Inside Story shares insights about the craft of storytelling. We feature a great piece of storytelling and describing how one aspect of its craft makes it great. In general, Inside Story focuses on oral and audio stories of short to medium lengths (3-30 minutes).
It’s easy to forget about all the little sounds, the pops and rustles and scratches and clicks that surround me in my everyday life. I’m constantly filtering through, focusing past, drowning out all these sounds. And this is especially true with my daily devices. Gone are the days of clacking typewriters and cash registers that go ker-ching. It seems like sound is almost completely peripheral to the function of new technology. I actively keep my iPhone on mute.
Or at least, I did. The Sound of the Artificial World, an episode of 99% Invisible, totally changed my mind. Now my phone is constantly blooping and swooshing and clicking. And every sound means something. Every sound is important to the way I use this device in my pocket. And all because of this one story, and the way it repeats one tiny clip of incredible sounds.
The moment that does it comes at about 1:25. 99PI’s amber-voiced host Roman Mars is interviewing Sound Designer Jim Mckee about the work he does for tech companies like Yahoo. McKee is describing his process
McKee: So typically what I do is I create a bunch of button sounds.
Mars: These are would-be buttons for a Yahoo widget.
McKee: I say, ok you guys tell me which ones are the closest. And then you end up with, what, 38 sounds here.
And here McKee triggers a clip: Those 38 sounds, a drum-line of little drippy pops and wiggles and zips, one after the other in rapid succession. It’s a perfect encapsulation of all that 99PI is trying to do: draw our attention to the pieces of design that we forget about, that go unnoticed, that are “99 Percent Invisible.” It’s all about making the background into the foreground. In a two-second string of noises, we get probably a month of McKee’s hard work mainlined directly into our ear drums. At this point I’m in awe of the sheer amount of time, of trial-and-error-and-trial-and-error that goes into the sound just one button makes.
So while I’m still reeling from the idea of all that painstaking design work sunk into what will end up being just one teeny tiny sound (that I would probably have muted anyway), Mars takes it to the next level:
Mars: I love that. I could listen to that all day. In fact, let’s hear it again.
And then — get this — he plays it again. And this time it’s totally different. The repetition does more than just emphasize the information conveyed by the first time the clip is played. It actually changes what’s going on, changes how the listener is interacting with the sound. By playing it again, after we’ve already gleaned the necessary facts from it, Mars is forcing us to pay attention to the sound itself, to pay attention to the feast of tone color and texture rippling kaleidoscopically out of our headphones.
It’s a shift from conveying factual information, information about the amount of work put into the sound, to conveying a sensory experience. Suddenly I go from thinking “Woah, that’s a lot of sounds!” to “Woah, listen to how those sounds sound!!!” The clip is working on a totally different level, a physical level, engaging me viscerally, in the very flesh and bone of my ears.
And holy cow is it delightful. It gives me the shivers and makes me laugh at the same time (especially that adorable little high-pitched ribbit at the end). Mars is in on it too, unable (and not really trying) to hide his juvenile glee. “Oh man,” he says.
Oh man indeed!
Sound is a very tactile sense (some even call it touch at a distance). That means we can use it to really reach out and grab our listeners (sorry, had to go for the pun). One really effective way to do this is to repeat the sound you want to grab your listener with. Give them a second chance to hear it, to engage with it in a different way. Let them indulge in the way it feels in their physical body. Re-frame the sound, find joy in it, and let them find joy in it too.
And who knows, maybe you’ll get them to unmute their iPhone.
Produced by: Roman Mars at 99% Invisible in 2011
Duration: 5 minutes
Article written by: Jackson Roach
I was originally drawn to creating radio because of my inherent trust in voices. Sound is an incredibly intimate medium, and that intimacy sometimes allows me to entertain the illusion that radio stories are happening in real time. The storytelling becomes a conversation. I too wanted to make something that sounded trustworthy and intimate. But above all, it had to sound “natural.”
