Back to the Beginning
I've basically built my entire teaching career around the idea that the word "narrative" has been very poorly defined.

Stick with me here, there's a payoff to this story, I promise.

It's not that the various definitions are wrong, exactly. It's just that the word means different things to different people.

When I first started trying to figure out how to make the switch from "traditional" radio reporting to "narrative storytelling," I was completely overwhelmed.

I read everything I could find on the internet – which wasn't much, back in 2014.

I even attended a couple of narrative journalism conferences – which spent all their time talking about the "power" of narrative. They spent almost no time explaining how to actually do it.
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Finally, I called my friend Sean Cole. He works at This American Life. And I asked him how he would define the word narrative.

Here's the definition he gave me:
A "narrative" is a story told through…

  • A propulsive set of anecdotes.
  • Showing change over time.
  • With surprise!
  • And a satisfying resolution at the end.
    It's like a fairytale, Sean says.

    Once upon a time, (this happened) and then (this happened) which led to (this other thing.)

    And you just follow the breadcrumbs to the end.

    It's a great way to think about narrative. And for the first few months of my storytelling journey, I would put the words "once upon a time" at the beginning of every story idea.

    If what followed next sounded like it belonged, I knew I might have something.

    If what came next sounded awkward and out of place, I probably was looking a series of ideas…instead of a series of events.

    But it didn't take me long to realize that the most important word in Sean's definition is actually the word "anecdote."

    If you were to just string together a bunch of events (this happened, then this happened, which led to this other thing) you end up with what I like to call the firehose.

    The firehose is not a good thing. Trust me on that.

    So…we don't actually tell our listeners every single thing that happened.

    Not every breadcrumb is big enough to follow!

    Instead, we break our information into bite-sized chunks, called anecdotes.

    An anecdote is a small series of events, with a beginning, middle and end. Every anecdote should include some sort of emotion or reflection.

    Sometimes we might call them scenes.

    Whatever term we use, they're rarely shorter than :30 seconds or longer than 2 minutes. And they're the ultimate – and original – show, don't tell.

    But there's one more thing about Sean's definition that I had to figure out, before it really started working for me.

    Remember how Sean said that the anecdotes are "propulsive?"

    That means we're not just sticking a string of random stories together.

    I'm looking for turning points -- those big moments where the story changes course.

    And "lightbulb moments" -- where someone realizes something important about a challenge their facing.

    I'm looking for unexpected developments (surprise!) and inevitable consequences.

    I'm looking for stories that call out for other stories. Moments that happened as a direct result of some event I've already mentioned.

    During the pitch process, I like to write a list of the major moments of my piece. Often, these individual moments are called story beats.

    But the words that come between the story beats should not be "and then."

    (This happened) and then (this happened.)

    That would be pretty boring.

    Instead, each anecdote should be connected to the previous anecdote through the words "therefore" or "but then."

    (This happened) therefore (this happened.)

    Or … (this happened) but then (this happened.)

    That way, we can make sure that we're only telling the parts of the story that are necessary waypoints in our journey to that satisfying resolution Sean was talking about.

    Sean's definition has served me well. I've been teaching narrative this way for almost 10 years now.

    But the way I think about narrative has changed over time. And I've come to realize that Sean's definition is only part of the answer. It's what narrative sounds like.

    But there's a whole lot more happening beneath the surface.

    So let's go back and look at some of those other definitions, and how they might help us.

    The most basic definition I've seen for narrative nonfiction looks something like this:
    Narrative Nonfiction

    A true story told using literary techniques borrowed from fiction.
    This is another good place to start! Because the truth is, I spend a LOT of time using words that I never learned in journalism school. Words like:
    Story Arc
    Character Development
    World Building
    Inciting Incident
    Rising Tension
    All of these are words that you might have learned in creative writing or screenwriting classes.

    I say "might have" because I've never actually taken any of those classes! It's a shocking hole in my academic background.

    But I use these words every day, as I'm thinking about how to tell stories.

    Plot. Story Arc. That's my sequence of events, describing change over time, with a satisfying resolution at the end.

    The people I talk to? They're not just interviewees or guests. They're Characters. And that means I need to spend a little time introducing them. I don't just drop in their names and titles, but I try to identify something that makes them special. That makes them real. That's Character Development.

    World Building is often used in science fiction or fantasy novels to describe future or faraway places. But it's also how you introduce an audience to the specific culture of the high school or workplace or town where your story takes place.

    The Inciting Incident is the moment that sets all your other moments in motion.

    Foreshadowing helps keep your listener engaged -- with the promise of some extra excitement down the road.

    Rising Tension is necessary because if your story doesn't have tension, why the F would anyone care?

    Signposting is used to remind your listener where you're going and where you've been.

    Read more about signposting here.

    We use all of these techniques in narrative storytelling – often instinctively. But by calling them out and naming them, we can be much more intentional in how we structure and write our stories.

    So the next time you're writing a story and it's not quite working, check to make sure that you've used all of these techniques in your story.

    Did you forget to "develop" your main character? Were you not explicit enough in "setting the stakes" for your rising tension? Did you miss an opportunity for foreshadowing? Does your story need more signposting?

    Sometimes it's just a matter of adding a sentence here or there, and suddenly you'll have a story that works!
    Don't forget! Our next Narrative Beat workshop is coming up THIS SUNDAY.

    We'll be digging deep into Story Structure. What is it? How do you find yours? And how do you set yourself up for story structure success from the very beginning of the interview process?

    I'll be bringing out my much-loved .gifs from The Princess Bride to illustrate.

    It's always a super fun class, with some great exercises to get everyone involved.

    Seats are going fast, so be sure to reserve yours today.
    WTF is Story Structure
    Date: Sunday, April 7
    Time: 1:00-3:30 pm Eastern
    Cost: $50

    Get your ticket now!
    And yeah, it's a pretty terrible time to be an audio producer. There are a lot of people unemployed...and underemployed.

    So if this workshop is outside of your budget, please reply to this email and let me know. I have limited spots available at free or reduced cost, and I would be happy to send you a discount code.