Still on his Feet: Chris Ballard and the art of storytelling
Chris Ballard is accustomed to filling all manner of space. The Sports Illustrated senior writer will deliever 10,000-word longform pieces to the magazine as well as 250-word brief summations of tectonic plate-shifting news events. At a lecture in Linfield College's Riley Hall on Feb. 24, Ballard implored the students, faculty and members of the public in attendance to learn how 10,000 words and 250 words can each achieve the desired impact.
"If I'd say, what's the theme of this talk, I'd say, 'Stories bring meaning out of life,'" Ballard said.
Over the next hour, Ballard discussed stories that he had read and written and what sort of emotional impact they brought to their readers. He opened up about the emotional wallop he felt, as a father, writing about University of California, Berkeley coxswain Jill Costello and her battle with lung cancer. He advised his listeners on that most difficult of tasks, convincing an uncooperative subject to open up -- in this case, Ballard was referring to media-averse San Antonio Spurs power forward (or his he a center?) Tim Duncan.
Though storytelling garnered much of the philosophical attention, Ballard stressed the importance of nonfiction writers developing a rapport with a subject. He recounted Houston Rockets center Dwight Howard -- the subject of a 2009 Sports Illustrated cover story -- holding onto his voice record and, when Ballard was away, saying whatever came to the forefront of his mind into it.
What inspired Howard to do that? Comfort, Ballard theorizes. He treated his subject like a human being and he talked to him as one.
"If you're on a date, are you going to talk to someone ... 'I have five questions for you tonight. Question number four: Where did you grow up?'" Ballard asked his audience to laughter.
Ballard plies his trade primarily in the realm of nonfiction, but a few in attendance also had their eye on fiction writing. There is no dividing line between the two; things must happen in both settings. Conflicts must arise. Ballard referenced the journalist and author Ted Conover: "A narrative is when things go wrong."
"You want to start with this complication, then you want to ratchet up and ratchet up and ratchet up and ratchet up," Ballard said.
A portion of his talk was spent on the 2012 movie Argo, a fictionalized account based on true events of a CIA operation to free U.S. citizens held hostage in Iran in part by pretending to scout locations for a science fiction movie. It is one of those movies that appears to sell itself on the premise alone, but the careful telling of its story is why it became one of the most popular films in the country two years ago.
"Why does this movie work? It works because people care about the situation," Ballard said. "There's high stakes. You care about the characters. They invest us in these people. Probably, because you are American, you care about them patriotically."
Ballard highlighted an early scene introducing the film's protagonist, Tony Mendez, played by Ben Affleck. The camera begins on a shot of a mattress on a floor, surrounded by Miller Lite beer cans, until it pans up to Mendez.
"What does this tell you about the character immediately, without a word of dialogue?" Ballard asked. "He sleeps on a mattress -- something's going on. He could be a bachelor. Drinking Miller Lite next to the bed -- they could've shown him in a bar drinking Miller Lite. Clearly something's going on here.
"Through details, we learn something about him."
Ten thousand words or 250 words later, details always shine through. Consider one of Ballard's recent reporting triumphs, on former NBA center Bison Dele's last days alive. It starts on the island of Tahita, the place where Dele was last seen, and winds its way through his NBA career, his marriage and the central conflict of the piece. The article seems to be set to a score, with references to music and poetry peppering a piece about possible fratricide. The score is light and airy in the beginning, reminiscent of ukulele music, a paean to the tropical setting. It picks up through his time in the NBA, the pace faster, less of a melody than a consistent beat. Through the rising action, tension builds. Characters are set on edge. The violins get a little louder; the cello thrums in the background.
Once the climactic scene is laid out, those violins are being sawed in half by Charlie Daniels. The tropical vacation from hell has reached a fever pitch.
In addition to the pieces linked above, I heartily recommend Ballard's story on a Peace Corps volunteer turned basketball guru in Afghanistan and a story about the Macon Ironmen, an Illinois baseball team from a small-town that went on a Hoosiers-esque run toward a state championship.