Binge Watch For Better Storytelling
Confession time. I am a binge watcher.

I cannot stand waiting for new episodes of my favorite shows to drop. I want to watch all the episodes ALL AT ONCE. No interruptions.

I'm the same way with my favorite podcasts. And my favorite books.

Don't even get me started on how long it took Diana Gabaldon to write Book 9 of Outlander.


The roots of my obsession might come from a childhood without television (really) where I'd come home from my weekly library visit with an armful of new books. I'd read the first one cover to cover and immediately start the next book in the series.

It's as if I was being conditioned for full immersion. No distractions.

But sometimes I think my binge reading/watching/listening habits help me identify interesting storytelling techniques. Moments where the decisions made by the storytellers really do help the story move along in interesting ways.

Or…maybe that's just a side effect of being a story editor? Hard to say...

In either case, I decided to dedicate this edition of the newsletter to my favorite recent TV binges, and what they've brought to mind about audio storytelling.

But…just a note before I get into all that!

There are still spots available for my upcoming workshop on Saturday, March 25.

I've been having so much fun putting this one together! All new slides. All new examples.

It's called How to Make a Story, and we're gonna zero in on process.

How do you turn a concept into a pitch? A pitch into a series of interviews? Interviews into a script? And finally…how do you add music and sound design to bring it all together?

This workshop is great for folks who are relatively new to audio storytelling. But I've also included tons of tips and tricks to help more experienced producers streamline their process and work more efficiently.

We'll meet on Zoom on Saturday, March 25 at 10am Eastern and at 4pm Eastern.

(Click the links above to sign up. And those are two separate workshops. Don't sign up for both!!)

Cost is $50 for 2 1/2 hours.

I try to keep the cost low for these things. But if $50 is prohibitive for you, let me know. I always save a few spots for those who can't afford to pay full price.

But for now, grab your remote, put your feet up, and join me on the binge.
Artistically blurry photo of a TV screen courtesy of Glenn Carstens-Peters on Unsplash.
Lockwood & Co

Okay, I get it. A supernatural dystopian series about ghosts, ghosthunters and teenage heroes might not be your thing.

But it is TOTALLY up my alley.

Even if you have no intention of ever watching the series, I suggest you watch just the first 8 minutes and 10 seconds of Episode 1. It's a master class in world building.

In those 8 minutes, we learn everything we NEED to know.

Not actually everything there IS to know. That would be too much.

But we learn enough. Enough to set a framework for all of the twists and turns to come. And it's all wrapped up in an entertaining series of events.

So, go ahead. Give it a watch. I'll wait…
Seriously, if you don't have images enabled for my emails, you're missing an amazing Sesame Street gif right now.
Finished watching? Great. Here's what I got from that 8 minutes and 10 seconds.
Lockwood is in charge, but he might be inept.
Lucy is new, but she's super smart...and a bit sassy.
Ghosts are real, and ghosts can kill.
Ghosts have not always been real/able to kill.
Only young people can fight ghosts.
Swords are involved…
A lot of important information is going to be revealed over the course of the next few episodes, but this is what you need to get started.

Nothing more. Nothing less.

As you're figuring out how to tell your stories, the biggest challenge can often be deciding where to begin. But if you think of that opening scene as your opportunity to build your world-view, it can help.

What does the listener need to understand, right up at the top? Do you need to introduce a couple of important characters? Or a status quo that might be unusual?

How do you give your audience the information they need, without boring them with Table Setting Disease?

Yeah, I totally stole that phrase from Eric Deggans' NPR review of new episodes of The Mandalorian. Eric describes Table Setting Disease as, "what happens when most of the energy in an episode is devoted to getting characters in place to tell the season's real story, while also giving the audience all the background info they need to understand what's going on."

I'm here to tell you that Table Setting Disease doesn't just apply to your favorite sci-fi/western featuring a hunky dad-type and an adorably green, baby-Yoda named Grogu.

It's totally a thing that happens in audio stories and podcasts, too.

So remember, give your listeners enough…but not too much.
Are you subscribed to Narrative Beat yet?
Subscribe now!
The Peripheral

Okay, just a side note before we get into this. I work in non-fiction storytelling. So I prefer to spend my free time consuming entertainment that has very little to do with actual reality. All of the examples in this newsletter will reflect this bias.

I apologize in advance.

That said, I looooved The Peripheral.

