Breaking the (Storytelling) Rules
The other day, something happened that is, quite simply, the stuff of nightmares – for us audio reporters, anyway.
It started out okay. I was sitting in on an interview, as the producer for an upcoming podcast. The reporter greeted the guest and jumped right in with the first question. The guest responded with a sound-bite style answer.
The answer was 50-seconds, start to finish. Textbook perfect for everyone who's ever gone to media training.
And, well, that sort of answer is great for live TV, but it's really awful for those of us in longform audio. We need our interview subjects to go deeper – to give us much more than a short sound bite.
So, the reporter did exactly what I hoped he would do in this situation. He said, "Tell me more about that. What happened next?"
And the guest did exactly as he was asked. He told us what happened next.
And what happened after that...and what happened after that.
He kept going, through twists and turns, anecdote by anecdote. He took us through years of developments.
Yes, I mean that literally. Years.
The guest kept talking. And talking. 53 minutes and 49 seconds later, he was still talking.
(We were recording, so I was able to go back and get an accurate time for you.)
At this point, the guest lost a little momentum. So the reporter did the proper thing. He interrupted, apologized for the interruption, and then asked a follow up.
The guest's response?
"I'm getting to that."
So the reporter and I sat back for another 19 minutes and 56 seconds. Until finally, the guest reached the conclusion of his story.
Except ... it wasn't.
It was all perfectly fine. Good, even.
This interview was never going to run as an interview — with questions and answers. It was always intended for cuts. We were looking for clips that would be used alongside other interview snippets, archive sound and reporter narration.
And what the guest was giving us? It was perfect for that! He offered anecdotes. Dialog. Some beautiful moments of reflection.
He made us happy. He made us sad. The whole range of human emotion.
There was absolutely no need to interrupt him with boring questions. He was on a roll!
This interview broke every rule in the interviewer's rulebook.
Every. Single. One.
And yet, it was perfect.
And this whole thing got me thinking. What other "rules" of audio do I love to break? And why do I love to break them?
| |No, I do not drive the wrong way down one way streets. But this lovely photo by Brendan Church on Unsplash felt like a good fit anyway.
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| |Couple Interviews
This is a "rule" that I've been breaking for quite a while. In fact, I've been breaking this rule for so long that breaking this rule…
…has become a rule.
Okay, so conventional wisdom suggests that if you're going to interview a couple, you should always interview them together – at the same time.
This can sometimes give you some insight into their relationship. You can capture some of their interaction. Which can be lovely.
But in reality – interviewing people together very rarely results in something memorable.
happen – almost every time – is that the couple in question tends to agree with each other. So, one person describes a series of events, and then the reporter turns to the other one and says something like, "Is that how you remember it?"
And nine times out of ten, the second person will say, "Yep."
"More or less."
They might quibble on some little detail. Something unimportant.
But when you ask them to describe the same series of events from their own perspective, they will almost always decline.
The truth is, sharing your perspective in front of your partner can feel really vulnerable. Especially if you've only just now realized that your experience differs from your partner's in some fundamental way.
But when you get them each alone and ask them about the same series of events, you can get a window into how they really felt.
The differences might be subtle.
Sometimes, they're really subtle.
But in those differences -- that's where the magic happens.
I saw a good example of this just the other day, in a promo for the new Netflix documentary, Beckham. Watch it here
– and notice the subtle change in perspective.
Of course, the producers have exploited the differences between the Beckhams…with over the top music and leading questions. But still, it's quite beautiful the way that incredibly subtle shift in perspective just changes everything.
I can promise, the producers absolutely would not have captured this moment if they were interviewing David and Victoria at the same time.
(Yeah, I'm on a first name basis with the Beckhams. Aren't you?)
On the other hand…
This newsletter is meant to be about BREAKING the rules. And interviewing couples separately has become my new rule.
So…when do I break it?
Well, obviously, if the couple in question really pushes for a dual interview, I'm not going to tell them no. And sometimes, that can result in its own kind of beauty.
For Believable: The Coco Berthmann Story
, we interviewed a former couple: Beth and Nicole. They were together for 15 years.
And as it turns out, the incident we wanted to talk to them about was the actual incident that ended their relationship.
And they preferred – actually preferred – to do the interview together.
There was something really heartbreaking about their desire to support each other as they relived this moment. It felt like it said something about their love and their continued respect for each other. So, of course, we agreed.
And the result was better than I could have imagined.
Pick a tense and stick to it. That's what you learned in 5th grade, right?
Except…no. Not in narrative storytelling.
In narrative, we switch tenses all the time.
But we don't, as a rule, switch tenses all willy-nilly. We do it deliberately. Intentionally.
And because I am me…I like to apply rules to my rule breaking.
(As an aside, I think I learned this concept from my Uncle Kirk, who loved to play Solitaire but hated to lose. So he had a bunch of rules about how to break the rules of Solitaire. They made the game a bit more fun, and a lot more likely – though not guaranteed – to win.)
So what are my rules for changing tenses?
Rule #1: Switch when the interviewee switches.
People have asked me whether they should ask their interview subjects to speak in the present tense, as a way to make the action feel more immediate.
Please, please, please. Do NOT do that.
