Assembling Furniture, Assembling Stories
Hello friends,

You know how I love my analogies. Pretty much anything and everything in my life is going to be compared to making stories.

This past week, I've spent a lot of time putting together my permanent office. Yeah, I know. I'm kinda late on this.

My life has been 100% work-from-home since June 16, 2020, when I was told my long standing job in public radio was coming to an end.

But hey, it's been a bit of a year and a half. And the sofa bed I wanted from IKEA has been on backorder since…pretty much forever.

Last week, the new sofa bed finally arrived. I also bought a little corner bookshelf -- for displaying things that make me look smart. And a bunch of orange throw pillows, minimal assembly involved.

As a result, I've been spending a lot of time sitting on the floor of my office with an allen wrench and a bottle of carpenter's glue. And that's given me a lot of time to consider the commonalities between making stories and assembling flat pack furniture.
Just a girl and her allen wrench.
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(Oh, and before I get too far with this silliness, if you're looking for more sound design tips, please scroll to the end of this newsletter. I received some fun ones from readers and friends this week, and I've included them at the end of this email.)

Okay, on with the analogy!
1. You wouldn't try to assemble furniture without looking at the instructions. Don't try to assemble a story without a plan.

Look, I know it feels like IKEA is asking you to do ALL the work yourself when they give you a box of pre-cut pressed wood, a bag of screws and an allen wrench. But the truth of the matter is, they've already done the hardest part.

They've figured out how this all fits together.

It would be madness to ignore the instructions and try to just cram everything together all willy-nilly.

Similarly, it's a bit bonkers to try to assemble a story without a plan. Sure, it can be done. But you're going to waste a whole lot of time going down roads that don't lead anywhere. (And you're likely to create a lot of unnecessary screw holes.)

Do yourself a favor and start by getting organized. You can use an outline, an assembled audio file or even a wall full of Post-It notes.

I'm not here to police your form of organization. I'm just here to encourage you to be more organized!
2. Don't be afraid to ask for help.

Look, those directions don't always make sense. And sometimes, I am quite sure, they are simply wrong.

And I'll admit, I am not quick to call the 1-800 number when I have trouble assembling a piece of furniture. I will try until my fingers bleed before admitting defeat.

But when making stories, I'm much quicker to ask for help. I'll ask a coworker. A friend. An intern. My best friend. My husband. Anyone I can find, really.

If I had a dog, I would ask him.

This isn't about asking someone, "Would you prefer X or Y?" They don't have enough perspective to answer that question!

Instead, it's about explaining a dilemma. The pros of going this way. The cons of doing that.

Sometimes, simply formulating the question can reveal the answer.

And sometimes, your coworker, friend or significant other will suggest an option you hadn't thought of before.

Either way, asking for help will get you out of the self-doubt loop that can totally ruin your day. (Or your week, your month, or your year.)

So don't put it off! Ask early and often. Ask me! I'm here.
3. It's gonna get worse before it gets better.

You know how the furniture arrived at your house, all neatly packed in boxes? Yeah, that doesn't last long.

Within minutes of opening the box, the contents seem to have multiplied. Suddenly, there's not enough space to stack all the pieces, and you're struggling to keep all those screws and fasteners in a neat, little pile.

If you're like me, you've probably got styrofoam bits in your hair.

It's a nightmare.

When you start to unpack the elements of your story, the same thing is going to happen. You're gonna be overwhelmed. It's going to seem impossible.

It's okay. You're gonna make sense of it all. I promise.
4. A little flexibility goes a long way.

Have you ever gotten to the part of the instructions where you're told not to tighten those screws all the way tight?

That's because sometimes, you need a little wiggle room to get two (or three, or four) big pieces to fit together.

The same thing goes for putting together a big episode – or a season of serialized episodes.

You're gonna want to maintain flexibility on some of the biggest questions until you see how everything fits together.

But once you've got everything aligned, you can go ahead and tighten those screws.
5. You might end up with a few extra pieces.

In furniture assembly, this can be a bit concerning.

But when making stories, this is actually part of the process. You're guaranteed to end up with lots and lots of bits and bobs that don't belong.

Some of those pieces will be absolutely beautiful. Works of art. And it will feel entirely wasteful to throw them away.

But when building a shelf, a gorgeous set of drawer pulls are just going to get in the way.

You know what I mean.

You're building one story. It has a structure. It has a purpose.

Don't ruin it by including a lot of extra elements – as beautiful as they may be – that don't enhance the story's arc.

Stick with the pieces that fit together.

And the pieces that don't?

Don't stress about them. You might find a project some day that's in desperate need of those gorgeous drawer pulls. And when you do, you'll have them. Because you never throw away your audio, right?

6. You will make mistakes. But you will learn from them.

Look, I can't tell you the number of times I've attached a piece backwards. Or upside down. Or used screw #N558825 instead of #N558835. (Seriously? Could we not just label these things A, B, or C?!?)

But the truth is, you're going to find yourself having to take things apart and put them back together again.

But here's the good news: reassembly is surprisingly fast and easy.

That's because you've learned from your mistakes. You have a clear path now. A clear sense of purpose.

The same thing is true of your stories.

I remember this one time, I sent a draft to a friend. I expected her to just sign off on it. After all, my editors had already weighed in and told me that they loved it.

Instead, she said that I was starting in the wrong place, putting the emphasis on the wrong part of the story and taking the wind out of my own sails.

At first I thought she was nuts. Everyone else loved this piece! What was she talking about?!?

Then I took a breath…and took a new look. And she was absolutely right.

But while her suggestion required a huge rewrite, it took me almost no time at all to implement. Once I knew what I was doing -- where I was putting the emphasis -- those new sentences almost wrote themselves.

So, yeah. Don't be afraid to disassemble your story and put it back together again. It won't take you as long as you think it will.

And it's totally going to be worth it.
Bonus: More Sound Design Tips
As promised, I wanted to share a few of the sound design tips I got from friends and newsletter subscribers since my last newsletter went out.
"Don't make it subtle." (I'm usually thinking of SFX here, but I guess I usually apply that to music and some ambi as well.) If it has a reason to be there, I want the listener to hear it, even if they're at the gym, or vacuuming, or whatever.

Bradford Rogers
How Not To Sail
Write with sounds in mind. When you're setting a scene, people tend to focus on the visual. But think about sounds, too. And it doesn't have to be literal. A hot summer day in the South might be buggy. Or a walk through the woods might pass by a stream.

Tina Tobey Mack
Sound Designer Extraordinaire (and my BFF)
One thing I like to think about when it comes to sound is can you add another piece of information, or even character, that isn't directly mentioned? You're not talking about the storm, but you hear the wind and a shutter bang against the house for example.

Robert Mattson
Messaging Effectiveness Coach and Consultant
I think about sound design the same way I think about story. In any good story, you'll have compelling characters, a vivid setting, and a narrative arc that includes tension, resolution, and release. Your music choices can play up the tension—or bring some much-needed release. My favorite moments in our Shelter in Place episodes are when the music surprises you, almost like a quirky uncle who walks into the room and suddenly makes you see everything around them in a new light.

Laura Joyce Davis
Shelter in Place
Speaking of Shelter in Place, Laura asked me to let you know that registration opens today for Shelter in Place's Kasama Labs audio storytelling course. Sound design will be one of the 16 modules. So if you're looking to learn, check it out.

That's it for this time around. As always, feel free to reply to this email and tell me all about your storytelling (or furniture assembly) struggles.

And, please, share this newsletter with anyone you think might enjoy it. Our little community is growing with readers from all over the world, and that makes me so happy. Thank you!