter.
Early drafts were anything but compelling. The encouragement to use a game plan was literally thrown away.
In the initial draft, a simple sentence read "the band doesnít like cops." That was it. The readers were given one sentence. Nothing else elaborated on the bandís attitudes towards police.
We sat down and talked. Itís amazing what the reporter knew and saw but didnít put in the story. One band member had dreadlocks. He studied law and security at college and had aspirations of becoming a police officer.
The reporter was encouraged to follow up on that nugget of information. "Thereís more there," I wrote in a critique of the draft. "What made him sour on a profession he once aspired to? You need to probe his distrust of cops."
A second draft gave so much more when the reporter used her sense of seeing and hearing when listening to the bandís CD.
"Everyday is a challenge, people always testing, drugs infesting, cops be arresting kids for trying to live." (bandís lyrics.)
The second draft also included an anecdote from the dreadlocked musician. . . .The guitarist and five friends were drinking in a public place when police approached. "They singled me out because I looked different. The cops were talking to me like I was a crack dealer."
In the first draft, the reporter wrote that some band members wanted marijuana to be decriminalized. Again, that was it. Nothing more.
We talked. "Did you see anything that involved pot," I asked.
Yes, the reporter did. She remembered seeing a guitar case.
The guitar case had a sticker of a marijuana leaf with the slogan: ĎHey, at least itís not crack.í "Guys can be so much more rowdy on alcohol than pot," says the guitarist.
And remember that drawing of the girl with screwdriver through her eye?
Interestingly, when the reporter returned from the assignment, she talked about the violence-inspired artwork. But she never put it into the first draft.
"Why did you leave out the part about the drawing?" I asked.
"Itís just a drawing," the reporter replied.
"Yes, but itís a drawing that connects with the band," I answered. "Think about it: the band has the word Violent in its name."
The reporter added the information in a third draft. (A followup interview about the drawing was needed.)
You be the judge. Does this added paragraph invest in a characterís mindset?
Although itís a disturbing image, the musician said the drawing is not anti-female and doesnít have anything to do with the bandís music.
"I always draw weird stuff," he says. "I just had to fill some wall space."
Later on, the reporter addresses violence again.
Band members say itís not fair to compare them to groups which promote violence.
"We donít talk about going out and shooting nine guys," says one member.
. . .Finally, weíre starting to get inside their heads.
There were more nuggets that started to emerge, all items left out of early drafts.
So whatís the lesson?
Develop a habit to use your senses. Note what you see, hear, touch, smell, taste. Remember, quotes arenít the only pieces of information that need to be collected in your notepad. Itís easy to forget to use our senses.
Skilled reporters arrive at a scene and do a 360. How many of us arrive at the scene of a fire or accident and immediately race to find the captain or sergeant? In doing so, what are we missing around us?
In the case of a profile on a controversial punk band, the absence of a plan left holes in early drafts. Details that were missed were vital to constructing the story. They helped connect the story to an overall theme of conflict.
All the signs were there in the rehearsal studio. They just needed to be captured.
It took several drafts, but a terrific feature was eventually produced: an inside look at an unusual cast of characters.
If you go into an assignment with a plan to use your senses, youíll be far better off than relying on your memory well after the fact. As we all know, sometimes what we see can be easily forgotten. Even when it has been staring us in the face.