Stephen Kurkjian the Mastermind: Plotting Style

Photo: The Boston Globe by J. Wilder Bill

Pulitzer Prize winner Stephen Kurkjian brainstorms story structure and plotting.

In his non-fiction book, Master Thieves, Kurkjian begins with the suspect who has the most emotional connection to the crime scene and ends with the suspect who has the clearest motive. In between is a diverse cast of outrageous criminals who have complicated relationships with one another. He interviewed witnesses, investigators, and suspects for hundreds of hours. Then, compared their testimonies.

The evidence is layered with several theories that build on one-another. He holds back information, until he’s established his case to support a fresh theory. He concludes with documented proof.

What is your criteria in deciding the order you reveal the facts and introduction of characters?

With newspaper articles, the structure is almost always the same, and is built like an inverted triangle. The key element of the article is at the top of the story – and it is written as directly/powerfully as possible. These stories usually are written after months of reporting so there is a lot of material to wade through to figure out “what it all means,” “what do I have here,” and how do I convey this material so the most important element is at the top and potential lasting impact of the information is conveyed.

Pulitzer winner structure.

Remember in the movie SPOTLIGHT there was an internal debate on the team as to whether the original story that would be written would focus on one priest – Fr. John Geoghan – whom the Boston Archdiocese had moved from parish to parish despite a litany of complaints about his molesting boys at each past assignment or focus on that there were dozens of such priests within the Archdiocese who had such allegations against them. 

Strongest facts shape the lead and set up future stories.

In the end, the editor of The Globe decided the initial story would focus on Geoghan and that decision was primarily based on the fact that the Spotlight reporters had information on Geoghan which was more unassailably true than the conclusion that similar forgiving actions appeared to have been taken on other priests. Newspaper articles need to be accurate, especially investigative ones, and the fact that Geoghan was not a solitary figure within the Archdiocese, that there were so many other priests who had abused kids who had been treated with such forgiveness by the church, would be revealed with future coverage.

Research is critical.

Investigative articles like this are meant to shock the reader, to capture their attention. Often though the material is complicated and perhaps suggestive of an abuse rather than convincing. The necessity is to present the reporting as accurately as possible – with on-the-record interviewing; documentation; and data collection. Data rebuts or clouds the revelation must also be included as well as an honest effort to convey “the other side,” that is the explanation of the individual, agency or institution whose performance is being questioned by the article.

Theme trumps motivation.

When it comes to motivation I pretty much subscribe to the explanation that Sidney Pollack gave to George Clooney who asked in the movie Michael Clayton why a colleague may have committed suicide: “Because people are fucking inscrutable, that’s why.” I can divine a host of reasons as to why a person might make an act that I would be writing about – greed, ambition, hatred, fear and even loyalty. But most often my readers aren’t interested in motivation – as an investigative reporter, my assignment is to come up with stories that they would not have otherwise known about had it not been for my reporting.

Facts boost story transitions.

The stories that I most often deal with are complicated matters, replete with data, anecdotal information, quotes and summary paragraphs which often serve as transitions. That’s a lot to pack in, and I like to organize the material before I actually sit down to write. The outline is what I call the spin of my story.

Sentence structure.

Being complicated, I try to write as directly as possible, and the more complicated the material, the shorter my sentences. I am wary of making the material tedious to weigh through so I arrange my paragraphs in such a way that every succeeding paragraph is going to address a question that might naturally flow out of the previous paragraph.

Establish the lead and summary.

Once I have finished stacking the material in as seamless a fashion as I can, I usually know what my lead will be, what my summary paragraph will be – at The Globe we use to call it the “who-ha” graph which basically translates into why the reader should be spending his valuable time in reading it, taken together what do the facts of the article say about the administration of justice or effectiveness of a particular agency that we are writing about.

Isolate shocking facts.

The outline will also isolate the major abuses that my reporting has found, and present them in a clear, hopefully powerful way, and include quantifiable data that shows the reader that the reporting is solid/accurate and substantive. 

Do you develop a story by plotting the arc of a hero’s journey before you investigate, or does the information you learn develop the pattern of the plot?

I spend an inordinate amount of time during and after completing my reporting in analyzing what I have found. That material – the proof that supports/proves – the lead is presented in summary form in the top third of the story. In addition, the top third contains the summary graph that presents how the abuse happened but also the underlying causes for it and what that abuse says about the overall integrity/effectiveness of the institution in question.

Show the how, why, and what in first third of story.

At the Globe, this paragraph is called “the who-ha” graph and is meant to convey the overall significance of what the article has revealed. Investigative reporters are in the end social scientists who have discovered something new and aberrant that has been taking place in our community and that this aberration is having a negative effect on the people within the community.

Selecting a hook.

During my career as an investigative reporter, I liked working on issues/articles that affected the largest number of people. Such stories usually involved me with public health, education, safety, transportation and the health of the local economy. These agencies that provide these essential services – schools, police and fire, economic development, public works, public hospitals, and courts – are paid for by the taxpayers’ dollars and it is an essential for newspapers and media organizations to be evaluating how effective they are doing their jobs. If the police are making fewer arrested for domestic abuse; if minorities are being stopped and frisked for minor traffic offenses; if the survival rate of cardiac patients is less (or more) at our local hospital; of some neighborhood streets get quicker snow plow services than others because politically-connected people live in the favored neighborhoods – then all of those possibilities deserve attention or at least awareness.

Standards for a journalist.

Reporters are trained in the essentials of journalism – fairness and thoroughness – in every course that they take. Such standards are maintained at every newspaper, regardless of their size, in the country and readers should be aware that such standards underlie every article that they read, and know that they can depend on the product of that reporting.

An example of objective and complete reporting.

Such an approach worked for me when I confronted a priest who several men had alleged had sexually abused them years before. This was during the height of The Globe’s coverage of the clergy sexual abuse crisis and was shown vividly – with one major inaccuracy – in the movie SPOTLIGHT. 

Stephen Kurkjian continues brainstorming at Stephen Kurkjian the Mastermind: Pulitzer Quality Writing & at Stephen Kurkjian the Mastermind: Presenting Complex Relationships.

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