Anatomy of a Story: “Write Like You Talk” talks to Boyd Huppert

By Jeff Butera, Author, “Write Like You Talk”

If you start talking about the best storytellers in local news, it won’t take long before Boyd Huppert’s name comes up.

Since 1996, Boyd has been dazzling Minnesota viewers at KARE 11 News (and fellow reporters around the country) with his writing -- especially through his famous “Land of 10,000 Stories” segments.

I think you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who understands storytelling, language, emotion, pacing, the importance of natural sound and the power of a phrase better than Boyd.

So I asked if he’d answer some questions about my favorite story I’ve ever seen Boyd tell.

 

I’d recommend you watch it before reading the Q&A below:

1. Where did you find the story? 

Most of my stories are now viewer-generated, but this one I found just surfing through some state newspaper websites. In fact, I believe the original headline is shown in the story. If I remember correctly, it provides a good example of the dissimilarities between a well-crafted print article and one written for television. The information revealed in the newspaper headline doesn't occur until deep into our story. Writing for print and writing for television are as different as passing a football and passing algebra.  

2. How long did it take to shoot the story? How long before it aired? 
 
We shot the story in a day, including the drive. LeRoy is roughly 130 miles from the station -- which proved to be a white-knuckle affair on the drive home in a snowstorm. The story aired a few days after we shot it. The normal production cycle for our “Land of 10,000 Stories” pieces is three days -- shot, written and edited.  
 
3. How much of the story are you writing in the field as you shoot video/do interviews, and how much are you writing after you gather all your material? 
 
I try to find a focus for my stories in the field, and then begin the writing process. I believe all good writing begins with a focus. So, I ask myself, "At its essence, what is this story about?" The focus is not the assignment, though the two are often confused. In this case, the assignment was "Man leaves $3 million dollars to his community." The focus is, "The frugalist man in LeRoy turns out the be the most generous." Which story do you want to watch? I know which one I want to write.

4. How much planning do you do with the photojournalist?
 
"Loren and LeRoy" was shot by Bill Middeke. I had made several calls around town in advance and scheduled some of the interviews, not knowing where we would find our storytelling juice. It turned out the be at our first stop: the senior citizens center. We stopped at a gas station for a quick lunch, and wrote on a napkin a dozen additional stops we needed to make before the sun set, from the local cemetery to the playground. By mid-afternoon it had started snowing, which provided us with a snow globe backdrop -- a bonus on which we hadn't counted.  

5. How does he help you in the field? How do you help him? 
 
We're partners, from start to finish. We brainstorm, tote the loads, and share the outcomes -- good and bad.  
 
6. I love the multiple layers of circular construction.

Give a nickel/Give everything
Frugal/Generous


Why do you like that technique? When did the ideas for those lines come to you in the process? 
 
I love literary devices: parallel themes, opposing themes, suppositions, analogies, metaphors, etc. Most of us learned all the tools we needed in high school English class, but then quickly disregarded them because we became TV news reporters and not creative writers. TV news needs more creative writers.  

7. How do you approach logging video? What are you looking for? 
 
Like everyone else, I log for good soundbites. But, more importantly, I'm mining my video for small moments. Perhaps a heavy sigh, or a funny facial expression I didn't even notice when we were shooting. Small moments, with the right words, are the difference-makers between routine and special. I spend more time logging than I spend writing. My logging drives my writing.    

8. What do you remember most about the writing process for this story? 
 
This story goes back some (so far back, Brian William read the lead-in when it aired on NBC Nightly News) so I have to admit, I don't remember specifics of the writing process. I'm sure I didn't vary much from my writing routine: find my focus, identify my moments and then work to reveal them for maximum impact.  

9. What is your secret to great storytelling? 
 
The storytellers I admire allow viewers to make their own discoveries. I want viewers to be involved in the storytelling process, not as observers, but as participants. I like writing with colons. "...and then he showed us this:" A colon suggests there is something more to come.  Well used, a colon forces viewers to engage with the story.   

10. What advice would you give to young writers in this business?
 
Don't stop learning. Good writing is a lifelong pursuit. I spend every day trying to get better at it.  

Boyd Huppert is a reporter at KARE11-NBC in Minneapolis, MN. His work has earned him 16 National Edward R. Murrow Awards and more than 100 regional Emmy Awards.

Jeff Butera is the author of “Write Like You Talk: A Guide To Broadcast News Writing.” The book is available for purchase at www.WriteLikeYouTalk.com.