I finally got around to reading Justin Heckert’s 2009 Men’s Journal feature, “Lost in the Waves,” which details how a father and his 12-year-old autistic son get swept out to the open sea. It’s a gripping, suspenseful, and moving story. One of the best nonfiction features I’ve read.

Here’s one critical scene in the middle of the piece, as Walt, the father, and his son, Christopher, have drifted apart and can barely see each other as it starts to get dark:

Out at sea, in the fading light, Christopher rose and dipped from Walt’s line of sight. Walt tried to talk to his son to keep him calm, reciting his favorite lines from his favorite movies. Christopher loved to sit right in front of the small television in his room and watch Disney videos all day. Sometimes he would put his eyeball as close to the screen as he could get it without touching. His all-time favorite scene was Buzz Lightyear in Toy Story, flying into space, saying his trademark phrase: “To infinity…and beyond!”

“To infinity!” Walt yelled to Christopher over the waves. He waited for Christopher to respond.

“To infinity, Christopher!”

“…and beyond!” lightly from atop the wave, as Christopher was lifted back into view. It didn’t sound like that when Christopher said it, though. It always sounded like “infin’ a beyon’.…” And he’d always send his fist into the air. That little fist pump — Walt did it in the water then, too, even though he was trying to conserve energy.

Why does this story work so well?

Structure. The story starts in the middle, with the father already out at sea at night. We learn that he no longer can see or hear his son. Within a few paragraphs the reader is pulled into the dramatic, terrifying moment at the crux of the story. A classic cliffhanger lead. And it leaves us there for a bit while the story goes back a bit and introduces us to Walt and Christopher and we learn a lot about them and their family situation. Eventually, we find out how they got to the water and what went wrong. When we finally get back to the moment when Walt is floating alone in the dark, the reader is much more invested in both characters. It’s not just dramatic, it’s emotional and more personal. Finally, the story closes on the aftermath of what happened. The structure fuels the drama and the suspense and makes the outcome much more powerful.

Scenes. The story is rich with scenes from before, during, and after the ordeal in the water. Heckert’s reporting and research is evident throughout the piece, especially as he re-creates key moments between the father, the son, and others. The scenes drive the story.

The Story. The structure, the writing, and the reporting are all excellent. But underlying it all is an incredible true story. That never hurts. This may be obvious, but writers sometimes overlook the most simple question: “is this story interesting?” In this case, the answer is an emphastic “yes.” And when you add skillful reporting and storytelling on top of that, the result is classic piece of nonfiction.

Read the full story here: Lost in the Waves