(*Or, a great deal of what you need to know to get a great story from your next interview.)
For podcast story producers, writing a question line — often called a q-line — is an art. Even if you book a great guest who knows how to spin a yarn, it’s a good idea to have a sense of the queries you want to pose. Otherwise, chances are you can come away from the interview without the story you had in mind or a jumble of thoughts rather than a clear narrative.
At other times, your guest might not be chatty or might need a little bit of warming up, and your q-line can help you navigate that situation. Your interview can be in the field or in the studio, you may be writing the q-line for yourself or a host — there are many ways to approach a q-line.
To get some perspective on writing q-lines, I spoke with Rob Rosenthal, a story editor, reporter, and producer for radio, podcasts, and multimedia. He produces a podcast on audio storytelling for PRX and Transom called HowSound.
Rob taught documentary reporting and storytelling for over twenty years at The Salt Institute for Documentary Studies and The Transom Story Workshop. We’re fortunate at Pacific Content to have Rob share his expertise with us as Story Editor for the Home. Made podcast.
[This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.]
Aparita: First things first. Why is a q-line important?
Rob: Well, I mean, your interview is how you get your raw material to work with. It’s incredibly important that you are interviewing in a way that’s going to produce the best material for your story.
The other way to think about it is [that] it’s basically just a guided conversation with another human being. And the best thing you can do is be a curious, polite human being who’s really interested in the person you are talking to. And I don’t mean fake the interest. I mean, let’s be truly interested. Bring your curiosity to the table and that will lead to good tape.
Aparita: What do you need to have done before you start writing a q-line?
Rob: Yeah, you don’t just show up. Although you can. You can just show up. And sometimes that’s the best — not knowing anything. But really I’m in favour of having a plan and being prepared. Hopefully, you’ve done a pre-interview. You’ve done some research on the subject matter and the person you’re talking to. So you’re informed. I would argue for not being fully informed, which sounds a little weird maybe. But I would argue for knowing [just] enough to go in to have an informed, engaged conversation with someone, but also go in and learn something. In other words. You’re not preparing so much that you’re just going in just to confirm what you know.
I would argue for knowing [just] enough to go in to have an informed conversation with someone, but also go in and learn something.
A second thing you need to do to prep, I feel like, I think you need to have a sense of what the story is — and maybe even how you might tell it. Like a rough outline, in pencil, of a way in which the story could be told based on what you know, now. And I say in pencil because you really don’t know until you get there [what you’ll get]. So you have to be willing to erase everything that you thought it was going to be and shift in the moment, which is wicked hard to do.
It’s important then to ask the questions in a way that’s going to get at a story. In other words, you’re not just interviewing someone for information. You're interviewing them for a story. And that means everything from who the character is, character development questions, what their motivations are, and maybe most importantly, the sequence of events, as well as questions that will elicit moments of reflection.
You’re not just interviewing someone for information. You’re interviewing them for a story.
Aparita: So these are questions you’ll ask in the field, as it were. How do you use the q-line that you came up with? Do you have your q-line memorized? Or are you looking at your notes?
Rob: I am not a question-asking automaton. I’m trying to make a connection with another human being and find out — really, what makes them tick? What are they made of? And so I have my list of questions. I actually print them out and review them before I go into an interview. But [then] I fold them up and put them in my pocket. Because I just want to talk. And at some point — usually 45 minutes in or so, maybe 50 — I’ll start to run out of questions and I’ll be worried that I’m missing the questions I had intended to ask.
So I’ll say to the person, “Look, I’d prepared questions, believe it or not! I need to take a look and see what I’m missing.” That gives them a second to have a break. That gives me a second to have a break, and I pull [the questions] out and I’m reminded of all the things I had intended to ask but didn’t ask. And then I’m sparked again. “Oh my god! I forgot I was gonna ask you about the tortoise races — or whatever it is you were gonna ask the person — Can we talk about that?” And boom! I’m reenergized. Hopefully, that energy carries over to them and we’re off again.
Aparita: What about accountability interviews — the sort of interview you hear on a morning show, where you have a politician on for five minutes? How do you approach those sorts of q-lines?
Rob: Audie Cornish at NPR once said to me that whenever she goes into an interview like what you’re describing—an accountability q-line—she [has] a single burning question[…]something she’s on the hunt for. All the other questions are largely going to feed towards it.
So if you have a very short time with an individual such as a politician, I would make sure, in advance, you know what’s the central thing you’re trying to learn. I think it’s true for other interviews as well, but probably very true for a very short interview with someone who’s on the run, and maybe a bit cagey as well.
Aparita: How would you approach writing a q-line for an interview where you are trying to write in your host’s voice, you’re trying to approach that character development of your guest but you’re also trying to create this intimate space between your host and guest. All of this is going on in my head as I am writing this q-line, and it can be daunting sometimes.
