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Hidden Stories: the story behind the story

A lesson in journalism

Nora Ephron’s high school journalism teacher once set the class an assignment to write an article for the student newspaper, about an all day conference all faculty members were attending the following Thursday. Nora went away, interviewed the teachers, found out all the relevant facts about the conference: the times, the topics, the speakers. She wrote it up, taking care over every sentence, making sure it was well structured and clear. And she handed it in feeling quietly confident.

The following Monday, the teacher gave back the papers. Or threw them back to be more precise. Nora, the over-achieving straight-A student was horrified when the teacher, a look of disgust on his face, dumped her paper on the desk in front of her with a big red C minus scrawled across it.

The teacher walked to the front of the room and started writing something up on the board. Here is the real story:

‘Time to celebrate: there’s no class on Thursday.’

I know it was a lesson in journalism. But I think about it a lot when I’m sitting down to write a short story, a novel or, in my latest adventure, a play.

The unseen story

Where is the unseen story that’s crouched around the edges of the obvious , perhaps only just visible in your peripheral vision, perhaps only discoverable if you lift up the obvious, take a look underneath it, or turn it around and look at it from a different angle?

I recently read Chimerica, the play by Lucy Kirkwood about ‘Tank Man’. You may not immediately recognise him by his nickname but you’ve probably seen a photo of him. Black trousers, a simple white shirt, hands at his sides holding large shopping bags, a large tank advancing towards him.Tank Man is the nickname of the man who stood in front of a Chinese army tank on the morning of 5th June 1989—the day after the Tiananmen Square Massacre. As the tank manoeuvred to bypass him, Tank Man repeatedly put himself in front of the tank’s path, obstructing its march forward.

Tank Man appears on the cover of Chimerica. And you’d be forgiven for thinking the play is about him. His story must be interesting, right?

The play opens at the exact moment Tank Man is staring down the tank. But the first scene isn’t set in the square. It’s in a hotel room. There’s a US photographer leaning out the window taking that famous picture. And you soon realise there is another story there beyond the one that’s immediately apparent—the story of the man behind the camera.

Hidden stories

I’ve been thinking a lot about those hidden stories recently, ever since I published my second novel last month and started talking to people about it.

People ask, ‘what’s it about?’

‘Motherhood,’ I’ll explain, ‘the book opens in a Belfast hotel room in 1993—a couple in their late-thirties are buying a baby from a younger couple.’ And then I’ll get that look. Sometimes, I even get that question. It comes in a variety of forms:

‘Are you getting broody?’

‘Will we hear the pitter patter of tiny feet soon?’

Or, my favourite: ‘Are you guys thinking of having a family?’ (As if my husband, my parents, my sister and her kids, my many wonderful aunts, uncles and cousins I’m blessed with don’t really count.)

You see I’m a woman in my late-thirties, happily married and childless. People see me, they hear the premise for the book, and they automatically think they know what I want, they think they get my story.

They don’t stop to think about what’s going on at the periphery of that opening scene in the hotel—in the room and outside of it—about all the strands flowing from the same event, all the alternative ways of looking. Who can blame them? We so rarely do look beyond the obvious. I often don’t.

Which is why, to remind me, I have a post-it note stuck next to my writing desk with the words ‘Time to celebrate: there’s no class on Thursday.’

When people ask about the note, I say, ‘Let me tell you a story. In fact, let me tell you three.’

Caroline Doherty de Novoa’s second novel, The Belfast Girl is out now.

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