The (Mostly Silent) Sound of Structure
I recently taught a class on story structure, and someone asked me what should have been a very simple question.

"What podcasts would you recommend that have great structure?"

Oof…I was not prepared for that one!

For the life of me, I could not think of a single podcast that I enjoyed because of its story structure. I fumbled around a little until I said something like, "I think I'm gonna have to think about this one for a while."

And yeah, one of the things I love about having a newsletter is that when I really whiff on the answer to a question in one of my workshops, I get a second chance to answer it here.

So here's what I wish I would have said:

"When done right, story structure should be invisible. I shouldn't notice it...unless I go looking for it."

Asking someone if they liked the story structure of a podcast is a bit like asking someone who's just bought an older house whether they're happy with the work that the plumber did during construction.

I mean, unless you actually saw the house being built, the only time you will actually see the pipes running through your walls is when something goes wrong.

But if water comes out of your faucet every single time you turn the knob, and that faucet never drips, and if the pipes inside the wall are watertight and do not leak, well, then…you're gonna say that you're happy with the work that the plumber has done.

The same is true of the story structure of your story. The purpose of your story structure is to give the listener exactly what they need – at the exact moment that they need it. No more. And no less.

Just like the perfect stream of water coming out of that faucet.

Photo of a bathroom faucet by Sasikan Ulevik on Unsplash.
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And just like plumbers use pipe cutters and tube benders and thread sealing tape when they're doing their jobs, we have a bunch of different story structures and techniques to fall back on.

Is the chronological start to your story a bit predictable – but still 100% necessary? Then you probably should consider an 'e' structure.

Do you have two protagonists or two timelines or two major themes? Maybe this is a Dueling Narrative or a Story within a Story?

Do you need to explain bigger concepts in order for your listener to really feel your story's emotion and impact? Consider using the Broken Narrative.

Are you having trouble setting the stakes for your story? Maybe it's time for some foreshadowing!

Does your story take a lot of twists and turns? You might need to add a signpost.

Is there a reason (besides ego) to include your reporting process for this story? Let's talk about the Journey of Discovery.

We use all these tools. But if we're doing our jobs right, the listener is never going to see (or hear) them.

But I promised my class that I'd write up a list of podcasts to check out for their story structure. And that's what I'm going to do!

And I'm just gonna say this now. All of these podcasts are totally worth listening to. But some of them are on this list because of what they did wrong (IMO) rather than what they did right!


I know it's almost a cliche at this point to say that you loved Heavyweight, especially in light of its inexplicable cancellation. But Heavyweight has been a favorite of mine since Jonathan first recorded one of his phone calls with Jackie.

Jonathan Goldstein and his team are brilliant at structuring stories. First of all, by definition, episodes follow a "Journey of Discovery" model, which can be tricky to pull off.

But more importantly, I never feel like I'm overwhelmed by too much information all at once, or bored by the story moving slowly.

There are surprises, but I never feel like I've been tricked. And the script has always laid the groundwork for the big reveal, so that I can feel the emotion of that moment straight through to my core.


Yeah, it's been almost 10 years since it came out, but I recently had reason to go back and listen to the first episode of the first season of Serial. And friends, it's still so, so good.

This entire season is Sarah Koenig's "Journey of Discovery." And there's a lot that she uncovered along the way.

But even though we're given the impression that we're learning things in the same order that Sarah learned them, I don't think that's actually true.

Because if you really pay attention to the structure of this podcast, you'll see that there are themes to each episode.

The example that I really remember, all these years later, is the episode that's dedicated to cell phone towers. How Sarah got access to the cell phone tower records. How that data was interpreted at the time. How it should be interpreted now that we understand more about how cell phones work.

Now, I don't think for one minute that Sarah and her producers paused their entire investigation when the cell phone tower records arrived so that they could understand everything about them all at once.

No, they got this information and pursued it, while also gathering other information and talking to other sources about other things.

But for the sake of the listener, all of the cell phone tower information was laid out at once, as if Sara discovered it all at the same time.

Because boy howdy, that info would have been tough to follow if it was all split up!

Ghost Story

Okay, I do have a quibble with this podcast, and it has nothing to do with the story structure.

My quibble is…it's not really a ghost story. I mean it is...but it is SO MUCH MORE than that.

And here's the thing I loved about the story structure for this podcast. Once you get through the necessary setup of the first episode, the podcast keeps flipping the script.

One episode will totally make you think that a certain person is guilty of murder.

