All About That ... Process
Hey friends,

It's beginning to feel like maybe, just possibly, spring will come sometime soon in Boston.

Of course, it's a trick. It's likely to snow again any day now.

But in the meantime, I will enjoy the milder temps and continue to think about the great cycle of rebirth and renewal. Which, when you think about it, is not all that different from the life cycle of a story.

So, I thought that's what we'd talk about this week. The series of steps I take to "work" through a story, from the proto-idea to that shiny baby draft I hand off to my editor.

In other words, my process.
Festive balloon photo by yang miao on Unsplash.
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Step 1: Find an Idea

Sometimes, a story begins as a topic. Something that's captured my interest. And then I have to go out and search for a narrative arc – a sequence of events that brings a new perspective to that topic.

Sometimes, I start with a character. Someone who's really interesting. And then I dig around in that person's history to figure out what story I want to tell.

But often, the thing that I find first is a really interesting plot point. One moment that makes me think, "How the heck did we end up HERE?" How did Jell-O become the dessert (and sometimes salad) of choice for fifties housewives? Why did an ultramarathoner decide to run 13,200 laps around his living room in the early weeks of Covid?

Basically, I start with something that's so odd, so compelling, that there's just gotta be an interesting story behind it.

And then I put on my research hat and find that interesting story.
Step 2: Sketch out the Arc

The difference between a narrative story and a traditional audio feature is the narrative arc. The sequence of events.

So quite early, I make sure I've got one. And the easiest way to do that is to sit down and write out a bulleted list of what happened. Story beat by story beat.

Story beats aren't a random collection of anecdotes. They should be propulsive. One should lead to the other, which brings us to the next.

Yes, you skip all sorts of unimportant moments along the way, but your story beats should look something like this:

  • This happened
  • Which led to this other thing that happened.
  • Which created this crazy moment.
  • But then, this other thing happened.
  • Which brought us to this other place.
  • Which brings us to where we are now OR the end of our story.
I want to make sure to find a few surprises. Some turning points where things change. Some semi-satisfying conclusion.

And if my story doesn't have those elements, it might not be a story at all.

That's okay. There are plenty more ideas out there.
Step 3: Search for Tension/Stakes and Meaning

A series of events isn't enough to make a good story. There has to be some compelling reason for the listener to care about how this all shakes out. That's where tension/stakes come in.

What was at risk?
What could have gone wrong?
Who was standing in the way?
When did it almost fail?


Once you've got your tension/stakes sorted out, you need one more thing: Meaning.

Look, I'm not one of those people who tells stories for storytelling's sake. I want there to be some sort of bigger theme/concept/controversy/concept/point of view. It can be subtle. You don't need to hold the listener's hand and say, "This is the moral of our story."

But you should give them something to walk away with. Some reason why this story will stick with them. Make them think. Maybe them reconsider how they look at something.

That's the goal. And it's worth working a little extra hard to get there.
Step 4: Write Questions

Okay, so now you have a list of story beats. A sense of what your stakes are. Some idea of what the meaning of your story might be.

Now you sit down and write out your interview questions.

Some people write questions word for word. Others just make a bulleted list of things they want to talk about. Use whatever method works for you.

But make sure that you have a question about each and every story beat. Every turning point that you know you're going to need in your story.

Try to ask questions that encourage your interview subject to tell stories. So don't just ask...

"How did the committee make that decision?"

Instead consider...

"Set the scene for me. You walk into the room for the committee meeting. Who was there? What was the mood of the room?"

"Take me through the debate. What were you saying? What was your opponent saying?"

Make sure you're asking an emotion/reflection question for each plot point. "What did you make of that?" "How did that make you feel?" "What were you worried about in that moment?" "What was it like to hear someone say that to you?"

You're going to want these "emotion" questions on your page, to remind yourself to dig deep. Don't be satisfied with just the facts. Emotions make your subject relatable. They make your story matter to people who will never experience the thing your interview subject went through.

So don't give yourself the opportunity to skip the emotion questions. Write them down. It's a lot easier to ask something if you've got it written down on the page.
Step 5: Do the Interview

Look, I'm a fan of efficient interviews. You don't want to sit down and talk for seven hours and walk away with 10 minutes of good tape.

In audio, we generally get one -- maybe two -- chances to interview someone. You can't keep going back to get the things you missed the first time.

So remember, you're in charge. It's your job to keep the conversation on track. Stick to the topics you want to cover. The moments you need to explore on tape.

Don't waste a lot of time getting someone's entire history. Stick to the moments/ideas that are important for your story.

If your interview subject mentions every plot point in their first answer, don't be satisfied with that. Go back and get more detail.

Sometimes they'll mention something you didn't know about. A moment that's important to your story that you didn't have on your list. If that happens, absolutely follow them down that rabbit hole.

But if they start talking about things that don't belong on your narrative arc, that don't give you a better understanding of the story you're trying to tell, go ahead and gently bring them back to the task at hand.

Be polite. Be nice. But be firm.

"That's really interesting. But today I really want to stick with X. Can you tell me about the day you did Y?"
Step 6 (Maybe): Edit Down the Sound

Okay, this is the most controversial part of my process, but I like to edit the sound BEFORE I send it to transcription.

