One Step Script at a Time

by Bonnie Swift


We don’t know who this story comes from, and perhaps because the author remains anonymous, listening to The Age of Consent feels like being on the receiving side of a confessional booth. This story is essentially a series of incommodious admissions, portrayed through a series of vividly-narrated, increasingly intense moments. 


In the interest of protecting the author’s privacy, This American Life’s senior producer Julie Snyder reads the story on the air. It’s recounted in the first person, and centers on the author’s teenage daughter’s first foray into sexual activity.


Like any great story, this one is told in such a way that it feels organic and spontaneous, but also like any great story, it is actually very carefully engineered. In radio in particular, a story’s design remains well hidden because so much of its power comes from feeling authentic, intimate, and spontaneous.


Great stories, written and spoken, are often designed to develop in a series of building “beats”. We at the Stanford Storytelling Project wanted to get a sense of how this story builds, and to do that, we made an outline as we listened. At SSP we make outlines at the start of every story’s production. We call them ‘step scripts’ because they describe the steps of the story (others call them ‘storyboards’ or ‘beat scripts’).


Step scripts can sometimes feel like an extra task in the production process, but they actually save us a lot of time, because making changes to a step script involves a lot less heavy lifting than making changes to a fully written and developed script. Step scripts enable us to tighten transitions, generate a more dramatic narrative arc, and make sure that every reflection in our story is earned by the anchor of a scene before we take the time to write the fully scripted version of a story.


Our exercise of step-scripting ‘The Age of Consent’ proved trickier than we anticipated, mostly because we had a hard time agreeing on what qualified as ‘step.’ Is a step triggered by a change in scene, or by the reflection at the end of a scene or set of scenes? After some discussion, we decided that for our purposes a step is anything that advances the plot of the story. A step is usually an event or decision, and sometimes that event or decision is coupled with a reflection or interpretation. Our stories are usually comprised of not more than 10 steps.


So here’s our step script of ‘The Age of Consent’ (you might want to listen first, then look at this):


  1. Scene: Mother at the kitchen table, late at night, ruminating over the fact that her 16 year-old daughter just lost her virginity.

Reflection: She is not the mother she wanted to be, disappointed in the way her daughters turned out.

  1. Scene: Mother calls the clinic to arrange birth control for daughter, receives an icy tone from receptionist, disapproval.

Reflection: Embarrassed. Imagines a hypothetical situation in which a ‘good mother’ tells her daughter not to have sex again until she’s married.

  1. Scene: Daughter comes home with a rose from boyfriend, and a morning-after pill. Mother tries to speed up doctor’s appointment.

Reflection: Sense of urgency. Less than a week after losing her virginity, daughter is on the pill.

  1. Scene: Mother and daughter take a trip to Chicago. At lunch daughter asks if her boyfriend can stay the night in their hotel room. Mother consents.

  1. Mother wakes up the next morning to see daughter and boyfriend tangled in a blanket.

Reflection: Mother is baffled by her own role in the situation. Also has a ‘disquieting sense of envy.’

  1. Scene: Few weeks later, mother is reading in bed. She hears daughter downstairs cutting the screen out of her window. Daughter tells mother that her boyfriend is coming over. Mother tells daughter to let him in the front door.

Reflection: Mother is tired and unhappy. Making her daughter happy seems more important than protecting her virginity or her reputation.

  1. Scene: Because daughter’s boyfriend is staying the night so often, the tension between daughter and her father has come to a boil. Daughter wants her mother to leave her father. Daughter asks if she and her boyfriend can stay at a hotel for the night. ‘I have to get away from him!’ (pointing at her father)

Reflection: Mother identifies with her daughter. Staying at a hotel could be therapeutic.

  1. Scene: Because daughter is 16 years old, mother has to check her in at the hotel. Mother watches people in pool, restaurant, and sprawls across the king size bed.

Reflection: Mother understands why her daughter wanted to come here. She doesn’t want to leave. Mother wants same refuge she is giving to her daughter.


And here is this same scheme, but portrayed graphically:

Through this exercise we are able to see how the tension in this story builds, and keeps on building, right through the end. Listening, we experience a decent dose of discomfort. But with a step script in hand we are able to step back from the emotional impact of the story and take a more critical look at its design. This kind of tool gives us the opportunity to manipulate a story’s rhythms and beats, such that each step yields its intended effect.


The Age of Consent, starts at [33:30]

Episode 341, ‘How to Talk to Kids,’ 2007

Produced and read by Julie Snyder for This American Life



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