Knowing when to break the rules: A great example of chronological storytelling in journalism

Journalism has a number of rules that get drilled into you when you start in the field. A crucial one is that you don’t want to lapse into chronology in your storytelling. If you find yourself telling a story as an event unfolded, you’re hiding important aspects of the story deeper in the piece and not telling the story in a descending order of importance.

As with most rules in journalism, this one can and should be broken when the story demands it, as was the case with Dave McMenamin’s piece on how the Los Angeles Lakers learned of Kobe Bryant’s death. McMenamin tells the story in a temporal fashion, starting with the players getting on the plane on the east coast and then working through the flight.

THE WEARY GROUP trudged across the tarmac and onto the team plane at Philadelphia International Airport.

Awaiting the Los Angeles Lakers at the end of their 10-day, five-game road trip was a cross-country trek back to L.A., with an 11 a.m. ET departure time allowing for a 2:05 p.m. PT scheduled arrival time. This meant their Sunday was supposed to be salvaged by some semblance of an off day in Southern California, after touring through Houston, Boston, New York and Philly amid the chill that comes with late January in the Northeast.

The traveling party filed in — broadcasters, media relations and team support staff in the back; coaching staff, training staff and players in separate sections going from tail to cockpit. It was one of those flights where those in window seats pulled the shades down as soon as they sat down, looking to doze off before the plane even took off.

In telling the story this way, McMenamin doesn’t deprive the readers of important content: The story of Bryant’s death was already weeks old when this story ran. In addition, he uses a heavy amount of description without saturating the reader with overwrought emotional language.

The temporal nature of the flight serves as the thread of the story as McMenamin shows the reader what happened, how the information diffused through the plane from passenger to passenger. He also explains the emotional state of feeling hurt and yet helpless.  The piece gives the readers both the sense of connection the players felt with each other in the moment as well as the isolation they felt from the rest of the world, trapped on a plane thousands of feet in the air.

Beyond the story arc itself, McMenamin does a fantastic job of reporting in this, gathering everything from the details of the game film the coach was breaking down to the size of Dwight Howard, who fled to a tiny bathroom to weep privately. His reporting also required him to be tactful in drawing out details about an extremely difficult moment in these players’ lives.

It’s a great, tough story that showcases the talent and skill of a writer who knew which path to take and what information to get. It’s a keeper, for sure.

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