Wright Thompson on writing: ‘It’s all about protecting the hammer’

If you are interested in the craft, take a few minutes to read Wright Thompson’s first-person piece on his career. The ESPN The Magazine reporter is the latest subject of the “Still No Cheering in the Press Box” series by the Shirley Povich Center for Sports Journalism at Maryland.

Plenty of valuable lesson, insights and just plain good stories from one of the best. And if you think you can’t get to the top without knowing everything in sports, guess again.

Thompson writes:

I was a sports fan. I mean, I was a normal sports fan. I liked a lot of teams, but I’m still not a huge sports fan. I can’t name all the Major League Baseball teams. I don’t know a ton about it.

I have an extraordinary amount of freedom and I work with really smart people. So I don’t-I feel no urge to go anywhere else. I don’t feel stifled by sports. I don’t feel like there’s a ton of stories that I’d like to tell that I don’t have the opportunity to tell. I just never felt restrained or stifled at all. I love these stories that we’re doing. There’s nowhere else I would ever want to go do it.

I get very selfish at times. I write about things that are interesting to me. Which are often very different. All of these stories, the thing they have in common is that they were somehow interesting. I feel like they’re all dispatches from a worldview.

Not to sort of cop out about it, but I don’t know how other people see stuff. I feel like most of sports writing is just sort of confirmation of a narrative. I feel like most of it is just the narrative. I don’t like that.

When you talk to someone who really knows about football, you realize that almost no one that covers football really understands what’s happening on the field. Every time you read a book, it’s behind the scenes. I recently read a book by a friend of mine, Nick Dawidoff, called Collision Low Crossers. Basically for a year and a half inside the NFL, he was just totally embedded with the Jets. If you read the coverage of that team, and then that read that book, it’s like the thing being covered is totally separate from the thing happening. You always want to write what’s really happening. Not sort of what it looks like from the outside.

And his process:

Every single movie ever it’s the character confronts an obstacle and is changed by it. That’s it. That’s what all stories are.

Whether it’s ‘The Iliad’ or ‘Harold and Kumar go to White Castle.’ It’s all the same. It’s understanding that and understanding conflict and resolution. There’s a great book called Writing for Story.You know, John Franklin. I’m sorry if he’s like you’re friend, he comes across like a pompous ass in this book but it’s a great book.

It really is. I think he thinks it’s a religion, when it isn’t. But it’s the best thing on outlining I’ve ever read. That book changed my work life. It’s the first time it ever really made sense to me.

Now I go through notes, I outline and underline and I make note cards and reorganize the notes into like piles. And I cover walls of offices with post-it notes. I do whatever feels like is necessary to wrangle all of this information.

I’m outlining on the road during stories. I’m outlining constantly. Trying to figure what is the story, what is the story. That’s what I’m asking myself over, over and over again on the road. What’s the story? What’s the conflict? What’s the resolution? What’s the arc? What’s the narrative arc? What question are you going to ask at the beginning that you answer at the end. What’s the end? I like ends, I like hammers. I want the ending that kind of makes you sort of feel hollow briefly in your gut.

That’s a very difficult thing. What is it? Once you have the end, how do you structure the story so as to maximize its power? And do nothing over the course of the story that might diminish it. Protect the hammer. It’s a rare and beautiful thing. How do you protect it while you’re telling the rest of the story? I don’t know. I’m constantly thinking about that.

That’s the job. Words are just words. You know, people just write how they write. Outlining is the thing. Not everyone writes down an outline. My friend, Chris Jones, just writes. But he’s outlining in his head. So it’s the process of thinking about the story. So you know what it is and where it’s going.

The hammer. I wrote this profile on Michael Jordan. I knew the moment the thing with the Western happened at the end. I found out earlier that he falls asleep to Westerns, and the moment I heard that I was like that’s the end of the story.

Everything else about that became about making sure that was in no way blunted. That had maximum power. I wanted to introduce the idea of Westerns, I wanted to do it in a way that was funny, so that you set it up funny, so it wasn’t just foreshadowing, so it was there and then you have to come back to it later and repurpose it for your main point of the whole thing. It was the perfect metaphor. I didn’t want to do anything that blunted its power.

I must’ve rewritten that thing 30 times. It was all about protecting the hammer. And you’ve got to know you’re ending when you see it. It should almost always be an action that speaks to the metaphoric heart of the story. You start to figure it out.



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