Five Boxes Story: Deconstructing a News Feature Story
By Chip Scanlan, The Poynter Institute
Although Rick Bragg doesn’t outline his stories, I wanted to see whether echoes of the “five boxes” approach he suggests to writers struggling with organization might resound in his own work. In my textbook, Reporting and Writing: Basics for the 21st Century, I compared the structure with, “Another Battle of New Orleans: Mardi Gras,” a story in his 1996 Pulitzer Prize and Best Newspaper Writing Award-winning package. Although my choices are certainly open to challenge, I perceived a strong connection.
The first box contains the lead, the image, the detail that draws the reader into the story. It can be a single paragraph or several. Bragg focuses on Larry Bannock and the contrast between his shabby surroundings and the glory of his role as a black Indian of Mardi Gras. The section concludes with a brief-but-vivid quote. Note how Bragg separates the quotation with a description of Bannock: a technique that provides pacing and a vivid counterpoint.
By Rick Bragg
For almost a year he has hunkered over his sewing table, joining beads, velvet, rhinestones, sequins, feathers and ostrich plumes into a Mardi Gras costume that is part African, part Native American.
“I’m pretty,” said Mr. Bannock, who is 6 feet tall and weighs 300 pounds. “And, baby, when I walk out that door there ain’t nothing cheap on me.”
Most days, this 46-year-old black man is a carpenter, welder and handyman, but on Mardi Gras morning he is a Big Chief, one of the celebrated--if incongruous--black Indians of Carnival. He is an important man.
Sometime around 11 a.m. on Feb. 28, Mr. Bannock will step from his house in a resplendent, flamboyant turquoise costume complete with a towering headdress, and people in the largely black and poor 16th and 17th Wards, the area known as Gert Town, will shout, cheer and follow him through the streets, dancing, drumming and singing.
“That’s my glory,” he said. Like the other Big Chiefs, he calls it his “mornin’ glory.”>
A paragraph (or paragraphs) that sums up the story and provides the reader with context and background is the second box. Bragg steps back now from the close-up scene of Bannock working in his house to place him in the larger context. The phrase “He is one of the ...” is a signal that the nut section is beginning. Here the writer provides an analysis, which he attributes to the Big Chiefs and academics. The section ends on a dramatic quote, a useful method of narrative as punctuation.
He is one of the standard-bearers of a uniquely New
But this ceremony is also self-affirmation, the way poor blacks in
These Indians march mostly in neighborhoods where the tourists do not go, ride on the hoods of dented Chevrolets instead of floats, and face off on street corners where poverty and violence grip the people most of the rest of the year. The escape is temporary, but it is escape.
“They say Rex is ruler,” said Mr. Bannock, referring to the honorary title given to the king of Carnival, often a celebrity, who will glide through crowds of tourists and local revelers astride an elaborate float. “But not in the 17th Ward. ‘Cause I’m the king here. This is our thing.
“The drums will be beating and everybody will be hollering and”--he paused to stab the needle through a mosaic of beads and canvas--”and it sounds like all my people’s walking straight through hell.”
This box is almost a second lead, based on a new scene, detail or strong image, which allows the writer to begin retelling the story that began in the lead and draws the reader into the bulk of the story. Length can vary. In this section Bragg’s reference to an Oldsmobile is an echo of the lead. It is a clever technique that acts as a transition from the nut section to a new one that continues with the story of Bannock and the Big Chiefs.
A man does not need an Oldsmobile, with or without a bumper, if he can walk on air. Lifted there by the spirit of his neighborhood, it is his duty to face down the other Big Chiefs, to cut them down with words instead of bullets and straight razors, the way the Indians used to settle their disagreements in Mardi Gras in the early 1900s. Mr. Bannock, shot in the thigh by a jealous old chief in 1981, appears to be the last to have been wounded in battle.
“I forgave him,” Mr. Bannock said.
The tribes have names like the Yellow Pocahontas, White Eagles, the Golden Star Hunters and the Wild Magnolias. The Big Chiefs are not born, but work their way up through the ranks. Only the best sewers and singers become Big Chiefs.
By tradition, the chiefs must sew their own costumes and must do a new costume from scratch each year. Mr. Bannock’s fingers are scarred from a lifetime of it.
