A Song of Sound and Story
Hello friends,

As I mentioned in my last newsletter, the never-ending cycle of bad news has been getting me down.

Like, a lot.

So, I decided to do the thing I tend to do when reality feels too real. Retreat into a fantasy world where things are much, much worse.

To that end…I just finished binge watching all 73 episodes of Game of Thrones.

Yep. All 73.

In about ten days.

I'm obsessive like that.

And look, I know there's nothing new about the suggestion that Game of Thrones did a lot of things right (and a few things very, very wrong) when it comes to storytelling. The show was an international sensation for a reason.

But I can't watch anything without paying attention to the use of sound and story. It's a side-effect of doing this job for so long. And even though the show was cinematic fiction, and I make audio non-fiction, many of these techniques I saw used in the show are 100% useful in the work that I do.

So I thought I'd tell you about some of the things I noticed.

But don't worry. You don't need to have watched Game of Thrones to enjoy this newsletter. And I'll try my very best to avoid actual spoilers, in case you – like me – are really, really late to the GoT party.
You might recognize that famous mountain behind me from Season 7, Episode 6. Cool, right?
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Let's start with the good, okay?
Center the Story

Through all the gory battle scenes. All the uncomfortable moments. All the beauty shots of dragons flying through the air. Story was central.

To illustrate this point, I'm gonna use a moment from the abysmal series finale.

(Seriously, this thing was so terrible, people are still writing about it. Spoilers at the link.)

But towards the end of the episode, a character I really, really liked (no spoilers, remember) gives a speech. And he says…
What unites people? Armies? Gold? Flags?

Stories.

There's nothing in the world more powerful than a good story.
Look, I am ALL IN on this concept. I use something similar in my LinkedIn profile.

And the truth is, except for the aforementioned problematic series finale (and a few more issues with the final season as a whole) Game of Thrones really did manage to center the story.

When you think about it, this is really really rare. In television... and in podcasting.

Far too often, we get the balance wrong. We accidentally cover up emotion by using too much sound design. We over-hype a turning point and steal the power out of that moment. Or we over-analyze with long, rambling graphs about what it all means.

There are a lot of ways to screw it up.

But if we remember to always center the story, we're gonna have a much better chance of getting it right.
Focus on Details

Okay, so it'll be no surprise to learn that there are a LOT of battle scenes in GoT. Tens of thousands of people on one side. Tens of thousands of people on the other.

But along with the wide, sweeping shots of people lined up in row after row, the camera also focuses on the smallest details. The hilt of a sword. Horses hooves.

Those details help you connect emotionally with the scene. It's not just two opposing armies. It's people. Preparing to do battle against other people. (Or possibly the undead.)

Similarly, if I'm creating an audio scene where I'm walking down a busy street in the city, I'm not gonna just record the sound of the street.

I'm gonna get my microphone right up next to that delivery truck idling by the side of the road. I'm gonna seek out the speaker playing music in the outdoor cafe. I'm gonna capture the beep of the crosswalk. The chatter of the people on the street.

And then I'm going to use these sounds as "punctuating moments" in my soundscape. I'm going to place them, strategically, in the pauses between words.

This is what makes your sound design feel real. It's not just about the big picture. You also need the details.
End Your Episodes in the Middle
(Except when they end at the end.)


So, like a lot of serialized television shows, Game of Thrones has a habit of ending episodes on a cliffhanger.

But it's not like a 2-episode arc of NCIS, where you have to wait until the end of the second episode for them to solve the case.

Instead, the action ends in the middle of the next episode, leaving time to set up a new series of events…and a new cliffhanger.

This technique works great when it comes to keeping a podcast audience engaged over a multi-series arc. (If you want an example of a podcast that uses this technique a lot, check out the BBC's Tunnel 29.)

But, I wouldn't suggest doing it all the time. Because then folks like me will catch on. And they'll start pausing episodes in the middle.

Because otherwise they'll never be able to get to sleep!
Embrace the Gray (or is it Grey?)

