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Newswriting as Conversation

April 18, 2007

“Tell me a story. Dites moi une histoire.”

I am hoping this will be the icebreaker in my opening class of a weeklong broadcast writing seminar. But the eight 4th-year journalism and communication students at the National University of Rwanda shift uneasily. They are not yet ready for that level of intimacy, even though we are crammed into a tiny classroom with barely enough room for eight rickety chairs, a desk and a blackboard.

“All right,” I say, after a long pause. “Maybe the stories will come later.”

The two Emmanuels, Richard, Jean-Pierre, Christine, Jean de Dieu, Theogene, and Donozius, seem visibly relieved as I go back to my lecture, and they to their note-taking.

Storytelling, I tell them, is at the heart of broadcast writing, especially when your subject is human interest. And we all tell stories every day, stories with a clear theme, characters, structure, flow. The stories come naturally, with a beginning, middle and end, succinct, and there are no wasted words. We are all born storytellers; with a little practice, we can turn this natural skill into effective broadcast writing.


“C’mon, try it,” I said. “En Anglais ou Francais, either language.” I can see a wealth of stories behind those faces; all of them lived through the 1994 genocide, one of the most harrowing events in modern history. But it’s still too early.

I tell them about storytelling as community building. We share stories, discover what we have in common, draw closer together, feel more secure. Broadcast journalists, if they do their job right, help create a national dialogue, a conversation of collective citizenship. I turn to the blackboard and, with the brittle chalk crumbling in my fingers, scratch out the famous quote from Longfellow: “If we could read the secret history of our enemies, we should find in each man’s life sorrow and suffering enough to disarm all hostilities.” I explain that we, as journalists, are here to uncover those “secret histories,” to reframe them and to send them out into the world.

One of the Emmanuels raises his hand. “What is ‘hostilities’?” he asks.

And so the day goes. We critique stories from the nightly TV Rwanda newscast, I have them write scripts, they struggle bravely with English syntax, I remind them to keep their sentences short. And every once in a while, I try to coax them to tell me a story “just so you can see the structure.”

The breakthrough does not come until the end of the second day. We are discussing a story I am researching, a story that deals with post-genocide reconciliation in Rwanda—of victims embracing their tormentors. I remark that some of the stories I’ve come across have an almost “miraculous” aspect.

That’s when I see that Theogene (nicknamed “Toto”) has his hand up. “I heard a story. I don’t know if it’s a miracle, but it’s true.”

His classmates lean forward to listen. “In the town of Byumba,” Toto begins, “there were two families living side by side. When the genocide started, the father of one family went into the house of the other family, and killed everybody. The only survivors were a boy and his sister.

“After the genocide, the man went to prison. He confessed, and after some years he was released. He went back to the house of his neighbors, and he saw the surviving boy, who was now a young man. And he asked forgiveness. After a time, the young man forgave him. But the old man was not sure. He didn’t believe he was really forgiven. So he went back to the young man, and said: I will believe that you forgive me, but you must do something to prove it. I need a symbol. You must marry my daughter.”

Theogene stops. He looks at our faces and savors our anticipation. He has come upon a first principle of successful storytelling: the dramatic pause.

“They were married,” he said. “And they are still married. They moved away, but they come back now and then to visit the old man.”

There is a collective sigh in the classroom, and other stories pour out.

We are learning.

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