Today’s guest is Jessica Abel, author of the book Out on the Wire: The Storytelling Secrets of the New Masters of Radio and the Out on the Wire Podcast.
Reasons to do a narrative style podcast
Jessica suggests doing a narrative podcast because narrative journalism is an extremely powerful way to convey ideas. You can pack so much into so little time and with so many layers of meaning by carefully editing, layering in sound and thinking really carefully about your scripting and narration. Although you could listen to five episodes of a good interview podcast and get little nuggets of gold here and there, there’s often fluff that goes on in between those nuggets. It’s possible to put all of those nuggets into a half hour narrative podcast and really not miss anything.
Even interview podcasts themselves can be done much more tightly, much more efficiently and much more interestingly. For example, Fresh Air episodes are heavily edited. They’re not narrative, they’re interview based. But they’re still done in a style that the listener is kept in mind and the story that they want to tell, the information that they want to convey is carefully composed. Jessica believes that even people who are doing a more interview-oriented format could benefit from thinking like a maker of narrative.
When researching her book, Jessica spoke with Dylan Keith, the head of production at Radio Lab who also used to work at On The Media. People used to ask him what he did for a living and he would say “I take a 45 minute interview and make it a 6 minute interview.” It would be a super punchy, awesome 6 minutes and the listener can get everything they need out of it.
Jessica’s advice is to approach an interview in that way, as material, and to think about what is it that you want to tell with this interview. Even if you’re not constructing something that’s character based you can still think of these kinds of tools and apply them to interviews.
Constructing a story from a narrative idea
In order to take your initial idea and make it into a story with a strong narrative, there are a lot of steps, which is why Jessica did an entire podcast series and wrote a book on it!
First, come up with an idea for a story, ideally one based around a character that goes through changes, although you can certainly work the style with idea-based stories as well. Then you need to vet that idea in various ways, test it with different kinds of tools. One such tool is the ‘X-Y story formula’, which comes from Alex Bloomburg. So you may be doing a story about X, but what’s interesting about it is Y. It’s important to figure out what’s really interesting about it and not just what you’re going to find interesting about it, but what the listeners are going to find interesting about it.
There’s also the focus sentence approach, which is sort of like a mini narrative arc. Jessica says that if you can work out the focus sentence on your idea, you often are well on your way in terms of thinking about the outline of your story. The sentence is usually some form of this: “Someone does something because [blank] but [blank].” A character is in motion, living some kind of life and has a sense of mission, something they want, but there’s something that stands in their way. From there you have to do a bunch of further outlining.
Jessica also invented a new tool called the Story Mad Lib, which she talks about in more detail in Episode 4 of Out on the Wire Podcast. The Story Mad Lib is a way of building out the entire arc of the story in a paragraph to guide you where you’re going to go, and help you figure out and plan your interviews carefully ahead of time. If you do an interview that takes an hour or two hours, you will have tons of stuff in there that you could use for 8 or 10 different stories, and you get to decide which one is the story you want to tell. So that kind of selection and decision-making is a huge part of making a narrative.
Selecting interview subjects and preparing for interviews
It depends on what the interview is for but if the interview is for a story that is character-based, then Jessica recommends thinking about what the turning points in the narrative are. If you have a character-based story, you have a character who is going to be the center of the story, you want to think about what the stages that they went through in the change that you want to depict in your narrative. Think about when they went from one place to another place, what and where their dilemmas were, where were their decision points. During the interview, ask them all kinds of questions about those decisions that they had to make, and about those moments of change, how was it before, how was it after etc. The preparation is often figuring out the bare outline of what the person’s story is and then deciding where you want to delve in further. Jessica goes into more detail on this in episode 6 of her podcast.
Hooking the audience’s attention at the start
There are a lot of ways to approach this and one way Jessica suggests is to think about your best piece of tape, and put that at the beginning of the episode. Ask yourself which piece of tape is the one that’s going to raise a question and get people curious, get them wondering what’s going to happen next. Put that at the top. Basically, you need to put a question to the audience so that they can’t turn off, they need to keep listening to find out what’s going to happen next.
Techniques to transition smoothly
Jessica doesn’t have a list of transition techniques, but rather each time she needs to go from one part to another, she thinks about how she wants to connect the things that happened and raise a new question. At the end of one section you want to raise a new question that you’re going to answer in the next section. If you’re using music, that’s a good way to bridge parts like that.
Jessica suggests thinking about what cycles are in your story. She recommends Ira Glass’s 45 second rule: every 45 second you need to have a new little mini arc happening in the story. It can really be anywhere between 45 seconds to 2 minutes of time in your story but each time you need to be raising a question, answering a question. It could be narration, a quote, some music, but it’s important to think about it in little arcs.
Of course, Jessica recommends her own book and podcast, because she created them for people who are wanting to make narratives.
Other than that, she recommends transim.org as it’s a wealth of information on both the technical, strategic and all other aspects of narrative audio making.
Practice your craft
Ultimately, Jessica’s advice is to just start making it. She says, “Start making audio, just go!” It’s about practice and doing it over and over again. Ira Glass talks about the gap between our taste and what we’re capable of when we start. We can see what’s great but we can’t make what’s great and that can be really hard and really depressing to know how far we are from where we want to be. But the only way to the other side of that gap is to do it over and over again.
That’s exactly why Jessica made her book and podcast and working group: so people can have a place where they can work with other people to make audio and other narratives too.
Whether you’re a writer or a cartoonist, you have to practice your craft.