A Blueprint for Story Structure
Okay, confession time. For the first roughly 20 years of my radio career, I never thought about story structure.

I mean, I had a formula. It went something like this.
  • Start with nat sound/ambience. Set the scene. Where are you? What do you see? What do you hear?
  • Try to avoid saying, "It's [time of day] on an [adjective] [day of the week]." Way, way too many stories start that way!
  • As soon as possible, find a reason to use your second best sound bite. Because you're saving your best sound bite for last.
  • Then, put the rest of your good sound bites in order. Mostly organized by theme and/or speaker.
  • Finally, come in with that killer ending sound bite. If you can, follow it up with some narration that says something about what might happen next.
And look, there's nothing inherently wrong with this kind of structure. It has its place.

That place is generally as part of a news-magazine style radio show. So if you're working for one of those, this structure is gonna serve you pretty darn well.

But that's not what I'm talking about when I say I want to help you become a better storyteller!

Narrative stories have structure. That structure is usually based on chronology -- almost always using foreshadowing, tension, suspense, surprise, and all those other great tools of storytelling.

Narrative structure not something you necessarily see -- or hear. But it's there, under the surface, holding everything up.
Cool construction photo by Photo by Ashkan Forouzani on Unsplash.
Lots of narrative stories start in the middle, at a point of tension.

Some start at the end — with some recent breaking news — and then rewind to explain how we got here.

Heck, some even start at the beginning and tell the story straight thru to the end. Then they call back to the beginning again, taking the story full circle.

All of these are viable options. And there are dozens of other, smaller ways to "break chronology" in your mostly chronological story structure.

I explain many of them in my WTF is Story Structure workshop! More details at the bottom of this newsletter.

So with all of these perfectly good options, how do you choose your narrative structure?!?

Ask a dozen audio storytellers this question, and you're likely to get a dozen different answers. But here's how I do it.
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Step 1: Figure out what you want your story to say.

A story isn't just a collection of anecdotes. A story needs to have a point.

A takeaway.

It needs to MEAN something.

We can disagree on how explicit you need to be in explaining that meaning. Some shows like to spell it all out for the listener. Others like to take a more subtle approach.

But YOU need to know what this story means to YOU. You should be able to explain the crux of it in just a sentence or two.
Here are some examples for folks who have listened to Believable: The Coco Berthmann Story.

Episode 1: Coco's rise to fame as an influencer and how all was not the way it seemed.

Episode 2: How Coco used religion and faith to make her story more believable.

Episode 3: How Coco would probably still be an advocate, instead of facing jail time, if not for the "little" lies she told.

Episode 4: Coco's childhood in Germany and how she built her lies on top a mountain of truth.

And on and on and on…
You're probably not going to know the meaning of your story before you begin your reporting, and that's okay. That's why we actually do the work of talking to people and gathering tape!

But by the time you sit down to write, you should have a strong sense of what you're trying to say.

If not, take a little time right now to figure it out. I promise you, this is going to save you a ton of time later.

When you don't know what you're trying to say, you end up going down a lot of the wrong paths. You write page after page after page, only to second guess yourself and start over again.

So start by figuring out your purpose.

Unless you enjoy being inefficient?!?

In which case, you do you.

I'm not here to judge.
Step 2: Choose your opening scene or anecdote.

There is soooooo much that you need to accomplish with the start of your story.

You need to pull listeners in. Get them hooked.

This is your #1 priority.

But you absolutely cannot do it at the expense of all the other things the start of your story might need to do.

Things like...

  • introducing your character(s)
  • setting the scene
  • establishing your voice
  • introducing your theme(s)
  • setting the stakes

Most importantly, your opening anecdote needs to set the stage for the MEANING of your story.

You don't necessarily need to introduce your takeaway here, though you certainly can.

But you need to make sure your opening anecdote is pointing in the right direction.

Here's an example of what can happen when this goes wrong. And apologies to the producers of this story—who will not be named here! I totally understand why they made the choices they made. It just really didn't work for me.

