Echoing Gay Talese on Writing Great Narratives

By Jack Limpert

Gay Talese was the keynote speaker at Boston University’s Power of Narrative Conference. Here’s what they said he talked about:

The journalistic icon said he takes great pride in the fact that he doesn’t use a recorder or even take notes during an interview. He said he prefers to invest in his subjects and will often return to them at later points to give them an opportunity to refine their quotes. Talese said his greatest assets are his curiosity and powers of observation.

In tweets, they also quoted him:

“Journalism is being there. Journalism is hanging out”

“Journalism is avoiding, if you can avoid it, any kind of technology.”

“People don’t speak in sentences. If u have them answer a question on tape…”

“…too may journalists accept that version. It’s verifiable but it isn’t truly fully what they think.”
As an editor, I always thought good narratives were the best stories we could publish: What happened? What did you do? What were you thinking? All wrapped up in a word and art package that let the reader feel what it was like to survive a plane crash or see a President shot.

You don’t read many great journalistic narratives because they’re so hard to do. Lots of hanging out, asking questions, coming back again and again to get it as right as possible. All very time-consuming and expensive.

Echoing Talese, here’s more insight on narrative reporting from John Pekkanen, who won two National Magazine Awards for his Washingtonian stories.

First, he says, comes lots of reporting. He’s a believer in interviewing the key participants in a narrative two or three times, coming back again and again to get more detail, to find the equivalent of what he called striking gold, finding the descriptions and quotes that make the narrative something special.

When writing about a dramatic situation, his advice is to keep the language simple, almost flat, with a minimum of adverbs and adjectives. “It’s almost like minimalist art, where the viewer is left to make his own interpretation of what he or she sees. In a way that is what the best narrative writing does.

“If you use a minimalist approach and simply tell the story, particularly those parts of the story where you’re trying to achieve emotional crescendos, it allows the reader to infuse his or her own emotions. I think this has a more powerful effect that if you tried to tell the reader how he or she should feel.”

I always thought the editor could be most helpful by working with the writer to decide what could be cut. When a writer does a lot of reporting, the natural urge is to want to use it. More than one writer in effect said, “I worked hard to get that and you want to take it out?”

The editor can help the writer decide what gets in the way of the narrative—what Pekkanen calls “the underbrush.” It pained him to see some of his reporting edited out but in the end he was more interested in publishing a story that kept the reader reading, sometimes with tears in his eyes, to the last sentence.
A link to Gay Talese’s latest story, The Voyeur’s Motel, in the New Yorker.



  1. John Pekkanen says

    Thanks. You expressed my thoughts very nicely. Interesting Talese never took notes or tape recorded interviews. He did penetrating character studies and was apparently seeking to look into the soul of his subjects through his observations during interviews. I was telling stories, sometimes with strong technical aspects, so to me the tape recorder was vital to keep the facts and timelines straight.

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