What A Hollywood Theme Park Taught Me About Storytelling
Hello friends,

I apologize for the long delay between newsletters. I took a two week vacation, and I've spent the last week digging myself out from the backlog of work that inevitably comes after taking time off.

Such is a freelancer's life.

While away, I enjoyed spending almost a week relaxing at my parents' house in Joshua Tree, California, where the only thing more stunning than the sunrises are the sunsets.
Seriously. How can this be real?

Back when I was a kid, Joshua Tree wasn't famous. But that was before the Age of Instagram. Now, everyone has heard of it. And when I posted something about my visit, one of my followers suggested that I write a newsletter about it.

Unfortunately, Joshua Tree is not a place overrun with tips on how to write better narratives.

Luckily, there's someplace I visited on this trip that is: Hollywood!

And there's nowhere I found more reminders on how to tell great narratives than Universal Studios: Hollywood. (Not to be confused with Universal Studios: Orlando, which is mostly a coaster park with a few Hollywood-themed attractions.)

So...in no particular order, here are great trips on telling better stories, brought to you by a Hollywood-themed theme park.

This email is not sponsored. But I totally wouldn't turn down a free return trip, if it was offered – hint, hint.
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The Secret Life of Pets: Tension

I'm sure I'm not the first person to tell you this, but every story needs tension.

You don't necessarily need your characters to face life and death decisions. (Though it certainly doesn't hurt!) But you do need to give the listener some reason to stick with your story. Some reason to see it out to the end.

If your story isn't about life or death, maybe it's about success or failure? Or progress vs. stagnation? Love vs. hate?

To illustrate this idea, I'm gonna take you on the tamest, most child-friendly ride at Universal Studios.

The Secret Life of Pets

So, yeah, I looked it up, and apparently the average two year old is tall enough to ride this ride (with supervision.) This is a really, really tame ride.

But as your little two-person cardboard box prepares to enter the not-so-dark tunnel, characters alternatively reassure and warn you.
"Don't be scared. You're going be okay."
"Be a little scared. There's no guarantee."
"He's right. You're all gonna die!!!"
I'm gonna skip to the end. Nobody dies on this ride. Not even the bad guys.

But that's not the point.

If you're doing a story about whether a restaurant is going to stay open through Covid, you don't need that restaurant to actually go under.

To keep listeners paying attention through the end of your story, you just need to let them know that the restaurant could go under. That the threat is real.

And yeah, don't try to create tension where there is none. Look for the actual stakes. The thing that really could go wrong. This isn't about sensationalizing the story. It's about allowing the listener to feel what your characters are feeling as they move through uncertain times.

And when we really think about it, the status quo is always "uncertain," even when we aren't living in extraordinarily "uncertain" times.
The Simpsons: Change Over Time

Fun fact: at Universal Studios, you can drink Duff beer.

Why you'd want to is a mystery to me.

But the point here is, narrative stories aren't like an episode of The Simpsons.

I admit, I haven't watched the show since the early 2000s. But I bet I could tune in tomorrow, and everything would be the same.
Maggie would still be a baby.
Lisa would still be a know-it-all.
Bart would still be a brat.
Even if these details change within an episode, by the end…everything goes back to the way it was before.

But when you tell a narrative, you need something to change. It doesn't have to be a big, visible thing – like Bart suddenly becoming a model student. It can be a small, subtle thing.

Whatever it is, don't just expect the listener to guess what has changed. Make sure it's explicit. You don't have to go into This American Life mode where you, the reporter, spends a minute or two telling the listener what it all means.

You can let one of your characters tell us what has changed and why it matters. And it can be quick. Just a sentence or two.

But one way or another, it needs to happen.

Otherwise, the listener might wonder what the point of it all is.
Harry Potter World: Details, Details, Details

I get it... J.K. Rowling is not everyone's favorite human right now. For some very good reasons. But I'm gonna try to set that aside for a second to talk about details.

I could spend the better part of a day hanging out in the Harry Potter World at Universal. That place is just so richly detailed, there's always something you haven't noticed before.

But here's the thing. Each of the Harry Potter books is approximately 10-kajillion pages long. It takes a lot of time and space to pack in that many details.

So how do you pack details in your story, without making it too long and unwieldy?

The answer is simple: pick details that do double duty.

I'm pretty sure I need to give an example here.

In a podcast I'm story editing right now, we learn that a certain character grows his hair and beard out every year so that he can play Santa for his grandchildren.

(The reporter explains this more eloquently than I just did, but I don't want to plagiarize her!)

Immediately, I get a sense of what this character looks like, physically. But I also understand what's important to him: family.

This is just the kind of detail I can hold in my mind. That will help me understand the decisions he makes as the story moves forward.

And these are the kinds of details you want to pepper through your stories. Details that serve more than one purpose.

