How to Stop a Story (Not in a Good Way)
As you may have guessed, this is gonna be one of those "what not to do" newsletters. But I don't think you'll be sad about that. As near as I can tell, the "what not to do" posts are always the most popular.
I could say that this is proof we live in a cynical world. But the truth is, I am a person with very strong opinions. Especially when it comes to what I don't like. And as a result, I tend to get all fired up about these "what not to do" posts.
And not for nothing -- but my days have been filled with a whole lotta "what not to do" lately. Like...a lot.
Just to catch you up on what's been going on, I've been working on a super-intense investigative project since September.
(Not for nothing, but the trailer dropped today
and I couldn't be more proud of all the hard work we put into this. Listen! Share! All the things!)
But if we're being perfectly honest, the project moved really slowly for the first five months.
On the one hand, this wasn't the worst thing in the world. As a freelancer, I juggle multiple projects at a time. So during September, October and November, I had plenty of work to keep me busy, despite the fact that our investigation wasn't moving as quickly as I would have liked.
But then, just as I had set aside significant time to devote to this project, the trail went cold. Completely cold. We were doing everything we could to move forward, but there were a bunch of access issues that left us treading water.
Those issues have now been resolved. And it's been a bit overwhelming. After months of struggling to find someone — anyone — who would talk, we've been having trouble getting people to shut up.
(And I love it. Seriously, it's all so INTERESTING.)
But as a result of all those delays, we had to start writing episodes for an investigative series while the investigation continued to uncover new, shocking material.
This is fun. So fun.
And, yes, that's sarcasm. But also...not.
Because all of this drama has been a gold mine for my curious reporter brain. Every day, there's been something new to discover.
But, this is really not an efficient way to work. And that means we've been super
Like, "re-make the production calendar no less than five times" behind schedule.
As a result of all of the intense pressure we're currently under, I keep screwing up. Making rookie mistakes. Doing things that distract from our story and pull the power out of the narrative.
So, let's dig into some of those audio story-stoppers, and talk about how to avoid them.
Are you subscribed to Narrative Beat yet?
Story Stopper #1: Failure to Let Go of a Plan
Y'all know how much I love to plan ahead. I ruminate and I consider and I structure my episodes before I even start gathering audio.
And in a perfect world, it's lovely.
In reality, it's crap.
Sorry. Let me clarify.
Planning ahead is brilliant. Once you get all of the analytical BS out of the way, your creative brain will be free to frolic. Explore. Commune with butterflies.
(I don't know about you, but I associate my really creative ideas with butterflies. They flit into my world on a whisper, and they will disappear if I make any startling movements.)
But when you have a story that's changing, planning ahead can back you into a corner. So you can end up writing an episode around a concept that just isn't all that important anymore.
Or you might fail to notice when the essential truth of your story has changed. So your tape might be brilliant, but your narration is pointing in the wrong direction.
So, it's a balancing act. Plan. Revise. Plan. Revise. Over and over and over again.
Your planning will help you get the right tape. And without good tape, you have nothing.
But the real magic is found in flexibility.
Story Stopper #2: The Horrors of Spelling-It-Out
Oh man, this one is so tough. But you know how you uncover something that feels almost like it could be a revelation? It's there, but it's juuuust out of reach?
So, sometimes, you might find yourself trying to explain this concept to you listener. You explain and explain and explain, but you never actually manage to make headway.
I hate to say this, but if the idea you love is just out of reach for you -- the person who probably knows this story better than anyone else -- it's gonna be WAY out of reach for the casual person, listening from home.
The problem is: revelations need to be revealed. They can't be signposted.
If you try to signpost a revelation, you're just gonna annoy your listener. Nobody likes being told what to think.
Sometimes, you gotta just let those ideas go. Because if you have to explain and explain and explain, it's probably not something you should be trying to say.
But if you can show the thing you want the listener to understand, rather than saying it, a whole world of possibilities open up to you.
Story stopper #3: A Serious Lack of Chill
Have you ever had one of those mornings where you're totally running late, so you try to get ready in double speed?
You end up dropping your eggs on the kitchen floor and having to remake them. Then you grab a random shirt out of your dresser. But two seconds later, you realize you hate it and then try on two more shirts before you find one you like.
Then you spill your breakfast on your shirt and have to start the process all over again…
Yeah. Been there. Done that.
Sometimes, when we hurry, we end up making dumb mistakes. Mistakes that actually cost us time.