And the next episode will completely exonerate him.

But wait!

New evidence comes up in the next episode, or someone suggests a new way of looking things, and now you're right back to thinking that the dude is totally guilty.

Until you hear something in the next episode that makes you think he's not!

Each time, the host really LEANS into the presumed guilt or innocence. And the listener is given time to reflect on all the emotions that come up as a result.

And then the next episode, we do it all again…with the opposite conclusion.

So. So. Good.

The Ballad of Billy Balls

Okay, we've reached the part of this list where we venture into "great podcasts that had at least one leaky pipe" territory.

I loved the Ballad of Billy Balls. The storytelling is thoughtful and insightful and beautifully raw. Really incredible.

But I almost didn't make it through the second episode, because of what I felt was a flaw in the episode structure.

So, if you haven't listened yet, I recommend that you do. And during those first two episodes, I want you to take note of when you first start to feel that the main interview subject is not a reliable narrator.

For me, that moment came within minutes of first hearing her voice.

And that's fine. We hear from unreliable narrators all the time. And I was good with it…for most of the first episode.

But keep listening for that feeling. How often do you feel it? Does it make you want to stop listening?

For me, I started to wonder why the podcast was giving this woman such a large platform. She was obviously damaged. And very obviously not seeing things clearly. Why were we launching an investigation based on her say so?

If you're feeling that way too…no worries. It'll all be explained by the end of the second episode, and you'll be hooked – just like I was.

But, if I was the story editor on this project, I would have pushed for that big reveal to come quite a bit sooner.

The Retrievals

This is another really compelling podcast. At or near the top of sooo many "best of 2023" lists.

But for me, this podcast had a pretty big fatal flaw. And it relates to structure.

So, this is a podcast about a fertility clinic that performed a shocking number of egg retrievals without proper pain management, because a nurse had been stealing the fentanyl and replacing it with water.

To be honest, the whole thing was a bit slow moving for me. But I can forgive that. And I knew that Episode 4 was called "The Clinic."

The promise of finding out how this was allowed to continue for so long is what kept me listening through Episodes 1-3.

But when I finally got to Episode 4, I was supremely disappointed. Because despite their best efforts, the reporting team was unable to get anyone on tape to talk about how this could have happened. What could have gone wrong.

The host interviewed a number of people on background, and so she did have some information to share. But without tape, the episode just fell flat for me.

If I was structuring this podcast, I would have rearranged the episode structure, so that I wasn't left with an entire episode with almost no tape.

Shocking, Heartbreaking, Transformative

I have a lot of mixed thoughts about this podcast. I won't share them all here.

But my biggest quibble is with the basic structure of the episodes.

Near as I can tell, it was meant to be a four episode series that looked something like this.

Episode 1: Set up the idea that there is something wrong with the way documentarians approach their subjects and embark on an effort to find a better way. (So far, so good.)

Episodes 2 and 3: Work with subjects to craft their documentaries.

Episode 4: Get feedback from the subjects and make the necessary changes.

Okay, so herein lies the problem. The idea seems to have always been to get feedback from the subjects in Episode 4 and then go back and make changes to Episodes 2 and 3 to reflect that feedback.

Which makes absolutely no sense.

Because when the listener hears the subjects reacting to their stories, they're reacting to stories that are fundamentally different from the stories that we have already heard. So their objections feel ridiculous, because they are objecting to issues that we will never hear.

It's a mess.

And look. I get it. This story was always going to be difficult to pull off.

The whole thing unfolds as a "Journey of Discovery," which – as I explained earlier – can be tricky.

But it's also a "Dueling Narrative x4," because the host is really trying to combine four different documentaries that all have to unfold simultaneously.

And it's really in how those two tools interact – the "Journey of Discovery" and the "Dueling Narratives" – where things go wrong.

To me, it feels like the host holds too firm to her own journey and she forces all of the other narratives to fit inside of it.

And yes, she is – by definition – at the center of the story.

But no matter whose story we're telling – no matter who is actually at the center of it – the person the story needs to be designed AROUND is the listener.

What does the listener need to know first in order to understand the next thing and the next thing and the next thing?

And I feel like the producers lost sight of that.

That said, the series does bring up some very interesting questions about the ethics around telling the true stories of other people. It's definitely worth a listen.
What are you listening to these days? Do you have any recommendations for me? If so, I'd love to add them to my cue.

And, as always, if you know anyone who would enjoy my storytelling musings, please encourage them to subscribe.