Exercise: Imagining your story

The following is an excerpt of a post from Transom.org. It was written by Rob Rosenthal, lead teacher for the Transom Story Workshop. He also hosts the podcast How Sound. What he’s describing is a great exercise. It can free you of the inevitable limitations of journalism (you can’t make people say exactly what you want!) but also impose discipline on your storytelling process. This excerpt was reposted with permission.

As a teacher of new radio producers, I encourage students to do something risky – plan a story before going out to report it.

Sounds counterintuitive, right? Producers are supposed to enter the field to find the story, not impose one.  Well, I agree with that, to be sure. But I also think it’s important to dream about what a story could be in advance.

And, to be clear, I’m not talking about simply making a list of characters, sounds, and questions. That type of planning goes without saying. What I’m suggesting is that students imagine how the story might eventually be told — that they sketch out the narrative.

After some story research and before starting fieldwork, I encourage students to ask themselves a few questions. Questions such as:

• In my wildest storytelling fantasy, how would I like to tell the story I’m producing?

• What will grab listeners by the ears?

• What’s the most narratively compelling way to communicate both the factual and emotional truth of the story?

• What might work as the beginning, middle, and end?

• How can I be sure to capture conflict, tension, and other dramatic elements?

By imagining the story in that way, they end up creating a “narrative to-do list.” That list will inform their reporting. They’ll determine what scenes to capture and questions to ask to best represent a story’s drama.

(By the way, I gleaned this method from Robert Krulwich’s essay “Conceiving Features: One Reporter’s Style” included in the first Sound Reporting: National Public Radio Guide to Radio Journalism, which was edited by Marcus Rosenbaum and John Dinges and is now out of print.)

Rob’s post continues with a specific example from the Transom Story Workshop. You can keep reading here.

Alison MacAdam was a Senior Editorial Specialist with the NPR Training team, where she focused on audio storytelling. Prior to that, she edited All Things Considered.