If you write podcasts, and you are lucky, you will meet someone who will, without sentiment, eviscerate your script, leaving you and it in tatters. That person is a story editor. By far the most important and fulfilling relationship I will ever have as a writer. They will tear you apart but then put you back together in ways you never thought imaginable, elevating your stories and if, again you are lucky, changing the way you see the world.
That has been my experience. I have had the immense and invaluable privilege of working with three brilliant story editors. Stephanie Foo of This American Life fame. Rob Rosenthal, of HowSound. Jamie Purdon, an ex-CBC News producer. No two are alike. They each take different approaches. And at times that has been problematic.
When more than one story editor weighs in on one of my scripts, it’s like two arguing parents who aren’t talking — with me in the middle trying to broker peace. The only thing they agree upon is that my script needs to be ripped apart.
This is why using a format is so important. It allows me to make strong, informed choices. It gives your editor something to work off; something to agree with or disagree with. But the disagreement is another opportunity to learn about writing.
Before you jump down to the tips on creating a format, there’s one critical thing you need to establish, ‘what happened?’ And, ‘then, what happened? And, ‘then, what happened?’ That is the actual story. Sometimes that’s all you need. In addition to the action, pay attention to a character’s emotional journey. How do they feel? Where do they get emotional? That’s the good tape. But more often you should figure out these things:
- An iconic character: Who is your main character? Ideally, there is only one. The story is almost entirely about them; they are the person we always come back to. When you ask the listener to track too many characters it’s confusing. Well, what about stories that feature many different characters who carry some of the action? Fair. I still suggest one character through which the story is told. At the same time, you can feature different characters, but one at a time: main characters at the series level, episode level, and even scene level. If it becomes confusing you’ll know this when your editor falls fully asleep. That’s your cue to declutter the focus. Example: Mio Adilman is our hero. Intrepid writer determined to write the definitive podcast.
- Establish your character first, in a relatable low stakes way. Something simple about their day, or mundane task. Think about how pretty much any movie starts. The hero wakes up, grabs a coffee, kisses their partner, and drives into work while speaking with a good, goofy friend on speaker. If you skip this and go straight to the first shit-hits-the-fan moment you create an emotional dissonance for the listener: “Why don’t I care that this person dropped their iPhone in the toilet?” Because we know nothing about the character, their relationship to the phone, or to the person impatiently waiting for them to fish out the phone. The bigger the fan, the worse we feel for not caring. It’s a gross feeling. Example: Mio wakes up, shuffles to the kitchen, drinks five mugs of coffee, and makes plans to play badminton with his 82-year-old mother at 5:15 pm. “Don’t be late” she says.
- Conflict, challenge, or tension: This happens soon after you establish the character (see #2). It is big! Don’t bore me, don’t waste my time. What is the external challenge for the character? Maybe it’s someone giving them some bad news. Or it can be an accident. The conflict can get smaller or more internal the better we get to know the character. In this case, think emotional crisis. Whatever the conflict is, it needs to be getting in the way of something the character wants. Example: At 3 pm, Mio’s boss at Pacific Content tells him a deadline has moved up and he has until 5 pm to hit it, leaving him with only 15-minutes to get to his badminton game. Challenge: the deadline, the pit of despair Mio falls into leaving him in a state of paralysis.
- Stakes (or why I do I care?): What is the iconic character set to win or lose in this conflict and can I possibly visualize the scenario in my life in some way. If you as the storyteller don’t invest in the story, the listener won’t either. Example:Mio is in danger of his 82-year-old mother whacking him with her badminton racquet. Mio is dreading an inevitable encounter with a stern story editor…or even worse, will Mio lose his chance to score a WEBBY AWARD (OMG!).
- Theme: Focusing on a theme isn’t always necessary but it can inform your structure (David vs. Goliath; Boy Meets Girl), and it can help pluck out some details in your writing. Example: Maybe David vs Goliath. Mio versus a stern story editor.
- Choice point: The big decision that needs to be made. If possible it is a universal human value or moral proposition that every person in the world has an opinion about. If you can put it in those terms, the listener will be far more engaged. Dwell on this. Draw people into it. We can all relate. Example: Does Mio stay and grind it out? Or does he go play badminton? Work/life balance.
- Resolution: Where is your character after the choice point? Physically and emotionally. What impact has the conflict and decision left? Example: Mio decides to stay. He drinks five more mugs of coffee and starts writing furiously. The script gets finished.
- BUT WAIT, THERE’S A TWIST!: I mean, hopefully, there’s a twist. Maybe the thing the character chose didn’t turn out to be what they wanted. A twist isn’t totally necessary but it’s a nice bonus. Example: Mio gets home. He finds his badminton racquet snapped in half at the front door, and his mother sitting, arms folded, staring away from Mio. (This is not a good twist. I am freestyling, give me a break)
- Revelation: Moment of clarity. The resolution and/or twist deepens the character’s understanding of life and themselves. This leads to a true conclusion. Example: Mio regrets not choosing badminton and his mother over his award-winning script.
This isn’t a rigid format. Some things will shift, and some things you might not need. The things to look for are clarity and engagement. Have you kept the listener’s attention? The amount of signposting around choices and themes will scale up or down depending on your show values. Story writing is a riddle. Format is important, but so is an open mind. These tips will work for any kind of storytelling, even non-narrative business or tech podcasts. And they work not just for the writing, they also help focus story pitches.
Other tips: Build scenes that are ‘visual’ and know when to end them with a cracking good piece of tape.
Back to my vicious story editors (haha). I love them. They have taught me so much about telling a story, and they have taught me so much about humility. They have taught me it isn’t about my feelings, or even about what I like. This racket is about one thing only. What happened?