In general, I am against telling people how to talk. It makes them sound awkward and uncomfortable. And it just isn't necessary.
However, if my interview subject switches to the present tense on their own, I will switch my narration to the present tense as well – so that we match.
Rule #2: Switch within an immersive scene.
For the most part, narrative stories happened in the past. And therefore, I most often use the past tense in my narration.
But there are times when I am intentionally taking the listener into a moment. Using archive sound or sound design to create an immersive scene.
So, while we are immersed in that scene, hearing the sounds that would have been heard in the moment, I'll switch to present tense.
And then, the second we take a metaphorical step back to reflect on the scene, I'll switch back to past tense.
Long Cold Opens
The first time I wrote a "Cold Open" for a podcast, my producer told me, "No more than two minutes."
She used her VERY SERIOUS voice. Two minutes. Not a second longer.
Of course, I wrote a cold open that was well over four minutes long. And she loved it.
We actually ended up adding some stuff to it. In the end, it was probably five minutes long.
Here's the thing about Cold Opens. They need to grab the listeners attention and let them know why they should spend their precious time with you. And so, yeah, they should be as short and snappy as you can make them.
But they also need to be immersive. Intriguing. They need to set the stakes for the rest of the episode and give the listener a reason to stick with you.
And that's really difficult to do in two minutes or less.
I have noticed that Cold Opens seem to be getting longer in the podcasts I'm listening to. It's not unusual to have 8-10 minutes worth of content before hearing the theme song and the name of the episode.
And I like that! But I do have a caveat.
If this is the very first episode of your podcast, you're gonna want to get to that "housekeeping" stuff a bit sooner. Maybe within the first six minutes or so?
That's because the end of the Cold Open is often your first opportunity to introduce the host and set up this whole shebang. If you don't tell listeners who you are and what you're up to to within a reasonable amount of time, you're gonna lose them.
| |Scoring with Voices
For as long as I can remember, there has been a hard and fast rule against using music with vocals when scoring podcasts.
It's a rule that I never thought I'd see successfully broken.
I'm actually not talking about podcasts that have an actual stand-alone theme song with lyrics, like my friends at Library Land
This kind of musical theme isn't exactly my cup of tea, but it doesn't actually break any rules.
No...I'm talking about the music we use for scoring. The music that plays during the podcast itself, underneath the actual content.
There are reasonable exceptions, of course. If you're doing a podcast about a rock musician who was mysteriously shot and killed
, you absolutely can and should use archive recordings of that musician's songs.
But I've long been of the opinion that anything that sounds like vocals -- even if it's just a synthesized chorus -- should be immediately rejected when choosing your musical score.
There's a very good reason why we usually do this. We don't want the music to "compete" with the content.
And especially when dealing with female voices -- or any voice that's in a higher range -- the mix can get really muddy when you have too many vocals on top of each other.
Just a quick note on that...
I could write an entire newsletter on the reasons why overlapping voices can be especially problematic for people with higher voices.
Basically, it comes down to the fact that there is a bias towards lower voices.
And that bias exists everywhere, from the microphones we use, to our "standard" EQ settings, to the way our voices tend to be perceived by those who are listening.
And I'd really love for all of this to change. But as long as the deck continues to be stacked against higher voices, we're gonna need to keep treating them with a bit of extra care.
So, anyway, scoring with vocals is something I have avoided my entire career. I have seen it as a hard and fast rule.
And you know what?
I was wrong.
I've recently listened to two podcasts that successfully broke this rule. Maybe you've heard these podcasts, too? They are The Retrievals
and The Girlfriends
Both of these podcasts have female hosts AND vocals in their main theme songs.
Not actual lyrics. I'd guess that these are probably synthesized voices. Really just "Ooohs" and "Ahhs."
But still, they are very prominent vocal sounds. And they're used in two podcasts hosted by women.
Why does this work?
For me, it comes down to intention. While these two podcasts are really different in a lot of ways, they both center around women coming together over a shared experience.
And so, having a chorus of women singing in the background really feels appropriate. It feels like it's saying something that could not be said with different instrumentation.
Most of the time.
I will say, I loved the voices as the main theme. You know what I'm talking about when I say "main theme," right? That's the piece of music that plays at the end of the cold open. And maybe again when you go to break. And sometimes at the end of the whole episode.
The main theme is most often used during really strong moments of your story. And for those moments, the female chorus worked just fine.
But…when it came time to hear a little bit of music come in to support one of the quieter moments, I would have preferred something without vocals.
Because the complexities of mixing voice over voice are real. It's not ALL a result of bias.
And to avoid allowing the music to compete with the content during these quieter moments, the music level had to remain quite low in the mix.
And when you find yourself having to duck music down that low, it stops being additive and just becomes a distraction.
Tickets are still available for our next Narrative Beat workshop. We're going to be talking about a topic very near and dear to my heart right now: serialized narratives.
We're gonna get into the nitty-gritty of making a serialized podcast. I'll be using some of the projects I've worked on as case studies, showing a behind the scenes view of how we brought it all together.
This workshop is gonna be a bit more advanced than some of my previous offerings. It's really meant for folks who already understand the basics of making a single story and want to know more about how to make an entire series.
These workshops have a limited number of tickets, and they often sell out. So don't delay.
I hope to see you there!