How do you tell a powerful story that addresses systemic flaws when you’re doing an explanatory, rather than a scenic, narrative? Lithwick and Dobson have provided a primer.

Nieman Storyboard reviews Dahlia Lithwick’s Slate piece on a man wrongfully convicted of rape 34 years ago.

via Nieman Storyboard

In her story, written for Slate and edited by Will Dobson, Lithwick consistently underplays the drama. She spends just two sentences describing the moment that attorney-advocate Jonathan Sheldon found Barbour and told him of his exoneration – and she does it with a quote. 

But providing some emotional connection is key, and Lithwick knows that Barbour – a human being who was robbed of five years of his life, his new marriage and his relationship with his daughter – is the heart of her story. And so she uses his experience as a narrative thread running through what is largely an explanatory piece.

Not every story will be written in scenes. And in this case, the writer deliberately avoided many of the personal details about Barbour and his life that had already been covered by local news organizations. But Lithwick shows how finding the narrative touchstone in an explanatory piece and returning to it in the right rhythm can draw readers through complicated events into a better understanding of not just one person’s tragedy but widespread injustice.

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