This can happen when we're making stories, but it can also happen inside the stories themselves.
At this point in this project, we have sooo much amazing material. And, as always, a limited amount of time. As a result, we're trying to cram as much as we can into each episode.
If we give into the temptation to rush around and allow ourselves to be frantic, we're gonna end up with eggs on the floor, wearing an ugly shirt covered in makeup stains.
But if we choose to do less, we find ourselves in the sweet spot. Creating a compelling story, and always leaving them wanting more.
Because nobody's gonna know what you left out.
Story Stopper #4: Forgetfulness
Yeah, okay, I'm just gonna be real for a moment.
Right now, my life is so busy, I sometimes don't remember if I've brushed my teeth.
I'm pretty sure this problem generally results in over-bushing, not under-brushing. Or maybe I have oddly resilient teeth? Because I went to the dentist a couple weeks ago for my twice-yearly check up. All good on the teeth front.
But you know how it goes. You write. Re-write. Write again. And it's easy to forget what you've left out. What you've failed to explain. What you've explained too many times.
This happened just the other day when my writing partner and I were discussing the first draft of a script we're working on.
In the comments she wrote, "I feel like we've said this many times already."
And I was like, "You're right. We totally have."
But then — for whatever reason — we asked each other when we had said that thing before.
I thought it was in Episode 3.
But then I realized that we had completely rewritten Episode 3, with all new material.
Then I thought, maybe it was Episode 5?
But then I realized we had also completely rewritten Episode 5, and that idea was on the cutting room floor…again.
My writing partner thought that we had made the same point in Episode 1. But we hadn't. Not in the final version, anyway.
It turned out that this very important thing was completely missing from the podcast, even though we had written and erased it no less than three (!) times.
The opposite can happen too. You can work so hard to build surprises into your story, that you don't realize when your big reveal…
...has already been revealed.
In fact, I recently listened to the first episode of a hit podcast, and it did this exact thing.
Basically, it went like this:
(I'm gonna change the names to protect the innocent. Because really, a mistake like this can happen to anybody.)
Podcast tells us that Susan is married to Bob. Bob has a daughter, let's call her Kelly.
When Kelly was very young, her older half-sister was sick. (The half-sister has the same mom as Kelly, but a different dad.) Susan was a college student at the time. And she helped the family out while the older half-sister was sick.
And then, a few years later, you'll never believe it, but…
... Susan marries Bob.
<shock> <surprise> <dum, dum, dummmmmmm>
You see what happened? The story basically snaked around to the beginning. Which is fine. As long as you don't treat the place where you started as if it was a surprise.
By treating something I already know like it's a surprise, you've annoyed me – the listener who is paying attention.
And you've probably confused everybody else.
I'm guessing it was a mistake. We all make them. In fact, I did something somewhat similar just last week. But I can't tell you about it…because I'm so exhausted, I can't actually remember the details.
So yeah, watch out for moments when your memory might be failing you. Because there's only so much you can cram into that great, big beautiful brain of yours at one time.
And mine is definitely overflowing right now!
Story Stopper #5: Failing to stop…on purpose
Look, unintentionally bringing your story to a stop is bad.
Intentionally and purposely bringing your story to a stop ... is good!!
It sounds counterintuitive, but the best way to keep your story moving forward is to give it time to breathe.
Not every thought needs to connect to a previous thought. In fact, some of them shouldn't connect in any way that is immediately obvious.
Think of your story like a book. Inside any particular chapter of a book, everything must flow.
But when you move from chapter 1 to chapter 2, you can take your audience on a little leap of faith.
In a book, your chapters are defined by blank space and a new chapter heading.
In audio, they are created with music and sound design.
Either way, they must be intentional. And, almost as important, they must be well-spaced.
Your favorite book doesn't start a new chapter after three paragraphs, and neither should you!
That's it for this time -- mostly because I'm three days late on starting Episode 9. And those deadlines -- man, they are no joke.
But as a bonus for those who have read all the way down to the bottom of this email, I will give a one-hour one-on-one coaching session to the first person who can identify the Top 10 podcast that makes the mistake I describe in #4. Why? Because why not!?!
And if you don't know the answer, don't worry. There are other ways to get some screen time with me. Have I mentioned the Narrative Beat Community
In theory, we meet once a month on Zoom. In reality, it happens way less often than that, especially when I'm super stressed out like I am now. But either way, joining the Narrative Beat Community is a great way to support this newsletter!