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Serial: A key to better storytelling?

"What is a story in its purest form?” asks Ira Glass, the host and executive producer of “This American Life.”

We’ll get to one possible answer—or at least some clues—in a moment, I promise.

But first, take a look at the first episode of “Serial,” the most popular podcast in the world in 2014. The series of 12 podcasts, hosted by former Baltimore Sun reporter Sarah Koenig, tries to determine whether a man convicted of murdering his former high-school girlfriend is actually guilty of the crime.

But Koenig doesn’t start by saying that, or by discussing the murder or the victim or the person convicted of the murder. Glass, who helped edit the series, introduces the story, and then here’s how Koenig begins:

For the last year, I’ve spent every working day trying to figure out where a high school kid was for an hour after school one day in 1999—or if you want to get technical about it, and apparently I do, where a high school kid was for 21 minutes after school one day in 1999.

In his video about good storytelling—created before “Serial” was even conceived—Glass calls a beginning like this “the bait.” But he doesn’t mean it in a gimmicky sense, or at least, I don’t believe that’s how he means it, because he goes on to say that the story should also provide answers to the questions it raises. A good story should raise a question right away, he says, and then it should continue raising questions, and providing answers, to the end.

I’m going to stop here for an important caveat: I wouldn’t recommend Koenig’s overall approach for most news stories, much less for beginning journalists' stories. Koenig’s style, which comes across as disarmingly simple, is actually quite sophisticated. Her focus on her own role in the re-investigation, her informality and several of her techniques just don’t serve audiences for daily breaking news very well. But the skillful storytelling in the program still has a lot to teach journalists.

For instance, one of Koenig’s best storytelling strategies is that she allows the reader into her thought process, rather than presenting her findings as a fait accompli. In the second episode, Koenig says that the state made the case that the victim’s ex-boyfriend, Adnan, killed his girlfriend because he was angry and his pride was hurt when she broke up with him. Then Koenig asks:

But was that what their relationship and breakup were really like? Was he so hurt that he decided to kill her? That’s what I’m trying to find out in today’s episode, by talking to lots of people …

She asks aloud the question that is puzzling her, and then takes listeners with her through her process of investigating the answer.

Here’s another example: In the fourth episode, Koenig wonders aloud about the anonymous phone call to police suggesting they should investigate Adnan:

No one has ever gotten to the bottom of who made this anonymous call. The cops didn’t figure it out. Adnan’s attorney didn’t figure it out. I’ve tried to figure it out too. For a while, I couldn’t let it go. Because it seemed to me whoever made this call, he must be the key to the whole thing. But so far, I only have guesses that I can’t responsibly say out loud.

In an interview with the Nieman Storyboard's Louise Kiernan, Koenig described how she and her producers decided what to report in the series:

I think our rule of thumb is if it’s interesting to us, we’re going to assume it’s interesting to you. And as long as we’re responsible, not throwing stuff out there that’s totally half-cocked, and as long as we can corroborate what we’re doing, I think that’s kind of the fun of it.

She’s describing a partnership with the audience, the sense that she and her producers and the audience are trying together to understand the mystery of what actually happened. And it’s an idea that any journalist might well keep in mind: Keep asking yourself whether stories are interesting to you. If they’re not, then why should your audience be interested?

Glass, in his video about storytelling, says that any information can be interesting. It’s not that facts about government process or business or finance turn off audiences; it’s that journalists haven’t told their stories about those seemingly dry facts well enough.

And—here’s part of the answer I promised at the beginning of this blog post—Glass says that, at their simplest, stories tell us what happens next:

What is a story in its purest form? A story in its purest form is somebody saying, "This happened, and that led to this next thing, and that led to this next thing, and that led to this next thing—of one thing following another."

Glass’ definition sounds simple. But it might just explain the heart of what makes a long-form journalism piece work—and it might also help to explain the phenomenal success of “Serial,” because, after all, what’s a serial podcast? It’s a podcast that tells one part of a story, and that leads to the next podcast, and that leads to the next podcast—about one thing following another.

Other helpful websites

  • "This American Life" offers tips and links for good radio storytelling.

  • Slate's list of "the best podcast episodes ever" makes for good listening—for both journalists and non-journalists.

—Jennie Dear


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