How to Tell a Good Story

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An interview with S-Town and This American Life's Brian Reed.

Black cat sitting on a retro radio

Now in its first week of release, S-Town is the latest narrative podcast from Serial and This American Life, hosted by Brian Reed, about a man named John who despises his Alabama town and decides to do something about it. We thought it fitting, then, that we cast our minds back to an interview we did with producer Brian and Miki Meek from This American Life about how to tell a good story.

For two decades This American Life has been telling poignant, humorous and surprising stories every week to 2.2 million radio listeners and 1 million podcast listeners.

In this time, they’ve learned the secret to a good story: find a character (“you have to identify a character to tell a story through”), make sure something is at stake to keep the listener tuned in, and always be different (“we won’t do a story just because it’s important… we’re looking for something that doesn’t feel familiar”).

Each 20-minute story takes about three months to produce. We take a look at the nitty-gritty process and tips on getting started.

First up, what’s the best way to actually get started in storytelling?
BR: Find a mentor. Finding a good editor is one of the luckiest things you can do when starting out, I think.
MM: Someone to tell you why it sucks or why it’s good.
BR: Someone who’s honest with you. And also, be ego-less. Always. Editing, taking feedback, is so much a part of the process. So you have to really love hearing how you’re not doing things correctly. You have to really enjoy that in order to —
MM: Get better.
BR: Be good. I think you need to crave that.

Where do you find your stories?
MM: There’s no one set trick for that; we all have our different methods. For me, I read all my local papers from where I grew up [so I] look for an interesting paragraph. I talk to a lot of friends – that’s where a couple of my favourite stories have come from – literally just friends from back home who heard something through someone else.

“There’s no way you can expect an interviewee to be more engaging or interested than you are in the interview. You have to set the tone.”

What’s the secret to a good interview?
BR: To try and trick them into not thinking it’s an interview. So just chatting really conversationally. People will often ask for questions ahead of time and I always tell them I don’t even write questions, which isn’t actually totally true, sometimes I do write questions, but I’ll just tell them, ‘I don’t really keep a list of questions, it’s not going to be like that. I just want to talk to you about your story.’
MM: It can be different depending on the person. There are some people where I’ve gone somewhere and thought I’d start the interview right away, but then actually needed to spend more time hanging out before starting it, to feel comfortable. When I first started working here [something] I noticed that Ira [Glass] did in some of his interviews, which I thought was nice, was letting people know at the beginning, ‘If there’s something you don’t want to talk about, I might ask it, but feel free to let me know and we’ll just keep going.’ I think you give people some sort of sense of control over their interview and that sometimes can be a nice approach.
BR: I used to do theatre in high school and my high school drama director said something to the group of us in the background, in the chorus dancing or something, and he was like, ‘You have to be excited doing this number. The audience is not going to be more interested in what you’re doing than you are.’ I think it applies to interviews too – there’s no way you can expect an interviewee to be more engaging or interested than you are in the interview. You have to set the tone.

What else have you learned from Ira Glass about the art of interviewing?
BR: Write after an interview – I don’t know if you do this?
MM: Write it down?
BR: Yeah. Something he does that I think is good is write down everything from the interview that you remember that was good – before you’ve even logged the tape or transcribed it or gone back to it. More often than not, that’s the stuff you’re drawing from when you go to make the story.

“I think you need to be a little harsh in deciding what stories you’re going to do. That’s something I had to learn.”

MM: I think what we try and do with that list is write down some of your favourite moments in broad strokes, and then we start looking at that and thinking about, ‘well, how do we want to organise our favourite beats into a story? How do we start working that into a structure?’ And [it’s] also pretty useful because it gets you out of the weeds of, ‘that line was great and that line’s great’, it’s like, ‘no, what are the big plot points and how are you going to move from one favourite beat to the next?’

The peer editing process?
BR: It’s kind of like a dress rehearsal. Here, we prepare a draft, we go into a room with a few other people on staff and we read it aloud for them and play the tape aloud when the tape comes in. So it’s kind of like a performance. That way you hear it as a radio piece rather than a script on a page and people won’t even hold scripts.

“…be really discerning like, ‘Have I heard anything like this before?’, ‘Does this have anything to make it special or worth doing?’, and being okay with passing on a bunch of stuff so you get the thing you want.”

MM: So you can hear what makes sense, what’s confusing ‘I didn’t quite catch that’, ‘I don’t understand that…’ As we’re doing stories we stick with that process and try and pull in different producers who haven’t heard it.
BR: You try to have a mix – people who have heard it before and become more familiar with the story, people who have never heard it before or people who are interested in the topic, and people who are totally not interested in the topic – and try to mix it up as you go along to make sure you’re pleasing both people.

What’s the biggest mistake people make in trying to tell stories?
BR: I think you need to be a little harsh in deciding what stories you’re going to do. That’s something I had to learn. I feel like when you first get into this work it’s exciting to talk to people and you feel like…
MM: Everybody’s got a story.
BR: Yeah, you’ll be like, ‘everybody’s has a story’, and you talk to someone and it was cool to talk to them – you were in some random place and the person was funny – but that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily a story you should share with however many, a thousand or a million people, or whatever your audience is. Just to be really discerning like, ‘have I heard anything like this before?’, ‘does this have anything to make it special or worth doing?’ and being okay with passing on a bunch of stuff so you get the thing you want. That’s, I think, our hidden secret here – we kill so much stuff that we start working on.

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