INSIDE STORY

This is the place where we share insights about the craft of storytelling. We feature an impressive piece of storytelling and describe how one aspect of its craft makes it great.  In general, we focus on oral and audio stories of short to medium length (3-30 minutes).


Play It Again, Roman!

by Jackson Roach

 

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.

 

Podcast: The Sound of the Artificial World

Produced by: Roman Mars at 99% Invisible in 2011

Duration: 5 minutes


Rules Can Set You Free

by Bonnie Swift

All my friends are playing chess again, and it all started with a story by Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich at WNYC’s RadioLab. A recent show called Games has a zippy story called The Rules Can Set You Free [21:57] that’s enough to inspire even the most out-­‐of-­‐practice player back to the chessboard.

RadioLab knows how to tell a good story. They lure us into this one with their signature symphony of sound and voices, and hook us from the beginning with narrative suspense. We are caught from the beginning in an opposition—in this case, the idea is that a good game strikes a balance between the known and the novel. The tension between these two poles drives the entire segment, which flies by like a game of speed chess.

This story is actually made up of four smaller stories, which seamlessly fold into one another. Each scene is poignant as it unfolds almost visually in our listening minds. My favorite is an interlude about little Bobby Fischer’s Game of the Century. This story is strong

mostly because of the meticulous way in which the scene is set. The hosts engage the listener by giving us a dozen or so visual cues. Bobby Fischer is 13 years old, it’s October, 1956, a warm Indian summer, in New York, in a smoky, old, stodgy brownstone, full of mahogany, he’s wearing a t-­‐shirt, and all of the world’s best chess players are there. Bobby’s opponent is old, urbane, has a cigarette between two fingers, wears a big bow tie. Because we’re given so many details about the place, it feels like we’re there too. Immersed in each story, we remain engaged, pondering the limitations of rules and the novelties that they permit.

Bobby opens the game with what looks like a series of dumb errors. He was losing, and then he does the unthinkable: he allows his opponent take his queen. What?! All the old pros think that little Bobby has thrown in the towel, given up. Then a crowd gathers… and, well, I’ll let you listen for yourself. This segment starts at 16:25. If you don’t have time for the entire episode, start here. It will make you and all your friends want to take up chess again.

The Rules Can Set You Free [21:57]


“Rules Can Set You Free” by Bonnie Swift

All my friends are playing chess again, and it all started with a story by Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich at WNYC’s RadioLab. A recent show called Games has a zippy story called The Rules Can Set You Free [21:57] that’s enough to inspire even the most out-­‐of-­‐practice player back to the chessboard.

RadioLab knows how to tell a good story. They lure us into this one with their signature symphony of sound and voices, and hook us from the beginning with narrative suspense. We are caught from the beginning in an opposition—in this case, the idea is that a good game strikes a balance between the known and the novel. The tension between these two poles drives the entire segment, which flies by like a game of speed chess.

This story is actually made up of four smaller stories, which seamlessly fold into one another. Each scene is poignant as it unfolds almost visually in our listening minds. My favorite is an interlude about little Bobby Fischer’s Game of the Century. This story is strong

mostly because of the meticulous way in which the scene is set. The hosts engage the listener by giving us a dozen or so visual cues. Bobby Fischer is 13 years old, it’s October, 1956, a warm Indian summer, in New York, in a smoky, old, stodgy brownstone, full of mahogany, he’s wearing a t-­‐shirt, and all of the world’s best chess players are there. Bobby’s opponent is old, urbane, has a cigarette between two fingers, wears a big bow tie. Because we’re given so many details about the place, it feels like we’re there too. Immersed in each story, we remain engaged, pondering the limitations of rules and the novelties that they permit.

Bobby opens the game with what looks like a series of dumb errors. He was losing, and then he does the unthinkable: he allows his opponent take his queen. What?! All the old pros think that little Bobby has thrown in the towel, given up. Then a crowd gathers… and, well, I’ll let you listen for yourself. This segment starts at 16:25. If you don’t have time for the entire episode, start here. It will make you and all your friends want to take up chess again.

The Rules Can Set You Free [21:57]


Can You Give Me a Hypothetical?

By Will Rodgers

In the end, Sedaris doesn’t say anything (at least, not in this version of the story). As soon as he gets finished relating the hypothetical, he brings the story to a close as quickly as possible. And it’s best this way because anything that could have happened in the story wouldn’t have been as good as what he had imagined.

Sometimes the best thing in a story is something that doesn’t actually happen in the story… it’s something that’s imagined-as-happening. 

I noticed it recently in a David Sedaris story, Accidental Deception. Even though what occurs in the story is wonderful and hilarious, it’s the moment when Sedaris describes what kinds of things could occur, that the story becomes one of my favorites.

At the start of the piece, He’s on the Metro in Paris, alongside an American tourist who doesn’t realize that Sedaris is also an American. Because of the way Sedaris positions his body (and because of the tourist’s sheer ignorance), the tourist thinks Sedaris is a French thief, and instructs his wife (in English) on how to avoid getting taken-advantage-of by this kind of “scum”. Rather than correct him, Sedaris acts the part, staring into space as if he doesn’t understand what the American is saying.