It appeared simple enough, but proved much more difficult than I expected. I rewrote my first real piece over a dozen times. In each draft, I delicately tweaked my narration to make it sound more like that idyllic and ever-elusive “conversation.” And yet, even after I felt I had perfected every word, when I went in to record, the best takes were the ones when I didn’t look at the page and ad-libbed slightly.
I knew that I was trying to cultivate a conversational tone in my piece. What I didn’t understand was that there is an “art” to sounding natural on the radio, which involves a mix of preparation, spontaneity, and revision. No podcast that I know of has mastered this art so completely as The Truth. The Truth podcast episodes are, as the bumper will tell you, “movies for your ears.” Each one tells a fictional story. There’s no narrator, little to no host introduction. Just voices, music, and sound-effects, interacting in movie-esque scenes. Most of their stories have a writer, but are developed collaboratively. The dialogue, instead of being fully scripted, is improvised by the actors. Finally, through an extensive labor of love, the hours of improvised tape are distilled into a genuine-sounding and succinct story, usually between seven and twenty minutes long.
The first 90 seconds of one of my favorite stories by The Truth, “Biological Clock“, takes place in a waiting room. It begins with a rather banal conversation between a husband and wife who are hoping to conceive. The wife comments on the lateness of the doctor; the husband makes a few jokes and she laughs good-naturedly. And yet, even though it’s arguably the least exciting part of the story, this first minute of dialogue is my favorite part of the piece. It’s difficult to pinpoint what makes it so compelling: the jokes are just odd enough, the laughter overlaps just so, the interjections come after just the right amount of pause. Whatever the combination, it creates that feeling of intimacy. I feel like I’m eavesdropping on a real-time conversation.
I was curious to understand what The Truth’s creative process really looked like. Did they improvise a scene three times before it sounded natural? Thirty three times? What was the scripted/improvised ratio, really? Was that conversational timing created in the improvisation or fabricated in the editing process?
Thankfully, two of the producers, Ed Herbstman and Jonathan Mitchell, gave me some insight in an episode called “Domestic Violins“. The piece documents an argumentative couple trying to host violin auditions for an orchestra, and it isn’t my favorite. However, the second half of the episode (starting at 8:01) provides some valuable details about how the story in the first half was created. Here’s a summary of their process:
1. Brainstorming: This was a long and troublesome process. They sat with about 20 people of varying levels of experience (normally, it’s only four people who know each other very well) to discuss possible plot lines. Normally a writer brings in an idea, but here they had a lot of people with conflicting concepts, so ultimately this step became about how to link the best ideas together.
2. Improvisation: This was the biggest “chunk.” They spent two of the four days of the conference making the actors improvise the same scenes over and over again. The length didn’t surprise me, but the diligence did.
3. Editing: This is where the magic happens. From five minutes of tape, they claimed, they might only get four or five good words or phrases. That’s right: words and phrases. I had been picturing that you might take 20 or 30 seconds from each take. All of those overlapping laughs and awkward jokes that I had so loved in “Biological Clock” were, in reality, the result of dozens of different takes strung together into coherent sentences!
In the end, the process sounded much like the non-fiction I normally work on – except instead of sifting through of hours of improvisation, I normally sift through hours of interviews. By some ironic rule of radio, the most carefully manipulated conversations often sound the most natural.
So next time you’re crafting a piece, fictional or otherwise, I have three main suggestions. First, try not to get frustrated if you have to record your narration/dialogue 33 times. If it still doesn’t feel right, record a 34th time! You never know which take will have that perfect “nugget” of sound. Second, record everything. Everything! It’s much harder to recreate a moment of insight you didn’t record than to delete an awkward-sounding comment you did. And finally, when you do edit, don’t be afraid to mix and match across takes. As long as the sound quality is consistent, your patchwork narration should sound flawless if sewn together properly.
Once all is said and done, sit back and listen to the final product. Does it mimic a real conversation? And, perhaps more importantly, is it a conversation you’d like to eavesdrop?
“Biological Clock” (15:32) Written by Ira Gamerman. Produced and directed by Jonathan Mitchell.