Part of this is because listening back makes me more familiar with my sound and my story.

Part of it is because looking at 10 pages of transcription is 1000% less intimidating than looking at 20 pages of transcription.

But I'll admit, I also do this because I'm a really fast audio editor. So editing first doesn't really slow me down. If you're a slower audio editor, maybe this step isn't for you.

And that's okay. We've all gotta play to our strengths.
Step 7: Transcribe

Thank goodness for transcription services. Seriously. I have lost YEARS of my life to manually logging tape.

You're gonna need a word-for-word transcription of every clip you put in your piece. And you're gonna want a word-for-word description of the clips you don't use, because you're going to need those details to write your narration.

Trint is good, but it's expensive. Temi is also good, and a bit less pricey. Otter is free (with restrictions) but not nearly as accurate. Descript is terrible at actually transcribing, but really good for other things. I'm sure there are other options I haven't tried.

And if you absolutely have zero budget for transcriptions, try oTranscribe. You're still doing the whole thing manually, but at least you have some tools to start, stop, rewind 3 seconds, and start again. And it'll automatically drop in time codes.
Step 8: Structure

A lot of people try to go directly from transcription to writing, and I think that's a mistake. There are just too many options. Too many great sound bites to choose from. Too many different way to put them together.

I actually spend a lot of time in the structure phase. This is where I make all my big decisions. What is my arc? Where am I starting the story? Is it strictly chronological? Is it an e?

Do I need to pause the action to insert analysis? Explainers?

Am I following more than one point of view? More than two? Where do I switch perspectives?

Where are my tension points? Is there a good spot to break away for an ad break? How do I build my story so that people will stick through the ads and come back for more?

Depending on the complexity of the story, I might do this in a google doc. Or with post-it notes. Or on a trello board. I find it really useful to think visually here. To move things around in some sort of physical (or virtual space) until it all makes sense.
Step 9: Pull Tape

I know. I know. You really, really want to start writing now, but don't do it.

Resist!!!

Once you know how your story is going to move, now it's time to choose the actual sound you want to use. Not just the idea of the sound. But the actual clips.

Many people will wait until after they've written the story to pull their sound. They'll use the transcription to identify where the cut should start and where it should end. Where they should make edits to remove ahhs and umms and details that don't move the story forward.

But this is a mistake. Because then they write a beautiful script that's built around crappy sound.

They'll use a bit of tape that looks great on the page, but sounds utterly dull to the ear.

Or they'll pick what looks like the start of a sentence, but is actually crammed together with the sentence before.

Or an end that looks declarative, but really just peters out and doesn't land.

You want to pick your best sound now, before you start to write. And then, when you write, you know you're going to be writing around the strongest possible tape.
Step 10: Write/Edit

Okay, finally. It's time to do the thing you've been itching to do since the very beginning. Put some words on the page.

Don't worry too much about whether they're the right words. You can make them pretty later. The important thing right now is the ideas. Make sure they're all there. Make sure you've got your turning points and your emotion. Try to tease out the meaning.

Give yourself grace. Nothing you've ever read has been a first draft. Those writers you admire, they're not actually better than you. They've just had more practice and better editors.

So let your first draft suck. It's fine. You're gonna fix it later.

Write. Read. Rewrite. Repeat.

This is how I try to think about it.

The first draft is to get my ideas on the page.

The second draft is for clarity. Does any of this make sense?

The third draft gets rid of crap I don't need. And maybe adds in a few details I forgot to write about the first time.

The fourth draft makes it pretty.

Now I'm ready to share.

For me, I don't do this all at once. I write a section of the script. Maybe just the beginning. Then I go back and read. How does it sound? What do I need to change? Am I heading in the right direction?

Then I might write the second section of the script. The next page or so. When I get to a point where I don't know what to do next, I go back to the beginning. Read it all the way through. Make some changes. Narrow down my focus. Get a sense of what I'm really after.

Then, once I've made it back down to the part where I had left off, I often find that I'm ready to move forward again. The blocks that had held me back have lifted, and I know where I'm headed.

Repeat this enough times, and you've got a script that's in decent shape. Give it one last readthrough from beginning to end, to make sure it's working.

Congrats! You are now ready to share your baby with the world.

But not the WHOLE world.

If you have an editor, great. We should all have editors.

If you don't have an editor, who else could you ask? Who would be willing to read? To listen?

The goal is to find someone who has taste that you trust. But they should also be someone who's willing to be critical. Who's going to be honest about what's working and what's not.

That's the only way your work will improve.
One last announcement!

The next Narrative Beat workshop is just 10 days away. Sunday, March 27.

This is the biggie. The four hour version of my WTF is Narrative workshop. The class that takes you from concept to interview to scripting to sound design.

The class is limited to 30 participants, and at last count, there were just 10 seats remaining. So if you're interested, don't delay.

And don't worry. I'll be recording the workshop and making the recording available at a slightly reduced price. So if you can't make it this time, hold tight. I'll let you know when the recording is available.
Get your ticket here!