(And, if you're my mom, please stop reading now. Those who continue on will understand why…)

Okay, so the story opens with a woman talking about how, when she was a teenager, she stumbled upon her mother's secret romance novel collection.

Her mother's VERY explicit sexy romance novel collection!

The woman reflects on how it was the first time she realized that her mother was a sexual being. And that it was weird, but it made her understand her mother better.

The woman grows up, gets married, gets divorced … and then starts a business for woman that helps them improve their sexual health.

So far so good.

But then, the woman hides her new business from her mom … because she thinks her incredibly prim and prudish mother would not understand.


I literally found myself wondering, did she get a new mom? Did her mom hit her head and wake up with a completely different personality??

Like I said, I understand why the producers chose to start the story with the woman's discovery of her mom's secret reading habits. That anecdote was engaging. Engrossing.


And it really endeared me to the woman — who happened to be the story's main character.

But by beginning the episode with what might have been this woman's only hint to her mother's private life — instead of any number of examples of why this woman thought her mother was prim and prudish — the producers give the anecdote too much power.

The listener is going to come away from the opening of the story believing that mom was — at some point — a wild child. And as the story progresses, we're not going to understand why her daughter can't see her that way.
So yeah. Pick an opening scene or anecdote that points the listener in the right direction.

Unless you're building a story based on misdirection?

Hey, it happens...

Sometimes even successfully.
Step 3: Choose your ending scene or anecdote.

This can actually be done before, during, or after you pick your opening scene/anecdote.

The point here is that these two elements should be chosen in tandem.

I'll be the first one to admit that you might not stick to this choice. Maybe, along the way, you will "find" a better ender. And that's okay! You can change your mind!

You can ALWAYS change your mind.

But you don't want to write all the way to the end, only to discover that you sailed your storytelling ship in the wrong direction.

So before you start writing, you need a course heading. Something you're pointing to.

And it should go without saying that your ender should reveal something about the point of your story. Even if it's just subtext.

Now is not the time for non-sequiturs.
4th and Final Step: Arrange your tape chronologically, except when you have a good reason not to.

Yep, we're only on step 4 and we're already done! How easy was that?!?

Okay…I'm kinda joking, because Step 4 can be a long and complicated task. But, you're going to make it much easier if you pay really close attention to chronology.

Chronological stories have built in suspense. By their very natures, we don't know what's going to happen next.

So as you choose how to arrange the rest of your story, I want you to be asking yourself the following questions:
  • Is each scene/anecdote within my story unfolding chronologically? Often this involves re-arranging your tape, because it's really common for interview subjects to give away the end of the story at the beginning.
  • Are the scenes/anecdotes themselves in chronological order? If not, is there a good reason? What am I gaining by revealing C before I've mentioned B?
  • Does every scene/anecdote in my story support my MEANING? If not, you probably need to delete it! Or…figure out a way to re-cast it so that it DOES support the meaning of your story!
  • Do I need to pause my story in order to explain something important? If so, where's the best place to do it?
Okay, I'll admit, it's a long-ish list.

And here I am, trying to pretend that this part of the process is easy-peasy.

In reality, it is work. And the only way to make it happen is to put in the effort.

But here's the thing: complete these steps and you have a fully structured story.

And yeah, there might be changes you make during writing and editing. But if you've followed these steps, you'll start from a place that MAKES SENSE.

And really. That's the hard part. The rest is gravy!
I've been getting a lot of questions about story structure lately. So, as promised, I'm running my WTF is Story Structure workshop again in April.

This is a really fun 2.5 hour workshop. I'll be taking you through some common narrative story structures using one of my favorite movies, The Princess Bride. We'll also work through some exercises as a team. And, as always, we'll listen to lots of great examples from other podcasts and save a bunch of time at the end for your questions.
WTF is Story Structure
Date: Sunday, April 7
Time: 1:00-3:30 pm Eastern
Cost: $50

Get your ticket now!
I know there are a lot of folks out of work at the moment. So if this workshop is outside of your budget, please reply to this email and let me know. I have limited spots available at free or reduced cost, and I would be happy to send you a discount code.