14 Reasons to (Maybe) Use a Signpost
Hello friends,

How about those Oscars, eh?

As I write these words, the world is still buzzing about the whole Will Smith/Chris Rock drama. My previously planned newsletter about signposts doesn't seem all that relevant.

Or is it?

The truth is, when Will Smith walked up on stage and slapped Chris Rock, it was a twist we did not see coming. It was a twist we did not immediately understand.

Heck, I've read multiple recaps of the incident, and I'm still not sure I understand it.

From a narrative standpoint, it was a twist that could have used a little signposting.

What's a signpost, you say?

I'm so glad you asked.

Signposts are the way we let the listener know where in the story we are and where we're headed to next.

Sometimes, they're a couple of short sentences.

And sometimes they're a single word or a phrase that can be dropped in...almost like a little breadcrumb to help the listener find their way through every twist and turn of our story.

Because surprises are great.

Confusion is not.
Lovely photo of a direction sign from Monty Allen on Unsplash.
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As a story editor, I'm usually pretty good at noticing the spots where the writer needs to reach out and hold the listener's hand.

But when I'm writing my own stories, I often need someone to point those moments out to me. To let me know that a big twist isn't landing. To tell me when I've sped ahead without giving the listener time to catch up.

So I've sat down and written out all the places in a story where I should consider using a signpost.

I've come up with 14.

But I've probably missed a few…
To Let the Listener Know Where You Are and Where You're Heading Next

This is the most basic and commonly used signpost. It's generally a good idea to drop one of these near the top of a story. And sometimes, they can be really, really explicit:

This is a story about…

Or they'll ask a question:

Why do…
How did…
When will…


But quite often, these signposts are a bit more subtle. They feel like part of the fabric of the story. Here's one I wrote for a podcast episode that's coming out later this week.

Over the past three decades, Dr. Fitz Hill has been researching how bias plays a role in the hiring of Black college football coaches. And unlike most social scientists, Dr. Hill has done much of his research from a vantage point inside the system.
To Set the Stakes

Every story needs tension. A hint that things could go wrong. Conflict. Or uncertainty. Or the suggestion that this sequence of events might lead to some larger impact.

We call these "the stakes."

But it's not enough for your story to simply have stakes. You need to let your listener know that they're there.

So if your stakes aren't clear. If your interview clips don't clearly lay out what was at risk, what could go wrong, why this story matters – then it's up to you to do it.
To Foreshadow Something That's Gonna Happen Later

Again, surprises are good.

Confusion is not.

Imagine the documentary that will one day be made about the whole Will Smith/Chris Rock thing. It might start with Will and Jada arriving on the red carpet, her bald head prominent. It would then flash back to the famous red table talk and the crying memes.

Then we'd learn about Jada's alopecia – how difficult it was to lose her hair. Previous times when jokes have gone wrong. Previous occasions where Chris Rock had crossed the line.

And then when the moment hit, it would have some context. We might still be confused. But we would be less confused.

Foreshadowing signposts are so useful. Not only do they help you avoid confusion, but they also keep the listener interested. They give a promise as to what's going to happen later.

Back, before it all went wrong…

And he might have gotten away with it, if not for what happened later.
To Draw Attention to Something IMPORTANT!

I'm story editing a seven-part narrative podcast right now that has, roughly, 1000 characters.

We've worked really hard to narrow down the names we actually need to use. But even then, some episodes introduce a relatively large number of names.

That's where a good signpost comes in…to help the listener remember names they really need to hold onto.

And remember that name. It's going to come up again later.

You can also use this trick with numbers and other details. Or even important concepts.

This distinction? Between X and Y? It would become a really big deal.

This phrase that her grandma used, "Very profound phrase goes here." She'd return to it again and again as she got older.
When the Story Comes to a Turning Point

Oh, how I love turning points. They really help to move a story along. To keep the listener guessing.

But as with any blink-and-you'll-miss-it moment, they do better with a signpost.

And this is when everything started to change.

And that's when it happened.

The thing that happened next? It would change everything.

And she realized, this was the moment she'd been waiting for.


Turning points are such an important part of your story.

Don't let them fly by without acknowledging them.
When the Story Moves On…

When you've finished up with one character or arc in your story, but the story isn't over yet, think about using a signpost.

