Some Words to Consider
Hello friends,

I'm just gonna be really honest with you.

I have run out of words.
Empty page photo by Ashley West Edwards on Unsplash.
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I've never been one to have writer's block, exactly. Writer's block is usually caused by a lack of confidence, which often comes from a lack of preparation. As you know, I prepare...a lot. So when I finally sit down to write a script, I'm usually not at a loss for words.

But sometimes -- like today -- when I've already written many thousands of words and I have many thousands more to write, I out.

No more words.

So I thought I'd make today's newsletter about words. The words we use in narrative audio.

When I got my first job in public radio -- way back in 1991 -- I felt like I was learning a new language. Granted, it was a weird time for me. Freshman year of college. 3000 miles from home. I didn't know a single soul. And I had taken a work study job at the radio station, where I was asked to do strange things like cutting tape off of reels with a razor blade and carrying boxes out to the elevator … where they would stay … forever?!?

(True story: Boston University's College of Communication used to be a car dealership. The elevator is large enough to fit a car. At the time, WBUR was crammed into a tiny space with zero storage. So on my first day, my boss asked me to take some boxes out to the elevator. I said, "Then what?" He said, "That's it. Just take them to the elevator and then come back."

Those boxes were in that elevator for a looooong time.)

But I digress.

At WBUR, short pieces of bumper music are called "stings."

But I didn't know that. And, at the time, I was a huge fan of Sting. The musician.

I spent my first couple weeks sneaking into studios to listen to anything marked "sting." Only to Sting. I was disappointed.

That is, until I learned to cut a song down to "sting" length using a grease pencil and a razor blade. Then I created lots of Sting stings … and if you listened to WBUR in the early 90s, you probably heard some of them.

My point is, audio has a language all its own. And narrative audio, even more so.

So I'm going to propose a list of narrative terms and their definitions. But I'm just gonna go ahead and say, it would be impossible to actually make a list of all the terms used in narrative audio.

There are just too many. And different people use different terms. So, for example...

When I prep my audio, I prepare my "cuts." That's what I call the snippets of interview audio that have been isolated and edited for use in an audio story.

But they're also known as "acts" -- short for "actualities."

Unless you call them "sound bites." Or "audio clips." Or "selects."

I recently had a producer ask me for a "string out" of my "selects." I've been in this business for 30 years, but that was a new one for me!

No matter which phrase you use, you're talking about the same thing.

So that's all to say, these are the words I use, and what I mean when I use them. Maybe when you use these words, you mean different things? Or maybe you use different words?

(If so, please do reply back to me and let me know. I'm always looking to expand my vocabulary!)
Anecdote: A small series of events, followed by a moment of reflection
  • Often no longer than 45-90 seconds.
  • Look for stories that have beginnings and endings. See: firehose.

Character: Often, your main interview subject(s). But sometimes…

  • A historical figure.
  • A group of people with a shared experience.
  • A movement/trend/scientific theory/piece of legislation, etc, etc.

Dialog: Usually, when an interview subject recalls a conversation, word for word.
  • This is narrative gold! Seek it out! Use it!

Firehose: A stream of information that flows too quickly to be easily understood or digested.
Foreshadowing: Intentionally hinting at events that will unfold later in the story.
  • Helps in establishing tension/stakes.
  • Remember Chekhov's advice!

Narrative: A story told through a sequence of events.
  • Made up of a "propulsive set of anecdotes."
  • Describes change over time
  • With surprises!
  • And a satisfying resolution at the end
Note: Not to be confused with "narrated," which simply means that a story makes use of narration. Lots of narrated stories are not narrative.

Non-Narrated: A story that does not use narration.
  • Yes, it's totally possible to make a non-narrated narrative. See: Radio Diaries.

Pre-Peat: When a narrator says something a character or source is about to repeat.
  • Whenever possible, let your tape tell the story.
(Thanks to the fine folks at KALW's Audio Academy for introducing me to this term. So useful!)

Scene: A deep dive into a particular moment in time.
  • Often utilizes nat sound, archive sound or sound design.
  • Sometimes used interchangeably with "anecdote." But I generally think of "scenes" as being something I'm going to build out in more visual and auditory detail.

Signpost: A sentence or two that reminds the listener where they are in a story and where they're headed.

  • Especially helpful for stories that are long and/or complex.
  • Err on the side of having too many.

Structure: The shape of your story. What do listeners need to know first? What can wait? Where are you headed?
  • Popular structures include the "e," the "broken narrative," and a "story within a story."
  • Ask yourself, if this story was a movie, how would it unfold?

Story Beat: Each event in your "sequence of events."

  • Can be a full "anecdote" or a "scene."
  • Also might just be a sentence or two that describe how we get from Point A to Point B.

Tension/Stakes: What's at stake in the story? What could go wrong? Why does it matter?
  • The Moth says, "If your life is good and your life has always been good and your life always will be good, that's good for you...but it makes for a really boring story."

Theme: a larger truth / concept / issue / controversy / point of view.

  • You need at least one!
  • Try to avoid having more than 2-3.

Turning Point: The moment in a "sequence of events" where something important changes.

  • Especially important to drill down into these moments during your interviews.
  • Don't forget to ask for a "moment of reflection!"
Oh my gosh, there are soooo many more terms that I could try to define. But these are the big ones. For narrative, at least.

Maybe some day, when I haven't just written thousands of words with thousands more due tomorrow, I will write some of them down.


Resources I Love
KALW's Audio Academy
It's too late to apply for 2021-22, but there's always 2022-23!

Narrative/Documentary Style Podcasters Facebook Group
I was recently asked if there was a Facebook group for people like us. There is!