Is it Always Chronological? ... and More
Hello friends,

First things first. There are still a few seats open for my Interview Skills for Storytellers workshop THIS Sunday, Sept. 19 at 1pm Eastern. We'll be talking about all the ways to get the tape that will really make your story sing. And we'll have a lot of fun.

Tickets can be purchased here. And, as always, if the price is too steep, just send me an email and I'll send you a code. No questions asked.
Sign up here!
Hope to see you there!

Okay, now for this week's newsletter.

You might remember that when you first signed up for this newsletter, I asked you to fill out a three-question survey.

(If you didn't fill it out, no worries. It's never too late. You can find it here!)

Anyway, I sent out the survey because I wanted to find out some of your biggest storytelling struggles. And this week, I'm going to try to solve a few more of those for you.
Photo of a question mark.
Question mark photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash.
First up, a question I hear often.

"I struggle with how to fit narrative storytelling into news reports beyond the common and often used style of opening a story with a narrative then hitting the "experts," and closing the factoids out with a story."

Oh yeah. This is tough.

You're probably not going to be able to use a whole lot of your narrative techniques in a 40 second spot.

(Except your narrative interview techniques. Asking questions designed for storytelling are always going to result in better tape, even when you're talking to buttoned up politicians and boring experts.)

But how do you tell a story when you also have to cover the news?

Let me introduce you to my good friend: The Broken Narrative.

(This episode of How Sound illustrates this idea much better than I can. I'm pretty sure I've recommended it to you before. And I will do so again. It's that good.)

In a broken narrative, the structure is provided by the sequence of events -- a.k.a. the narrative.

This happened. And then this happened. Which led to this happening. And then you wouldn't f-ing believe, but this happened.

By taking a broken narrative approach to a news story, you make clear that the sequence of events at the center of your story does not exist in a vacuum. It's part of a larger trend.

So, from time to time, you "pause" your narrative so that you can interject some big-picture context. Often, using a scientist or historian or politician or expert.

So you're not just writing a news report that begins and ends with a narrative story.

Instead, you're writing a narrative story that's interrupted from time to time with the elements of a news report.
Are you subscribed to Narrative Beat yet?
Subscribe now!
"How much mapping out of an episode to provide the listener."

In audio, we call this "signposting." And how much you do is a matter of taste.

Signposts are little reminders to the listener of where you are in a story...and where you're going.

Some reporters signpost a LOT. They take the listener by the hand and lead them from one point to the next.

I tend not to signpost enough. In fact, whenever I listen back to my own work, I often wish I had added another signpost or two.

Think of it like this…

  • If you're making a big jump in time, you might need a signpost.

  • If you're bringing back a character you haven't heard from in a while, you might need a signpost.

  • If you're switching between two events or two ideas or two characters that are related in some way that might not be immediately clear to the listener, you might need a signpost.

  • If you find yourself writing <beat> or <music> on your script, you might need a signpost.

Basically, when in doubt...signpost.

But I'm going to give you one caveat.

Reporters who are new to using the "e" structure often use almost exactly the same signpost.

(ICYMI, the "e" structure is when you start a story at some sort of tension point and then rewind to tell the story from the beginning.)

So, so often, reporters who use the "e" structure will write a sentence that sounds a lot like this:

"But to really understand what was happening that day, we have to go back and explain what had happened up until that point."

This, my friends, is the most clichéd signpost of all clichéd signposts.

Don't do it.

At this point, most listeners have gotten used to the "e" structure. If you've built your story well, you probably don't even need a signpost.

And if you do need a signpost, please, please, please try to come up with something a little less awkward.

I say this as a person who just submitted a script that starts like this:
To really understand what an athlete goes through when they retire, we have to start at the beginning.

The very beginning.
It might be time for a rewrite.
"I feel I'm telling every story in a chronological way, but there must be more options than that, right?!"

Um...not really.

Okay, look. Not every story needs to start at the beginning and end at the end. I've heard lots of successful stories that start at the end...and even a few that end at the beginning.

But chronology is really, really important in storytelling. I don't quote Ira Glass very often, but when I do, it's usually this passage from Jessica Abel's Out on the Wire podcast.
Out on the Wire, Jessica Abel

"First of all, almost always it's chronological. Because if you tell a story in order, that's the natural way to tell any story. And you get the advantage of narrative suspense. That is, if you start to line things up, actions in a sequence of, like, this thing happened, that led to that next thing, that led to that next thing.

It raises the question, what's going to happen next. And narrative suspense is your friend as a writer. And you want to use the ancient power of that as one of your tools to keep people with you and listening."
It's fine if you want to pop out of sequence to give a tiny bit of backstory to the events that are about to unfold. No worries.

Or even if you want to skip ahead to let the listener known how a small question not relevant to your larger story arc turns out. That's cool.

But every time you tell a story out of order, you want to have a good (storytelling) reason to do so. You want to break chronology only when it's in service of the story -- and not just because you're bored of telling stories chronologically.

If you're looking for a challenge, there are plenty of ways to spice up your storytelling. Try some "e" structures and broken narratives. Find ways to connect the end of your stories to the beginning. Stretch your interviewing skills by producing a non-narrated narrative.

But just remember, chronology is your friend. If you find yourself leaning on it, that's a good thing!
"Knowing the difference between an anecdote and a story, and how to turn an anecdote into a story."

I'm tempted to say that an anecdote is generally between 30-120 seconds, while stories are longer.

And that's true. But that's not the whole answer.

A story is (generally) made up of anecdotes. There's more than one beat. Often, there's more than one moment of change.

More importantly, a story explores some bigger truth, concept, issue, idea, controversy or point of view. It's not just a sequence of events. There's a reason why the listener should care.

So how do you turn an anecdote into a story?

One way is to explore what happened before and after the anecdote.

So if someone tells a great anecdote about meeting their childhood idol, you might ask them to tell you about the first time they saw that person on TV or the most embarrassing fantasy they had about meeting that person.

And then, maybe, instead of just asking them to reflect on how meeting their idol changed their view on...something, ask them for an anecdote or two that illustrates that change.

In other words, hunt out anecdotes that lead directly to -- and were a direct outcome -- of the anecdote.

Another option would be to take a broken narrative approach and bring in the big picture to give your listener a reason to care about this otherwise small-ish sequence of events.

And truthfully, sometimes you can just make a whole story out of what is, essentially, a single anecdote.

When I teach, I love sharing this example from This American Life. It's funny and fun and short, and it proves that a narrative doesn't need to be long to make an impact.

But as I write this, I'm thinking back on this narrative interview with a Black woman who experienced racism at a Florida swimming pool. It is, essentially, one anecdote. But because of the subject matter, and the details the woman shared with me, it stood quite well on its own.
Okay, friends, that's all for this week. I hope to see you in the workshop on Sunday. And, as always, if you have a question you'd like me to answer, go ahead and reply to this email and let me know.

It works. I promise!