Look, I'm not gonna lie, the most often signpost I try to use in this scenario is the simplest one.

[music]

But the truth is, a little bit of sound design generally isn't enough. The listener keeps wondering what happened with that other character or series of events. And that anticipation distracts them. Makes them confused about where you're headed next.

Sometimes, you can accomplish this transition by bringing the story all the way into the present, finishing out the arc of that character (or characters.) Then, all you have to do is signal a jump back into your main timeline.

Speaking of which…
When the Story Makes a Big Jump in Time

This is another biggie. A signpost you should be considering often. In the scenario I described above, all you need to do is signal that you've returned to your original timeline.

And that brings us back to YEAR, when X was working on Y.

But more often, you're not going back to a moment you've already mentioned. Instead, you're skipping ahead a year, two years, 25 years.

When this happens in print, the date is usually enough.

In 2021, so-and-so did such-and-such.

But in audio, it's really hard for the listener to hold onto dates. They've probably already forgotten where this story is on the timeline. So you've gotta do the math for them.

In 2021, four years after X, so-and-so did such-and-such.
Every rule has to have an exception, and this is mine when it comes to signposting.

Many of us structure our stories as an 'e.' Meaning, we start at some exciting moment (maybe it was yesterday) and then we jump back to the beginning to explain how we got here.

When this technique first became popular, we all thought we had to signpost it. So you heard a lot of really explicit signposts that sounded something like...

But to really understand what was going on, we have to go back and explain it from the beginning.

Ugh. It just feels so heavy handed. And totally unnecessary. Listeners are used to the 'e.' They understand what you're doing. Use a music cue to mark this transition, and save your signposts for times when they're more needed.
When the Story Returns to Something You've Already Mentioned

Okay, I've just told you that you probably don't need a signpost at the first big time jump of your 'e' structure.

But when you come back around to where you started? Yep. Gonna need a signpost for that.

That brings us back to that moment I mentioned earlier.

And that's how so-and-so ended up believing such-and-such.

And this is when X decided to try doing Y.

A lot of reporters will try to skip this signpost. But that leads to a lot of confusion. Is this the moment we were talking about earlier. Or did it happen twice?
To Remind the Listener of Something They've Already Learned

People usually listen to audio while they're doing something else.

Driving in the car. Walking the dog. Doing dishes. Doing yardwork. Going for a run.

Truth is, your rarely have the listener's full attention. And sometimes, you're going to have to remind them of something you've already told them.

But if you just say that thing again, it's going to sound like a mistake. Like you don't remember that you've already said this part. And so, the shortest, most useful signpost was born.

Remember…

Yep, that's it. That's all you need. Just signal to the listener that you've already mentioned this part. It's not new. You're just saying it again because it's important to the story RIGHT NOW.
When You Want to Underline a Big Idea

Ugh, this is probably the signpost I miss most often. I expect that if my listener has been following along, they know when I've gotten to the most important thing.

But the truth is...

1. They aren't listening as closely as I'd like them to. They're probably walking the dog or doing the dishes or driving a car. They might have missed the significance.

2. They don't have all the information. Sometimes, the "big idea" is clear to me because of 1000 details I don't have time to put into my story. But the listener doesn't know those details. So they might need a little help

Sometimes, you can do this quickly by asking the question you're about to answer.

What was the connection? The connection was...
Why did this matter? It mattered, because...
What did this mean? It meant...


Or you might just want to "shout it out."

And this was really important, because…
And this was a huge deal, because…
And this was the whole reason why this crazy thing was happening.
To Get Listeners to Stick With You Through the Less Exciting Parts

Okay, first off, we're all working to make sure that every single sentence of our story is as interesting, as fun, as informative, as clear and as emotionally gripping as it can possibly be, right?

Right???

But yeah, sometimes, there are boring parts. Let's be kind and call them "less exciting" parts.

If you know that you're about to enter one of these sections of your story, consider giving your listener a reason to stick through. Usually, it's a little piece of foreshadowing. Or a reminder of the stakes. Or even a call back to your big idea.

Let them know that you are headed somewhere. You have a purpose. You're following a map. They can trust you. It will be worth it in the end.
To Help the Listeners who Might Have Zoned Out for a Few Seconds

For reasons I've already mentioned, people zone out all the time. And so your story is a balancing act.