If you haven't heard of it, no stress. I stumbled upon it a couple of weeks ago, when I temporarily ran out of other things to binge.

The first episode of the series is, in my opinion, a great example of storytelling that relies on "good" confusion.

The series spends almost no time on world building. You're dropped right into the main character's day without much in the way of set up. And, truthfully, there are a lot of moments that don't quite make sense…yet.

But there are things that are familiar. A daughter caring for a sick mother. An older brother who's viewed as the black sheep. Video games. Misogyny. Poverty. Desperation.

The episode leans on those familiar themes and lets some of the other aspects of the story unfold over time. It's confusing. But under it all, there's a familiar beat.

In short, it's a "good" kind of confusing.

When I ran NPR's Only A Game, we'd have this debate all the time. Are we developing good confusion? Or bad confusion?

Good confusion adds intrigue. Interest. A reason why the listener might want to keep listening.

Bad confusion is a disaster. No one is going to stick with you through bad confusion.

How do you tell the difference?

This is where a fresh set of ears really comes in handy. Run your story past someone who's never heard it before. And then, don't just ask them if it was good or bad. Ask them to tell you the story, as they understand it. It becomes pretty clear, pretty quickly if your confusion is good or bad.
The Last of Us

Let's stop talking about beginnings and give a nod to endings. The season finale of The Last of Us was either brilliant or a disaster, depending on which review you read.

I am going to make the case for brilliance. (Though I really could have done with a better final moment. The credits started and I was, like, "WTF? That was the end?")

So the scene that has everyone up in arms is one where the Pedro Pascal character (Joel, aka The Mandalorian…I really do have a type) goes into full video game mode and picks off a bunch of humans. Real humans, not fungus-infected zombies.

Now I'm gonna set aside the question of whether Joel should have killed the humans. As a non-fiction storyteller, that's irrelevant. I don't have control over what my characters do. I only have control over how I choose to tell their story.

And in my mind, the storytellers chose perfectly.

I'm an audio producer. And it's the audio that really did it for me.

It's a gun battle. So, if this was reality, it would be incredibly loud. Bang, bang, bang, bang, BANG!!

But as Joel makes his decision, the sound gets muted.

There's no whiz of bullets going past Joel's head to make you worry about his safety. No heart beats or heavy breathing.

One of the reviews suggested that this made the scene unrealistic. That Joel should have had to fight harder to win the final battle.

But I saw it as a choice. If he's in danger, you might start rooting for him. You might see him as a hero. And there was nothing heroic about this moment.

There was no heart-thumping music to amp up the tension. Nothing that could make his success feel triumphant.

The score was sad. Mournful.

A lot of times, audio storytellers will match the music to the mood of the person telling their story.

If the interview subject is sad, we choose sad music. If they're feeling giddy, we find some energetic music to match their mood.

But there's a danger to that. I often think about one particular story I heard on an NPR-show-that-will-not-be named. It was told by a white man who broke pretty much every law imaginable while high on cocaine.

The story was re-aired in the wake of the George Floyd murder, as a way to illustrate the disparities between the way different people are treated differently by law enforcement.

It could have been powerful.

But the way the storytellers chose to tell the story, matching the man's frantic cocaine-filled energy with his frantic cocaine-filled actions…it felt to me like the storytellers were endorsing the man. Seeing things from his point of view.

The host came back at the end and said something like, "Don't try this if you're Black," and the real intention of the story was revealed. But by then, the damage was done.

By choosing to score the scene in a way that best took advantage of the action, the storytellers left the listener with the wrong impression.

It can be difficult to dial it back. To go small. Quiet.

Theres often a little devil on your shoulder saying, "Sound design is fun! Go big or go home!"

But sometimes the (relatively) quiet moments make the biggest impact.
That's it for this time. Forgive me if I'm quiet over the next few days. Season 2 of Shadow and Bone is about to drop, and I CAN'T WAIT.

In the meantime, don't forget to sign up for that workshop. These things tend to sell out, and I'd hate for you to miss your chance.

And if you'd like the opportunity to sign up for workshops before they're open to the general public, or if you're interested in any of the other (very limited) benefits of joining the Narrative Beat community, find more information here.

I'm not being modest when I say the actual benefits are limited. It's true!

But members help me pay the costs of publishing this newsletter, they subsidize the folks who are getting free or discounted admission to my workshops, and they have my eternal thanks.