In Game of Thrones, there are mostly evil characters. And mostly good characters. But no one is wholly evil or wholly good. They're all various shades of gray.

(Spelled g-r-e-y, if you're British.)

Most of us aren't working in fiction. Our characters are real, live people. We spend time with them. Get to know them. And quite often, we start to like them.

It can sometimes be uncomfortable to acknowledge their faults. To use bits of tape where they might come off as strange. Or unsympathetic. Or less-than-smart.

But the truth is, people are all of these things. They're silly and forgetful and strange. And they sometimes have opinions that are unpopular.

If we strip all of those things away -- because we want our listeners to connect with this person who is so central to our story -- we present only part of the picture. A sanitized version.

And you know what? The listener knows something is missing. They instinctively feel that void.

We connect with other humans, not in spite of their faults, but BECAUSE of their faults. So go ahead, let your characters have some!

(And if you're building a story around someone who is so full of faults that you just can't find anything positive ... look harder. I might be a Pollyanna, but I believe that everyone has at least one redeeming quality.)
Use Silence

Okay, I'm going to talk about the most talked about episode of Game of Thrones. Possibly some mild spoilers ahead. But unless you were living under a rock in June of 2013, you've probably heard at least passing mention of the "red wedding."

As the nickname suggests, many people died at the "red wedding." I'm not gonna tell you who died. Or even who got married. But for those who were watching the show as it first aired, it was a BIG MOMENT.

I remember seeing posts all over the internet the next morning. People were losing their minds. Like, seriously. They were freaking out!

It's a bit less shocking when you know it's coming. But still ... that episode is a thing.

But as I was watching this very famous scene, I couldn't stop thinking about the use of sound.

Yeah. Sound.

So if you happen to have HBO – and you don't mind spoilers – cue up Season 3, Episode 9. "The Rains of Castamere."

Fast forward to about 44 minutes in. Hit play. And close your eyes.

You'll hear a happy crowd. People celebrating. Upbeat, happy music.

The song ends with a flourish. And then you hear a couple of purposeful footsteps. Heavy boots.

And then the loud creak of a door. A big door. A heavy door.

As the door clangs shut, the din of happy voices seems to dip down for just a half second. Then you hear more purposeful footsteps. But this time, they're slowly moving closer to you. The band starts playing again, starting with the deep notes of a cello. The song is slightly sad. Slightly mournful. But not totally out of place at a wedding.

Okay, now I want you to fast-forward again. To almost the very, very end. About the 51-minute mark. Close your eyes and hit play.

There's a scream. Not of fear. But of sadness. Heartbreak. A slashing sound. A thump. One final note of music.

And then the scene gets really, really quiet. That last note of music lingers in the air. But it's faint. Footsteps. Another slash. Another thump.

And then silence.

Nothing.

If you were to open your eyes, you'd see the credits rolling.

Line producer. Executive story editor.

Silence.

First assistant director. Second assistant director.

Silence.

A long list of guest stars.

Silence.

Stunt coordinator. Assistant stunt coordinator. Dragon Unit. Wolf Unit.

A minute and 20 seconds of credits.

All in complete silence.

As podcasters, we can't use 1:20 of silence. People will think there's something wrong with their podcast app!

But we absolutely can and should consider punctuating a big moment with an enormous pause. One second. Two seconds. Maybe even three or four.

(Four seconds is a LIFETIME in audio.)

Silence is one of our most powerful tools. When you're scoring a big scene and coming up on the big moment, consider stripping out the music. Ditch the sound effects. Forgo the nat sound.

Silence tells the ear to perk up. Listen. Pay attention to what comes next.

Silence = power.
Find a F-ing Ending

Okay… I'm gonna tell you about the thing that made me really, really angry about the final episode of Game of Thrones. And I promise you. Zero spoilers here.

The final episode is 1 hour 18 minutes long. Nothing of consequence happens in the first 46-minutes.

There are a lot of overly long scenes of people walking around looking dazed. A couple of overly long scenes where characters reflect on the events of the previous episode. But nothing of consequence happens that hadn't already been happening in the previous episode.