When the train comes to a stop, Sedaris begins imagining what he might say… and that’s where Sedaris opens the door to a world of infinite possibility. “I tried to imagine Martin’s conversation with a French policeman, and pictured him waving his arms shouting, ‘That man tried to picka my friend’s pocketoni!’” Sedaris allows his imagination to get specific, including several phrases he would mutter in the presence of the police officer, during this imagined encounter.

In the end, Sedaris doesn’t say anything (at least, not in this version of the story). As soon as he gets finished relating the hypothetical, he brings the story to a close as quickly as possible. And it’s best this way because anything that could have happened in the story wouldn’t have been as good as what he had imagined.

When you listen to this story, notice the proportion of the piece that occurs in Sedaris’ mind vs. in the train compartment. Notice how he includes primarily train-car material at first, simply observing what’s happening outside him, then slowly the proportions invert and Sedaris’ internal monologue comes to dominate the stage. That’s the hero of this story, Sedaris’ internal monologue. That’s the character who takes everything to the next level.

When you tell stories, don’t forget about this character: your own inner voice. This voice has the power to endlessly generate stories that can most entertain and deliver insight. The mind can open a window to an internal story that’s just as vivid and important as the story outside. 

In the end, Sedaris doesn’t say anything (at least, not in this version of the story). As soon as he gets finished relating the hypothetical, he brings the story to a close as quickly as possible. And it’s best this way because anything that could have happened in the story wouldn’t have been as good as what he had imagined.


I Want to Be a Millionaire

by Will Rodgers

When I listened to “Roger Dowds: Millionaire Winner,” by Irish producer Ronan Kelly, I immediately got into sync with the protagonist -­‐-­‐ when he felt sad, I felt sad. When he felt happy, I felt happy. The listening experience is simple when the character is likable.

With Roger Dowds, likability has everything to do with his desperate sincerity. It spills out of his mouth every time he speaks. It’s a simple, soft, pathetic a voice with an element of pain behind it. You get that quality throughout the piece -­‐ it’s a part of who he is: like a whimper. Without even seeing a picture of him, you still get an image of a hunched-­‐over, pale-­‐skinned body behind Roger’s voice. All in all, you kind of want to feel sorry for him… but when he smiles, you can hear it. You love that smile, British teeth and all.

In the piece, Roger becomes a contestant on the Irish version of “Who Wants to be a Millionaire?” This game show provides structure to hold Roger’s voice. Without this structure, you might be lulled to sleep by Roger’s easy, meek voice. After all, the piece is nearly half an hour long.

The anxiety of “Millionaire” keeps you on the edge of your seat, though, sustaining you through the length of this piece. The narrative’s drama comes largely from the way it

develops as the game show itself unfolds, with its pattern of Tension, Release, Tension, Release. (“Is the answer correct? …Find out after this break.”) The stakes are always building, and you want to know what happens next. While he moves forward in the game show, the story takes you deeper into his personal life. Roger’s voice is there at every moment so you continue to identify with being at the eye of this particular storm. It’s a genuine roller coaster, infused with meaning and purpose. By the end of this story, you’ll feel like you have a new friend.

Roger Dowds: Millionaire Winner [27:00]


How to Spook Your Listener

By Bonnie Swift

Haunted. I felt haunted when I first listened to Scott Carrier’s, The Test on This American Life, in 2001. Now, more than ten years later, this story is still etched in my memory like few stories are. It’s a story about Carrier driving through the Utah countryside, in search of people with schizophrenia. He has been hired by the state for the summer to administer a standardized test. In the process of conducting these interviews, he sounds the depths of consciousness, only to discover further depths. Eek.

Like a series of paintings hung on the pristine white walls of a gallery, this story utilizes empty space to its advantage. Carrier hasn’t used any field recordings, interviews, or sound effects other than the very sparse musical note. It’s only his voice, and his voice is slow, flat, restrained, and downright spooky. A single guitar or xylophone punctuates his sentences, but does nothing more. The effect is a heightened sense of the void that Carrier is navigating. Every word reverberates.

Eerie also that Carrier begins to question his own sanity as the story unfolds. He engages us on a level of intimacy rare among even the closest of friends. His wife and children have recently left, he is angry, depressed, worries a lot, feels like he’s ‘faking it,’ and he cries ‘like a three year-­‐old’ when he gets home one afternoon. He makes himself vulnerable to us, and we find ourselves caring deeply for him.

But then Carrier leaves us without resolution! He brings us into the den of madness, and then we get lost, and then the story is over. It makes us want to rewind and listen to it again, in hopes of finding some peace the second time around. But there is none, and that’s partly why it’s so eerie. This non-­‐ending makes us question whether there actually is something at the bottom of those reverberating depths.

The Test [15:00]