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Scene Material & Interview #7

September 28, 2012

Dog Ear Consultants

It’s easy to overlook the tiny details when trudging through the writing of a story. But in every single article—regardless of subject matter, tone or length—the small nuances of “scene material” (sounds, colors, smells, weather, dialog, etc) are just as important as a story’s meat and narrative arc. The scene details are what make a story real and tangible for readers, and they’re often what separate good articles from great ones. Mainly because they move readers from simply reading about a situation to actually experiencing the moments they’re reading about—a subtle quicken of the pulse, a slight raise of the eyebrows that a great read can induce.

In many cases, writers don’t have the chance to experience firsthand the situations they’re writing about, so getting the scene material for a story means relying on interviewees to provide it. That’s why it’s so critical to dig deep for the insignificant details when interviewing sources. “What color were his shoes?” “Was there a lot of dust on the baseboards?” “What did the air smell like?” “What music was playing in your iTunes library at that particular moment?” Asking these kinds of questions feels awkward, almost silly. And sometimes they can even be a turnoff for interview subjects. Don’t hesitate to give yourself a disclaimer: prime your interviewees that you’re going to be asking about ridiculously small details and that they should just roll with it.

In this Penn Stater magazine story about a potential cure for leukemia, the two main interview subjects were of the impossibly dry university researcher sort. If you’ve ever written for any college or university publication, you know the type. Getting them to offer any scrap of personality or sexy scene detail—anything beyond plain scientific fact about their research—is often an intense dredging act. In the case of this Penn Stater article, the frustration was compounded when you consider just how huge the potential impact of their research was—a cure for leukemia.

It took persistence in interviewing. Dozens of phone calls questions, and 5 hours of interview tape, to be exact—and all for a short, 500-word story. But finally, the perseverance paid off in two simple, seemingly inane questions that followed on the heels of many big questions. And those two small questions took this flat, boring lede of the original draft:

For years, the offices of Robert Paulson and Sandeep Prabhu were right across the hall from one another in Henning Building. But the two Penn State scientists would never have had any reason to cross-pollinate their research were it not for a faculty luncheon.

…to this clever, provocative lede of the final draft:

Within 24 hours, they had all committed suicide. Or what at least approximates suicide. Scientists call it apoptosis, and it’s what happened in room 104 Henning Building one summer day in 2010. The sun was shining. The birds were singing. And 500,000 leukemia cells were heading to the big Petri dish in the sky.

The two questions that spawned that second lede? Certainly not earth-shattering: “What was the weather like that morning?” and “What were the exact words of your first sentences to one another?” Out of near exasperation from so many interview questions, one of the researchers finally loosened up enough to chat about the weather and offer up a layman’s description of “apoptosis,” or voluntary cell death.

Even if your sources can’t or won’t willingly provide the bits of information your story needs, sometimes asking the right questions—and enough of them—will details surface that otherwise wouldn’t.

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