Nothing.

At the 46-minute mark, we finally get some forward action. A scene where something actually changes. And it's quite a big change. Huge, even. (And highly problematic because of some plot issues from the previous episode. But that's a rant for another newsletter.)

But after all that boring lead up, I couldn't help but feel like it was a bit of a yawn.

5-minutes later (though it feels like an eternity) we get that speech I alluded to at the beginning of this newsletter.
What unites people? Armies? Gold? Flags?

Stories.

There's nothing in the world more powerful than a good story.
A few minutes after that speech, something BIG happens. In theory, it's the culmination of the entire series. Though again, it's a bit of a yawn. (And plot-wise, a source of much internet angst.)

As endings go, the moment is wholly unsatisfying. But, let's face it. Not every story ends the way we want it to – especially for those of us working in non-fiction.

Unsatisfying endings are kinda a thing. We have to learn to deal with them. Make the most of them.

But no. Game of Thrones plods on.

With almost 23 minutes to go, the show has another ending scene. A final conversation between two major characters. We're still not satisfied. But again, that's a plot problem. Not a storytelling problem.

The scene feels final. It feels like an end. But we've got another 20 minutes and 55 seconds to go.

So the writers tack on another final scene. It's mostly one person walking. (As if we didn't get enough walking in the first 46 minutes!) There's a tiny revelation about the future of one of the characters. The revelation is sweet. Could have been an end. But it's not.

With 19 minutes to go, we get the farewell scene. Nothing actually happens. Just a bunch of emotional reflection. It feels final. Like an ending.

But the damn show still doesn't end.

With 15 minutes to go, we get another ending scene. It's actually lovely. On its own, I would dig it. But there's zero forward action, and I'm bored.

Just over 13 minutes remain. Another ending scene. This one is funny! A little comic relief after all that darkness and drama! But there's zero forward action, and I really have better things to do with my life…

8 minutes to go. Another scene. Is this the actual end??

Nope.

It's another really long scene of people preparing to walk. And then walking. Lots and lots of walking.

(Despite all the walking, no one is actually getting anywhere. Zero forward action.)

5 minutes to go. A happy reunion! I should be excited to see this!

Instead, I yawn.

3 ½ minutes to go. The walking has been replaced by one of the characters standing on the deck of a sailing ship and another riding atop a horse. But still, nobody's actually getting anywhere. No forward action.

How many endings have we sat through now? Eight? 20?

Seriously. I've lost track. It's as if the writers couldn't think of a satisfying ending. So they kept writing new ones. Without bothering to go back and deleting the ones that didn't work.

Finally. Finally. A door closes. The music starts to perk up. We're still watching people walk. Without actually getting anywhere. But I'm pretty sure this is finally the end.

Finally.

Look… I know this episode won an Emmy. (Which is ridiculous.) And I know most fans hated it for the plot – the things that actually happened.

But I hated it for all my time it wasted without anything actually happening.

A bad plot, I can forgive. Bad storytelling is inexcusable.

And here's my point.

(There is a point here, I promise!)

There are so many podcasts and radio stories that fall into this same trap. They end. And then they end again. And then there's more reflection. Maybe another ending. Some analysis. Another end.

Before you know it, you've spent half of your final episode wrapping things up.

Yawn.

You get one shot at ending your story. One scene for reflection after the end of your forward action.

One.

All that great analysis and reflection? You don't have to get rid of it. You just need to find a way to work it into your story. Before your forward action is resolved.

All the things that happen after your story ends? Maybe you don't need them! Maybe you need just one of them? The one that tells best illustrates the "change over time" that your story focuses on.

Think about it. The last episode of Game of Thrones aired more than three years ago. And people are still writing articles about how bad it was.

Don't be like GoT.

Pick an end. It might not be perfect. But it's a heck of a lot better than not knowing when to shut up.
As always, please share this newsletter with anyone you think might enjoy it. And if you'd like to help support the hours I put into these silly rants, please consider joining the Narrative Beat community. And thanks!

Karen