Rob: I have no idea how you write for somebody else. I mean it’s a challenge writing for myself, never mind for somebody else, right? Everything from sentence structure to language choice to tone—you have to embody this other person and let them take over you as you write questions for them.
One of the tricks that Terry and other people do really well, is they embed in their questions narration. They’ll say something [like], “In 1974, you were living in Chicago. You were working for such-and-such, and your job was to so-and-so. What I’d like to understand is what did it take to do that job?” So embedded in that question is narration, if you will, that would be there if it was a produced piece.
I would still to the best of my ability — depending on the interview — try to organize my interview as a story, which prompts the question: What’s a story? And a story is a sequence of events where a person encounters a problem and tries to overcome it, in its simplest form. And so, I am always on the hunt for the story. I want information, without a doubt. But I’m on the hunt for a story. I want to be able to follow this person through the things that they moved through in order to get to the problem that they’re facing and what they attempted to do to try and overcome it. And what they took away from that. I’m always organizing my questions in order to pull that out of people.
In its simplest form, a story is a sequence of events where a person encounters a problem and tries to overcome it.
Aparita: So, how do you organize the flow of your q-line to get the best story?
Rob: So sometimes what I’ll do is I’ll think through how I might tell the story to someone else. This is going to sound really ass-backward. Or, it’s just a strange way to approach organizing it. But, I say to my partner or friend or colleague, “Hey, I’m interviewing so-and-so tomorrow. And I want to tell you about them and what I’m going to talk to them about.”
I would see how I told the story to the person that I am talking to. I’m tapping into, at that moment, my natural way of telling a story. And then I would take a look at the structure, and I would say, ‘OK, can I ask my questions kinda-sorta in that order?’
Because when I’m sitting there talking to someone, my task is to try to engage them, and not have them get up and walk away from the dinner table. I want them to stay with me, right? I think the same thing holds true in an interview.
Aparita: Usually there comes a point in the interview where you can sense a shift — your guest might suddenly loosen up, or it just feels like they are somehow more relaxed. How can we get to that place? And how do we account for that as we’re thinking of q-lines?
Rob: Yeah, these people — can’t they just be ready to go? (Laughs) Hello! Well, when you are doing these interviews, whether it’s in the field or in the studio — do you ever circle back around and ask people questions a second time?
There’s a producer who’s listening intently and the host who is listening intently. They’re listening to see how the tone changes over the course of the interview.
Somewhere along the way, a decision gets made, and there is an agreement. Someone whispers into someone’s headphones. Or the host turns to the producer and says, “What do you think?”
Then you circle back and say to this person you’re interviewing, “Hey look, I know we asked you these questions earlier. I just want to make sure we got it right, or I understood it correctly. Can we go back to the beginning when we were talking about blah-biddy-blah? Tell me about that again.”
It’s possible that they’re going to give you a shorter answer because they already told you it once. Right, that’s how people are. “Well, like I said before…” And then they vacuum pack it. On the other hand, they may give it to you in a more animated way. Or, as sometimes happens, the person will actually go a step deeper because they’ve already told you some of it once. They may retell it again but they may now have the ability to go deeper into some aspect of it that they didn’t go into before. When someone finally is juiced up, return back to the portion where you thought they were a little sleepy with their answers.
Aparita: So finally. You might have a moment where you can’t do a pre-interview. Because your guest is a celebrity and maybe doesn’t do pre-interviews. You’ve done as much research as you can. And, you have maybe 10 minutes to prepare for this next interview that you just got. How does one write a q-line on the spot?
Rob: Holy smokes! You don’t! You go to lunch.
Aparita: I wish!
Rob: And that happens? Of course, it does, especially in the newsrooms.
Ok. I’ve got 10 minutes to air, or to taping. And I’m interviewing Angela Lansbury. I’m gonna wanna know. [Laughs]
I am going to answer the same way I did before[…]I want to know what’s the central thing I’m going to want out of this right now. You know, I suppose another way to do it, which comes to mind — which I’ve done — is to ask the person you’re going to interview: Look before we get started, can you tell me something? What do you want to talk about today? What would be good to talk about?
Or you say to them, ‘So I’m going to interview you, and I’m going to try to get at the story that we’re after here. What do you think the story is?’
I have totally done that with people. “Tell me, what’s the story here?” Just tell me. And you might find that they’re going to give you something that’s very PR. And you say, “Ok. I’ll take into consideration. Thanks, that’s really helpful,” and then ignore it completely.
Or they may give you keys to the city. And you’re like, ‘Oh! That’s great!
Can I give you an example?
Aparita: Yes, please!