His right index finger is a mass of old punctures. Some men cripple themselves, through puncture wounds or repetitive motion, and have to retire. The costumes can cost $5,000 or more, a lot of cash in
The rhythms of their celebration, despite their feathered headdresses, seem more West African or Haitian than Indian, and the words are from the bad streets of the
“Maybe it don’t make no sense, and it ain’t worth anything,” said Mr. Bannock. But one day a year he leads his neighborhood on a hard, forced march to respect, doing battle at every turn with other chiefs who are out trying to do the same.
Jimmy Ricks is a 34-year-old concrete finisher most of the year, but on Mardi Gras morning he is a Spy Boy, the man who goes out ahead of the Big Chief searching for other chiefs. He is in love with the tradition, he said, because of what it means to people here.
“It still amazes me,” he said, how on Mardi Gras mornings the people from the neighborhood drift over to Mr. Bannock’s little house on
“To understand it, you got to let your heart wander,” said Mr. Bannock, who leads the Golden Star Hunters. “All I got to do is peek through my needle.”
I’m 52 inches across my chest
And I don’t bow to nothin’
‘Cept God and death
--from a battle chant by Larry Bannock
Shorthand for “boring but important,” this box contains less compelling material, such as quotes from experts or data bolstering the main theme. It rounds out the story and provides balance. Here Bragg includes material from an academic expert, hoping that by this time the reader is sufficiently engaged and interested to care about the event’s history. Writers often make the mistake of including this kind of information earlier in the story before the reader is ready for it.
The more exclusive party within the party--the grand balls and societies that underlie the reeling, alcohol-soaked celebration that is Carnival--have always been By Invitation Only.
The origins of Carnival, which climaxes with Mardi Gras, or Fat Tuesday, are found in the Christian season of celebration before Lent. In
The krewes were--some still are--secret societies. The wealthier whites and Creoles, many of whom are descendants of people of color who were free generations before the Civil War, had balls and parades, while poorer black men and women cooked the food and parked the cars.
Mardi Gras had no other place for them, said Dr. Frederick Stielow, director of
“These are people who were systematically denigrated,” said Dr. Stielow, who has studied the Mardi Gras Indians for years. So they made their own party, “a separate reality,” he said, to the hard work, racism and stark poverty.
It might have been a Buffalo Bill Wild West Show that gave them the idea to dress as Indians, Dr. Stielow said, but either way the first “Indian tribes” appeared in the late 1800s. They said they wore feathers as a show of affinity from one oppressed group to another, and to thank the Louisiana Indians for sanctuary in the slave days.
By the Great Depression these tribes, or “gangs” as they are now called, used Mardi Gras as an excuse to seek revenge on enemies and fought bloody battles, said the man who might be the biggest chief of all, 72-year-old Tootie
Mr. Bannock said, “They used to have a saying, ‘Kiss your wife, hug your momma, sharpen your knife, and load your pistol.’”
Even after the violence faded into posturing, the New Orleans Police Department continued to break up the Indian gatherings. Mr. Bannock said
Shoo fly, don’t bother me
Shoo fly, don’t bother me
If it wasn’t for the warden and them lowdown hounds
I’d be in
--Big Chief’s battle chant, written by a chief while in the state prison in
They speak a language as mysterious as any white man’s krewe.
In addition to Spy Boys, there are Flag Boys--the flag bearers--and Second Line, the people, sometimes numbering in the hundreds, who follow the chiefs from confrontation to confrontation.
They march--more of a dance, really-- from Downtown, Uptown, even across the river in the poor black sections of
But it is mainly with the costume itself that a man does battle, said Mr.
The winner is often “the prettiest,” Mr.
“I am the oldest, I am the best, and I am the prettiest,” he said.
A few are well-off businessmen, at least one has served time in prison, but most are people who sweat for a living, like him.
Some chiefs do not make their own costumes, but pay to have them made--what Mr. Bannock calls “drugstore Indians.” Of the 20 or so people who call themselves Big Chiefs, only a few remain true to tradition.
The story ends in this box. It may be a quote, an image, a comment; whatever you choose, the best endings resonate. Now Bragg comes full circle, returning to the scene in the lead. Many writers might end with the “mornin’ glory” quote, but Bragg chooses to end the story with a detail that strikes the chord of his theme: one man’s devotion to a tradition larger than himself.
Mr. Bannock sits and sweats in his house, working day and night with his needle. He has never had time for a family. He lives for Fat Tuesday.
“I need my mornin’ glory,” he said.
A few years ago he had a heart attack but did not have time to die. He had 40 yards of velvet to cut and sew.
The New York Times