It’s easier than ever to find stories to tell — there are countless rabbit holes online to dig into. But it remains just as hard as ever to find great stories that haven’t yet been told, and stories that are worth telling right now.
There is an art to finding and pitching stories. One that Stephanie Foo is an expert in. An old boss of hers used to say, “If you need a story, just Foogle it,”. Now, the writer, veteran audio storyteller and “This American Life” alumna is the host of Home. Made., a new podcast from Rocket Mortgage, produced by the Pacific Content team. It’s about the meaning of home and our attachment to places, neighbourhoods, and residences.
In the lead-up to its launch, we spoke with Stephanie about how she finds and pitches stories. In other words, how does she “Foogle” it? Here are a few takeaways that resonated with me.
The building blocks of a great (not just good) story: the five C’s
When thinking through a potential story, you want to filter and probe its potential for tension, surprise, reflection, and meaning — something all smart storytellers need to do.
In evaluating her own stories, Stephanie uses the Five C’s: Characters, Conflict, Consequences, Complexity, and Change. “The most important one that I always try to underline is conflict,” but she points out that there non-C things to keep in mind too.
Not least of which is what drives the conflict, “I get a lot of pitches like, ‘I want to find my birth mother. I’m really happy with my own parents, but I’m just curious.’ What are the stakes here? If she doesn’t find her birth parents, her disappointment doesn’t really seem palpable.”
Stephanie asks anyone who pitches her, “Why do you care about this story?”
But your listener doesn’t just need to care about the stakes (which drive conflict). They need to care about the characters too.
“A story is much better when the central character can speak well, can emote, and, most importantly, can reflect on how their story has changed them.”
That old adage that “everyone has a story to tell” is true, but not everyone tells it well.
“It’s our job as storytellers to draw those stories out — but let’s face it: a story is much better when the central character can speak well, can emote, and, most importantly, can reflect on how their story has changed them.”
So Stephanie encourages producers to focus on finding the right characters.
“I often get pitches from people saying, ‘Oh this is going to be a great story about systemic racism.’ Or ‘this is a great story about the failures in our medical industry.’ But who are these people? What are the critical moments of their drama that are going to make them seem like real humans?”
Finding a Good Story is Like Writing Fan Fiction
But, how do you find a good story to begin with? Stephanie says if the perfect story already exists in your imagination, then it probably already exists in real life.” This is where you “Foogle” it and ask your search engine for exactly what you want.
And inspiration can come from anywhere — including something as simple as wanting to go somewhere. Like Texas. While working at Snap Judgment, she was trying to find a good story about an abduction. So she foogled “crazy story” and “abduction.” into a bunch of Texas news sites. “ I found this guy who got held hostage in his own home by these Texas secessionists that wanted to secede from the United States.” The pitch was approved, Stephanie went to Texas, and told a remarkable story.
“It’s basically writing fan fiction. I’m coming up with ideas in my head for what the juiciest story would be. And then I try to see if it exists — and a lot of the time it does.”
Storytellers Have a Duty of Care
Stephanie also points out that it’s a storyteller’s job to find and elevate stories we haven’t heard. But if you are developing a story about an underrepresented or underreported community that you don’t belong to, there is a danger of your story not being relevant, or portraying your characters and conflict in a stereotypical way.
Stephanie’s approach is to involve the community itself in her search, “I always try to make it a real back and forth between me and that community, ‘let’s find the right story together.’ A lot of times that includes me teaching them about the components of a good story.”
This kind of work has the added benefit of helping you remember how stories work.
“So I’ll tell them, we need a beginning and a middle and an end. We need a character that has a climax. We need to have a major conflict somewhere. I would prefer that we have a twist. We need to have somebody who’s going to be emotional and talking about all of this. And then they’ll sit down and think, or go back to their community with those ingredients. And a lot of times they wind up finding amazing stories.”
Side-by-side with Stephanie Foo
Showrunner Mio Adilman and producer Rehmatullah Sheikh have been working alongside Stephanie for the past six months on Home. Made. Both say they’ve learned a ton about storytelling in that short time as a team.
Rehmatullah says: “I’m more deliberate in my pre-interviews. While talking with people to suss out if they could be a good voice on the show, I’m not just looking for a re-read of their story they’ve already written about somewhere. But is there a twist in the story that I’m unaware of? Can the guest go into the deeper emotional layers of their experience, rather than just recount the plot points? Having that ‘Stephanie Foo checklist’ has helped me become more strategic in my case.”
As for Mio, working with Stephanie made the work more challenging–but in the best possible way.
“Stephanie actually killed several stories during pre-production because they didn’t meet the 5-Cs criteria. I usually shoot first and ask questions later, but she really front-loads the critical work. When we did that, it really simplified the storytelling. Stories became more linear, easier to understand, and it allowed us to focus more on the guests’ emotional reactions and the stakes.”
“One last thing: if you can make it through a Stephanie Foo script edit in one piece, you have accomplished the near-impossible. I have the scars to prove it. But it makes you a better producer and definitely a better writer.”
Home. Made. launches on March 29. Listen to the trailer now, and follow the show in your podcast player of choice.
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