Big events, small stories: one bite at a time

We’ve all heard the joke about how you eat an elephant: one bite at a time. That’s also how you write about a big ideas or big events—one story at a time.Write about big events the same way you'd eat an elephant—one bite at a time

There’s an earthquake in Haiti; a disaster, clearly. But who can process the scale and the scope of such a thing? If your readers or listeners haven’t lived through a catastrophic event like that, how do you make it real for them? It’s only overwhelming if you think of it as a gargantuan task. So don’t!

Find one thing—maybe it’s a description of the dust that clogs the nostrils of the rescue workers digging through rubble. Maybe it’s the disorienting feeling of trying to situate yourself when all the usual landmarks have been flattened. Maybe it’s a set of curtains flapping awkwardly through a window that’s lost its glass—or its entire house. Find one thing, and write about that. Just a phrase or sentence fragment. Don’t worry about what this fragment might or might not become. For now, it’s enough just to put some words around the idea.

Connect to big events through the small stories within them

After you’ve got your fragments, pan your mental camera back from the closeup view of the wreckage and tell the story of the people who lived in that place.

Remember The New York Times’ remarkable (and Pulitzer Prize-winning) “Portraits of Grief”? The paper’s writers (including my friend Tina Kelley) interviewed survivors of the people killed during the 9/11 attacks and wrote individual stories about each one. Under ordinary circumstances, The New York Times would never have written about most of those people. But obviously, 9/11 was far from an ordinary circumstance.

Knowing even just a bit about each of those people sharpened our connection to the event and its aftermath. Saying “2,996 people died” is an abstraction—despite the concreteness of the number. “Mother of three” or “hard-working immigrant”—these are people. People whose lives resonate with our own.

Finding the “right” story

In the process of capturing all of your fragments and stories, you may instinctively find “the” story or set of stories that connect best with whatever audience you’re trying to reach.

But the truth is, there is no one “right” story. Different things resonate with different people. Some people need a narrative that goes from A to B to, eventually, Z. For others, the fragments will be powerful enough to stand on their own.

Big events can feel overwhelming. Find the individual stories that allow your reader to make an emotional connection to the event and you’ll get your point across memorably.

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