Sometimes, they'll tell you two things about a person at once.

More often, they'll tell you something about a person or place and also foreshadow something that's going to happen later in the narrative.

But you see what I'm saying here, right? Don't just use the details you like.

Use the details that really help the listener understand the story you're trying to tell.
The Backlot: Show Only What Matters

Okay, I'm gonna brag a little here. I visited Universal on a special VIP tour where I got to take a special trolley to the backlot and walk around.

(I did not get this as a perk of being an actual VIP. I am not that cool. But my husband and I decided that this tour would be our Christmas present to each other. And so, we were VIPs for the day!)

Walking around the backlot, you understand exactly how close some of these sets are to each other.

The Good Place was filmed right around the corner from an alley that often stands in for war-torn Afghanistan.

The neighborhood destroyed by a crashed 747 in War of the Worlds is within spitting distance of the Bates Motel from Psycho.
Just me and a burned out 747.

Our tour guide, Tony (Hi, Tony!) explained that filmmakers get away with this because they only need to care about what the camera sees. They set up their shot, and anything outside of that shot simply doesn't exist.

The same thing is true of your story.

You are going to uncover all sorts of enticing side-plots. Details you don't need. Paths you could go down.

But you need to stay strong and stick to your arc.

Because anything that doesn't directly add to your narrative is going to be distracting to your listener.

(In other words, ignore that dude standing in front of that hotel brandishing a big knife, and just keep your attention focused on the burnt out airplane.)
Waterworld: Pick the Right Format

Okay, let's be honest. Waterworld was a really, really bad movie.

Epically bad.

But it's actually a really, really fun stunt show.

If the makers of Waterworld had made a stunt show instead of a movie, they would have had a winner.

I see this a lot in the audio world.

Most often, it's when someone tries to make a non narrated story, but ends up with something that could use a little narration.

Let's be honest. Most stories could use at least a little narration.

But it also happens the other way. Sometimes, an interview is so good, the reporter is just getting in the way.

Often, we go into interviews with an idea of what format we want to use. Fully narrated. Non narrated. Interview style. But we need to be open to the idea of making something else. Making whatever best suits the story.

And sometimes, that format isn't exactly one of the big three. It's something in between. And that's okay, too!
Jurassic World: Don't Overuse Your Best Tricks

When we climbed aboard the boats for Jurassic World, we knew we were gonna get wet. It's a water ride, and we'd been issued plastic ponchos at check in.

But at the end of the ride, we recycled our ponchos.

And then on every ride after, we got squirted or splashed with water.

This might make sense nine months out of the year, when the weather in Southern California is toasty. But this was January. And while it wasn't cold by Boston standards, our tour guide was wearing a full winter coat – with a scarf.

So yeah, we didn't need to be cooled down.

This kind of thing happens all the time in audio storytelling. People find something that works, and in no time at all, it becomes way, way, way overused.

(I'm looking at you, marimba music.)

Just because something works, doesn't mean you should be using it every single time.

Mix it up. Because if you overuse that special trick of yours, it's gonna stop seeming so special.

Minion Mayhem: But A Little Repetition Never Hurt

Back when I was a kid, the Universal Studio tour included a King Kong "encounter." Basically, the tour bus would enter a big, dark building – where it would be attacked by an enormous animatronic gorilla.

And to make the whole thing feel even more immersive, Kong had banana breath.

The original King Kong attraction burned down in 2008. But the park must have had gallons and gallons of that banana scent left over. Because when they built Minion Mayhem a few years later, the included a sequence where the riders get blasted by a fart gun…that smells like bananas.

BANANA!!!

And look, I hated the banana smell when it was on Kong's breath. But it's my favorite part of the Minion ride.

Maybe that means that fake banana smell technology has improved over the past 15 years or so? Or maybe I've just become easier to please?

Either way, the point here is that I'm glad that Universal has found a new use for that fake banana scent. The context is different. The effect is different. And if I hadn't told you, you probably wouldn't know that the theme part was recycling an old trick.
Save the Date!
Keep an eye out, because I will soon be announcing the next Narrative Beat workshop to be held on Sunday, Feb. 20 from 1-3:30 Eastern!

(I had hoped to announce it here, but the official launch has been delayed by technical difficulties.)

I haven't come up with a really cool description yet, but this one is definitely for the audio nerds. We're going to delve into writing for the ear and everyone's favorite...sound design.

It's gonna be tons of fun, so keep an eye out for the official announcement, hopefully dropping into your inbox soon.

In the meantime, do you have ideas for techniques I should cover in future workshops? Or a question you'd like me to answer in my next newsletter? As always, you can just reply to this email and let me know.

And please, share this newsletter with your networks. Our little community is growing every day, and it makes me do a little happy dance every time I see the list get a little bit longer.

Karen