Understanding story structure in 4 drawings
1. The flatline story
This is the structure of a lot of stories we hear on the radio. It’s a series of quotes from people (the vertical lines) commenting on one topic (horizontal line). He said. She said. Critics disagree. It has a beginning and an end, but gives us little reason to keep listening.
2. Take your flat story and give it an arc
At Planet Money, we always try to have a question that drives listeners through the story. The question should be one that your listener might be curious about. And you need to promise and deliver an answer that is surprising in some way. Think of it as a sales job. You’re selling the story hard and giving your audience — even those who don’t care about the subject — a reason to listen until the end.
Listen to how we turned a tour of a matzo factory into a big question:
Here’s a story on fraud that featured the biggest question we could come up with:
3. Divide your story into “acts”
Even with a strong question, the listener wants to feel a sense of movement. That’s why we divide the journey into scenes. For short radio stories, you can do this by following the rule of threes: Beginning, middle, and end. Or visit three different places. In a simple news story covering a press conference, you could do this by arriving early and asking people, “What are the stakes?” and then afterwards asking the same people, “What does it mean?” or “What has changed?” This creates a sense of chronology and makes it feel as if something has happened in your story, even if it’s only 3 or 4 minutes long.
Listen to how Bob Moon of Marketplace turned a 2003 press event into a mystery story with scenes:
4. Now give your audience some signposts
Now that you have an interesting story arc with scenes to create movement, don’t let the audience get lost. Tell them where you are going and why you are going there. Signposts directly tell the listeners why they should keep listening. Sometimes, signposts break up your big question into smaller steps (First, we have to figure out this…). Signposts can recap what we’ve learned this far. Or they can help you raise new questions in the middle of your story.
Listen to how Planet Money uses signposts in this piece about replacing the dollar bill with a dollar coin:
In the first five minutes, you can hear the following signposts:
- Explanation of motivation behind the story: We don’t often cover XX, but “we could not ignore” this version of XX… (Translation: Heads-up! This is interesting!)
- Clear statement of the episode’s driving question: “Should we eliminate dollar bills and replace them with dollar coins?”
- Guidance for what’s to come: “We think there is one correct answer.”
- Articulation of a bigger theme: “To get to our final verdict, we are going to need to go deep into the nature of money itself.”
- Introduction of the characters: “Let’s hear from both sides. In one corner, arguing for coins, we have Senator Tom Harkin…”
- Summary: “Just to recap the arguments on the pro coin side…”
- Transition: “Now, let’s hear from the paper people…”
And please note: We used a 15-minute example above, but signposts are just as effective in shorter pieces. Listeners can always benefit from your guidance!
Extra credit: Add some zigs and zags to your storyline
Even if your story structure is solid, your piece will be better if you add little surprises along the way: catchy writing, moments of interaction, provocative questions, flavor, personality.
Why? The brain is a prediction machine; it evolved to predict the future (Is that a sabretooth tiger running towards me?). We get delight from things that are structured in patterns, but we can also get bored with patterns. When a pattern is briefly interrupted, we react with surprise. And surprises can tickle our brains.
Think of your story like music. A balance of structure and surprise that draws you from the beginning to the end. And makes you want to listen again.
Illustrations by Alison MacAdam; inspired by Robert Smith.