Rob: One time I was doing a series of short pieces for the Maine Arts Commission. I was travelling around with a colleague, her name is Abby. And Abby and I were driving around the state, interviewing artists. Oftentimes I didn’t have time to prepare. She’d pick me up at my house, I’d get in the car and I’d say, “Okay Abby, where are we going now?” On this particular day, she said we’re going to go interview Tony Montanaro. I said, “Tony Montanaro. Tony Montanaro. I don’t know him. Who’s Tony Montanaro?”
He’s a vaudeville actor. Oh! Ok, vaudeville. What do I know about vaudeville? Nothing, I’m thinking to myself. Hardly anything. “What exactly does he do?”
And I swear to you, Aparita, she said, “He’s a mime.”
I said, “Abby! Abby, do you know that’s the oldest joke in radio? I’m going to interview a mime.”
For every interview I had done with her, there was sound to get. Even if you interview a painter, they can give you a tour of their paintings, and show you around the studio. If someone is a weaver, you can get them at their loom. What am I supposed to do with this?! There’s no sound! Which is fine! But what am I supposed to do?
So we’re driving, and I’m in complete silence, thinking, “What do I do? What do I do?” What occurred to me was that I can still paint pictures with his words. In my head, I quickly organized, maybe made a few notes too [because] I didn’t know who I was going to talk to. I didn’t have anything typed or prepared. I had no research.
I remember thinking, we’ll take him backstage. I had a beginning, middle, and end of him going on stage, being on stage, and getting off stage: I would ask him to describe the things he was doing on stage, which is really hard to do. (He was good at doing it though.) And so we could step away [from the stage] and find out where he learned [miming], and what he loves about it, and why he teaches other people, and [then] come back to him onstage. We could do all that sort of thing.
And then finally at the end, I said [to him], “You’re not performing anywhere?” The guy had cancer, and he was not feeling good, so I wasn’t going to have him perform in front of me. I guess I could have, but what sound would there be?
So in the moment, I said to him, “Do you have any recordings? Are there any videotapes or anything?” Oh yeah, this was back in the dark ages. He had a VHS tape.
I said, “Can we watch it?” So he put it in, and I just started recording the sound of the television set — which is awful. But that’s what I had, and believe it or not, there’s a lot of sounds. There’s the creaking of the floor, it’s on a wooden stage. He’s describing to me what he was doing. In fact, he’d already told me about the drunken sailor. So now I’m seeing a drunken sailor act, and the audience is laughing. And then there’s applause. So I was like, ‘Ah! This worked.’
Why am I telling you all this? You can do this in the moment if you think in terms of story. I need a throughline that’s going to give me a beginning, middle, and end. Otherwise, I’m just going to have a pile of information with an interesting mime. But nothing that’s gonna be pulling me through that the listener wants to know — what happens next?
Aparita: That was a lovely story. Any other parting words of advice?
Rob: I think you can help yourself be better if you’re paying attention to yourself while you’re interviewing. I understand all ears and eyes are on the person we’re talking to. But I want to check in with myself as I’m interviewing the person. And so, I’m looking for a particular feeling, and it’s a feeling that I get when I’m learning something new, and I’m coming to understand what makes people tick.
“Notice what you notice,” as Nancy Updike, at This American Life says.
Also by going back through the tape, one of the things you can do to become a better interviewer… as you’re listening to this person, when you’re not in the room with them, when you’re not worried about levels or mic placement, or what the producer is saying in your ear — notice what question you’d ask when you’re separate from all of that.
I think that’s a muscle that you need to try to develop: notice what you notice when you’re interviewing someone.
- Don’t just show up to an interview. Do a little research on the subject matter and pre-interview your guest when possible. However, don’t prepare so much that you go into an interview to confirm what you already know. Leave room to learn.
- Constructing a q-line can give you a sense of what the story is — maybe even how you might tell it. It’s a rough outline — in pencil — of a way in which the story could be told based on what you know.
- Review your q-line right before an interview and keep the questions nearby. It’s okay to take a break in the interview to refer back to them.
- In an accountability interview, focus on a single burning question, especially if you don’t have a lot of time. All your other questions will serve the central thing you are trying to learn.
- In a studio interview, try embedding narration into the question. For example, “In 1974, you were living in Chicago. You were working for such-and-such, and your job was to so-and-so. What I’d like to understand is — what did it take to do that job.”
- Tap into your natural way of telling a story by telling a friend or colleague about the person you are going to be interviewing. This will help you craft a flow of questions.
- Don’t be afraid to re-ask a question. It could help to put your guest at ease and it could result in a deeper answer. “Look, I know we asked you these questions earlier. I just want to make sure we got it right. Can we go back to the beginning where we were talking about blah, blah, blah?”
- If you haven’t had the chance to prepare for an interview/or you are interviewing a celebrity, try asking the person, “What do you want to talk about today? What do you think the story is?” And yes, you can ignore it, but they may also give you the keys to the city.
- Review your tape. Notice what you notice when you are interviewing someone. Is there a question you would ask now as a listener?