You don't want to waste the time of the people who have been paying attention. You have a story to tell, after all. And if you're just signposting all the time, you're never going to get anywhere.

But sometimes, a story is so complex or so confusing that it really helps to sum things up. Really quickly. Hopefully, with a sense of humor.

Okay, just to recap…
For those playing along at home, the score is…
When You Need a Content/Language Warning

Okay, now this is next level signposting.

I've long been aware of the fact that content warnings serve as foreshadowing. Sometimes it's unartful, like when Netflix pops up a warning about "strong sexual violence" at the beginning of my show about butterflies. It gives away the twist.

But the fact is, content warnings are important. And foreshadowing is important. And when you can artfully combine the two, it's really brilliant.

I heard a great example recently when I was listening back to On Our Watch.

The first episode starts cold, with no explanation of what's happening. You hear police officers knocking on a door. Interacting with someone who called 911.

The host comes in to help move the story along. We hear a touch more tape, a note of ominous music, and then she says:

A warning, this story contains explicit language and audio of a violent interaction with police.

It actually takes the story a little while to get to that "violent interaction." There's quite a bit of lead-up and background and other housekeeping I might not want to wade through if I didn't know where this story was heading.

But the content warning gives me a reason to keep listening. I know this interaction is going to be important.

Speaking of which…
To Encourage Patience

When writing narrative stories, we're constantly holding back information. Some of that information might be something the listener really, really wants to know right now.

Right now!!!

That's a good time for a signpost.

We're going to get to that, but first…
Before I tell you about X, I want to introduce you to Y.


It might seem silly, but these types of signposts really help the listener stick with you. They're not wondering, "Wait...what happened?"

Instead, they're actually listening to the next section of your story.
Hmmm...I've written well over 1000 words, and I haven't even started answering the question that inspired this whole newsletter. That question was…

How and when do you decide to use signposts in narrative storytelling?

The friend who sent me the question wanted to know the process of signposting.

Like, do you put them in right from the start? Add them when you're polishing your script up for your editor? Or, do you add them when your editor suggests when and where the signposts should go?

My answer is…all of the above!

It's never a bad time to start thinking about signposts.

Seriously. Sometimes, when I'm pulling my tape (which I do before I write my script, remember?) I will find myself throwing some roughed out signpost ideas into my script, just so that I don't forget later.

Once I start to actually write my script, I try to add signposts as I go. But often, I find myself adding a few more as I'm getting ready to hand my script off to a second set of eyes.

And yes, because I'm really bad at signposting, my editor is generally going to suggest a few more places where signposts should go. Or, they might just point to a part of my script and say, "I'm lost." Or, "I don't understand." Or, "This moment doesn't feel important to me."

That's when I try adding a signpost. It might help!

And look, I totally acknowledge that this is the way it works for me. I am an under-signposter. So my editors are constantly having to add more signposts in.

But as an editor, I have encountered scripts that have too much signposting. That hold the listeners hand just a little too tightly.

Frankly, it can feel patronizing.

So the key, as always is moderation. And knowing your own failings.

If you, like me, are someone who doesn't signpost enough, consider challenging yourself to make signposting a more consistent part of your process. Write them down, whenever you might think of them. And go through during that final check, before you hand off your script to yoru editor, to see if there's anything you've missed.

If you're an over-signposter, and your editor is often telling you that you're wasting your time on unnecessary signposts, try to rein it in. Whenever you think of a signpost that you might want to add, ask yourself. Is this necessary? Is this helpful? Is it just that I haven't told this story well, and if I fix the problems with this story, will I still need a signpost?

Because the truth is, I've given you 14 kinds of signposts you might consider using in your story. But if you use ALL of them, even in a story that's 30 minutes or an hour long, it's probably gonna be too many.

Way, way too many.
Announcements!
A few things...

First of all, last Sunday's WTF is Narrative workshop was a huge success. (Except for the fact that my Zoom suddenly crashed…four times! Ack! Does anyone know why Zoom hates my brand new Macbook Pro?)

To anyone who attended, the video is now available for re-watching. (Don't worry. I've edited out the parts where Zoom crashed.) Just sign into your Tixoom account and you should see the option to view.

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More soon!

Karen