“Domestic Violins” (15:30) was created at the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s Radio Beyond Radio conference in Sydney, Australia. Produced by Ed Herbstman and Jonathan Mitchell.
Article written by: Rosie La Puma
A great story is like a hidden fossil — except instead of buried in the earth, stories are buried in people. Like an archaeologist, the interviewer must map out where to search, determine the outlines of the story, and ever-so-carefully bring it into the light. Retrieving just one story — intact, with all its delicate edges preserved — is the task of an expert. But the truly exceptional storytellers have an extra sense. They can recognize when the fossil they’re extracting is not the only one. They know when to expand the operation, and when to dig deep.
That’s what we’re going to explore today: how do you develop the ability to get the whole story? How can you sense when a little more probing can yield an entirely new layer of astonishment? We’ll be answering that question by looking at a recent story from This American Life called My Ames is True, told by the eminent Michael Lewis.
The story is about a man named Emir Kamenica. A refugee from from Bosnia, Emir comes to America as a young boy. The precocious immigrant is stuck in a low-performing school — until something incredible happens. As he tells the story, a plagiarized essay from an obscure book so impresses his substitute teacher that she immediately sets out to get him into a top-notch private school. From there, he attends Harvard and goes on to a distinguished career as an economist. All because of a fluke.
So that’s the first half of the story. Emir chalks it up to luck, but Michael Lewis and the producers at This American Life sensed there was more to the story.
* SPOILER ALERT *
So they decided to bring another perspective into the mix.
After telling the audience that Emir unsuccessfully failed to track down his teacher, Lewis asks wryly, what was he going to do, hire a private eye? Then we hear: “My name is Irving Botwinick. And my business is called Serving by Irving.” Irving leads us to the substitute teacher, Ms. Ames, and what she reveals changes everything.
Specifically, she contradicts the most important part of Emir’s story. As he tells it, a plagiarized essay attracted her notice, and forever altered the course of his life. But Ms. Ames says that’s just not what happened. She’d always had her eye on him. He was the most brilliant student she’d ever seen. He was going to succeed no matter what — not due to luck, but talent. It’s a very different story indeed.
Bringing a new perspective takes this story to a new level. Luck was crucial in Emir’s version of the story but it wasn’t crucial in Ms. Ames’. The disparity between their perspectives forces the producers to probe more deeply, and a new question emerges: “How does our basic stance toward the world influence the stories we tell about ourselves?” They wouldn’t have gotten to that question without the second perspective.
In retrospect, it seems simple to go deeper into a story through a new perspective. But often, we radio producers fail to notice when this is a good move. I’ve produced stories told entirely from one point of view before. Sometimes that’s justified. Often the protagonist’s truth — not objective truth — is what’s most important.
But how did the staff of This American Life know, in this instance, to look for another perspective? Let’s study a couple signs that an observant archaeologist of story will notice in cases like this.
1) An empirical claim. Emir says his success in life is directly due to the intervention of one substitute teacher. The benefit of such a statement, in the context of a story, is that it can be assessed. Is it true? Storytellers, take note, your subject may not be the best authority on his or her own life.
2) A character who knows something the main character doesn’t. Emir can only guess the motivations of his substitute teacher. Therefore, a vital piece of information is inaccessible to him, and, by extension, the listener. Filling this absence practically demands the reporter seek a new interviewee.
Once you, as a radio producer, have mapped your site, carefully plucked the bones from the ground, and made sure there’s nothing left to dig up — now you have to assemble the darn things and tell us what they mean.
The last act of the story involves a conversation between Emir and Ms. Ames. It’s fascinating, because we wonder how his version of events will stand up to her very different account. What we find is that Emir’s life story is remarkably resilient. He resists Ms. Ames’s version of events, standing by his own memory, and within 24 hours, he’s practically forgotten that a challenge existed at all.
As the story wraps up, Michael Lewis draws a conclusion from Emir’s persistent belief in luck: it makes him happier. Feeling lucky and indebted to others helps us appreciate what we have. It’s a cliche, of course, but because we’ve arrived at this conclusion through such an unusual path, we buy it. I do at least. And the only way we could have gotten here is through the work of unusually insightful archaeologists of story. Most radio producers would have been content with Emir’s narrative. This American Life‘s producers were sensitive however, to the clues that something bigger lay buried beneath the earth.
Podcast: This American Life, My Ames is True
Produced by: Michael Lewis at This American Life in 2013
Duration: 34 minutes (This portion of the story starts at 13:15)
Article written by: Charlie Mintz
I heard a story once about a professor who had trouble getting enrollment in a course, which was titled something along the lines of, ‘Representations of the Mythopoetic in Prose and Poetry.’ So few students enrolled that the course was nearly canceled. The following year he taught the exact same course, but this time he titled it ‘Combing the Dragon’s Hair,’ and it filled up right away. There was even a waiting list.
Last week we focused on strategies for framing our stories and capturing our listener’s attention. This week we’re focusing on titles. You know the old adage, ‘Don’t judge a book by its cover.’ It’s true, we shouldn’t judge people, courses, or stories by their titles. But we do, and so does everybody, because there’s something in human nature that gives tremendous weight to first impressions.
The secret ingredient to a good title might be as difficult to pin down as what’s behind Ira Glass’ incredible host intros (and there is some definite overlap here), but there are two important things it’s safe to say up front: the more playful the better, and descriptive is not necessarily best.
Radiolab has mastered the art of the alluring, allusive title. We’ve collected an instructive sample here (see below for links). Notice that each of these only hints at the subject its story, and that most are either riffs on familiar idioms or puns. Check it out:
- Rippin’ the Rainbow a New One
- Why are Bad Guys Bad?
- Leaving Your Lamarck
- In the Valley of the Shadow of Doubt
- One Good Deed Deserves Another
- Rocked by Doubt
Now here are those very same stories, but I’ve given them less fun, more descriptive titles:
- Isaac Newton Unlocks the Mystery of the Rainbow
- Shakespeare on Cruelty in Human Nature
- The Effect of Good Maternal Care on Baby Rat DNA
- The Search for Truth in a Historic Photograph
- A Classic Thought Experiment on Strategies of Cooperation and Betrayal
- One Geologist’s Religious Doubt and the Toll it Took
A lot less appealing, eh? What is the principle at work in Radiolab’s enticing titles?
The first thing I notice is that many of Radiolab’s titles are twists on English idioms. While they do have a familiar ring to them, they aren’t just tired turns of phrase. Take ‘In the Valley of the Shadow of Doubt,’ a riff on the Bible’s ‘valley of the shadow of death.’ This story is about a man who obsesses over mysteries until he solves them. It centers on the riddle of a photograph taken during the Crimean War, titled ‘Shadow of the Valley of Death’ (another variation of the familiar phrase!). Which is to say, there’s a lot going on here, overlapping references on multiple levels. So it sounds familiar (but not quite), and it is full of intimations (but not explicit).
Second, many of Radiolab’s titles are puns — they are deliberately playful. Take ‘Rocked by Doubt,’ for example. This piece opens as producer Lulu Miller stumbles across a geologist in the desert; he gives her a lesson on ancient oceanic sediment deposits, then confides in her that he is struggling because he has recently come to doubt the existence of God. So there are rocks in this story, and a lot of doubt, and the main character is ‘rocked by doubt,’ i.e. shaken, or ‘wracked by doubt.’ But this simple pun is so much more fun than our descriptive ‘One Geologist’s Religious Doubt and the Toll it Took.’ Mine gives too much away.
Which is all to say that too much information in your title kills the promise of a story’s central revelation. And promises, as we learned from Glass, are a central tenet in listener recruiting technique. Of course, your title should have something to do with the discovery that you’ll uncover, but it doesn’t have to be a plot summary. It should capture the essence of your story, without revealing its twists and turns. And if it has a slightly familiar (but fresh) ring, and it’s fun (or funny), all the better!
Radiolab stories discussed in this post:
Image via deviantart
Article written by: Bonnie Swift