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Build Your Story

Lesson 4 from: Essential Storytelling Techniques with Producers from 'Snap Judgment'

Anna Sussman, Julia DeWitt

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Lesson Info

4. Build Your Story

Next Lesson: The Interview

Lesson Info

Build Your Story

So we are now talking about how to build your story on a quick note. We're talking about this before we talk about the interview, which might seem backwards, but if you think about it, like building your house, um first, you need to know what materials you're gonna build your house with, and then you go out and you get those materials, um, so this is kind of like story planning. Um, and like I said before, just like with the photograph you play in the photograph, you're going to take right? You don't just shoot it, you think of, uh, composition that you think of perspective and you think of angle and you think of the story you're going to tell so that's, what we're gonna do right now and a great resource for this stage of the process is one of your bonus materials. It's called the story map worksheet, and you just don't know about that for this section that's we're gonna be referring only to that we're not gonna have it up on the screen, so, um, yes, for people at home, it would be inc...

redibly helpful for this segment and that's it take away and so caveat to this is that yes, you plan your story, um, and then the best laid plans get ruined. So be prepared to ruin all of your plans. Um, in the interview process and and when you finally get your materials, but you're gonna be a lot better off. Um, if you do make a plan, uh, and you try and stick to it. So the first thing you need to do is figure out the beginning, middle and end. And once you break it down like that, beginning middle and end, it feels a lot less daunting. Um, and there's things you need to kind of establish in each of those chapters. Um, in the beginning, you need to establish attention. You need to establish a reason for listening. And whatever your particular story is, you need to kind of set the groundwork for whatever twist is going to come or whatever conclusion is going to come. So, um, we'll talk about that more kind of in the context of each of our stories. Um, but in the context of the taliban dating service, we needed to establish that these talibs were worth dangerous. And we're bad guys. Um, in the middle, we needed to set up the experiment that this kid was planning and what exactly was at stake there? So when I knew that was my act two I would know later that I needed to interview for act two needed to get him to talk about those things. Um, and in the act, three of my stories was kind of the results of these experiments and it being unexpected. So so knowing that that's what my act three is for my act one I might want to ask questions about. Like, what? Did you expect the results to be? What's the worst case scenario what's the best case scenario that way chapter three can land harder to some extent. Um, do you want talk about following your curiosity? Um, yeah. So what and I just talked about is on if you look at your your story map um, is, uh, is the axe on through some of the notes about what you need to be thinking about their, um, and then something I was told really, really early on was that following through, uh, the interview process in and we'll talk a little bit more about this later, but following your curiosity is, like, completely essential, uh, when you are figuring out your when you're figuring out your story and also in the interview because that's what's gonna lead you towards what is interesting, it just helps you sort of sniff out what's what's interesting um, inside of the story um that said um if you can you know ahead of time establish uh like anna said, no kind of where your attention is gonna going to be coming from um I can play some of this actually um so in the end that extremist makeover story um like I said, I needed to establish that these guys were dangerous and in fact in my first cut of the story I didn't establish that quite well enough and when I played it for my team they're like we need to really feel um the danger here s so I needed to go back and re interview my guy and get you kind of get him to talk about that and to bring that out um so uh here's a little bit of uh what we played in the beginning and you you heard in the beginning but now you're kind of gnome or what we were doing there at the beginning I was very scared because you see these people that you have never seen before in your life tall, broad shoulder mostly long here big beard andi always put on call and their eyes just imagine all of that I think the base way for people time to see that image is that as if they walked out of the bible that kind of characters coming to kabul in a place where people used to dress up and certain time going to schools and go to work every day and now these people are ruling the country so you of course you get scared I love that moment when he talks about how they used to dress up in a suit and tie um because it suddenly makes him kind of more relatable right there suddenly like people who are like us so we left that in for that reason um and then here's another clip of him kind of establishing the stakes in the danger that I put it really in the story they spent most of their time dodging the taliban and their new neighborhood was thick with newly emboldened taliban fighters. There was one particularly broad shouldered talib who like to post up in the middle of the roundabout and harass women his name was muller go far on malaga for always stood in the middle of the roundabout he was he was extremely intimidating front there's a little trick that right he says in the middle of a roundabout but was worried people wouldn't be able to understand them so I said it first for him so that when he said that you knew what you were saying you just look at him tall guy he had a weapon in his hand basically a big long electric cable and he make a knot at both ends so whenever he had someone that not will hit you on the back he was that kind of get what for his eyes because he put a lot of coal and his eyes go call is like, you know, the blackness high black now did most people in the neighborhood no malaga for oh yeah, yeah, because he always stood in the middle of the road like a color on dh everyone knew that he was malaga far so that's me setting up this guy that's hacked one of the story um so in my story, tension was actually sort of a problem because especially because rhonda had had passed away jim had a very hard time, but I mean, basically didn't didn't express any doubts about this relationship at all, you know, said that sighted sort of pretty abnormal, commonplace sort of challenges in the relationship and the challenges of being married to somebody who has seventy plus personalities and finding a way to relate to each one of them uniquely just he, you know, just didn't didn't find it challenging at all or didn't, um, you know wasn't interested in talking about it, um and so what pulls us, what pulls us through the story becomes becomes the problem, and at some point I realize this is a little bit unorthodox there's one particular podcast that actually does this but with many many stories is called levin radio it's great actually really recommend it, um but the attention we realizes actually between the listener you so you as the listener and jim because you're trying to figure out whether like what you think of this um this situation uh yes and so the way that one of the ways that I dealt with us in in the story is I, um is I pushed back I think this is the cliff is that's a play I pushed back on him a little bit and we talk you know, we talk about why that wasn't why that wasn't challenging I'll remind you the best way to listen is to close your eyes abigail hidden closets a lot when she was a little girl she was really shine nobody ever she never came out if anybody else is around and she stuttered so badly that you couldn't understand at all what she's saying it was just total stuttering abigail was a deathly shy kid talking made or so nervous that she stuttered almost incomprehensibly jim tried to teach her sign language but they didn't get very far he held out hope that may be reading out loud or something would help her and as for any child of the early aughts the book to read abigail was obvious so us I read her harry potter to see it was just a huge fan of harry potter and so when perry potter opened up the first one we were there the first day and we're sitting there waiting for it and there was this ten year old boy sitting one seat over from her and they started talking about harry potter and I was amazed because abigail had never spoken to anyone else but me that's first time I ever seen her in that situation so it was a really good feeling thiss was exceptional for two reasons one was that abigail was shy yeah, their reason was that abigail wasn't actually a kid kid had no idea you know he was talking to this forty something year old ladies for us he knew but it was abigail talking to him this forty something year old lady it was jim's wife rhonda she was petite she had dark hair with some gray in it gap in her front teeth and wrinkles around her eyes from years of smiling but she was talking with a kid's voice the voice of a kid she called abigail see she was diagnosed with dissociative identity disorder. You might have heard it called multiple personality disorder doctors have different explanations for it, but for rhonda it meant that she expressed herself through a bunch of totally distinct personalities. Abigail a little girl that loved harry potter was just one of them. So if you check out the story math worksheet this is this is all to show how you address this issue of what tension to you to set up in act one in order for the rest of your story toe work right there's a two very different stories but we're doing the exact same thing it's setting up in act one what you need for the rest of your story to be good you know, just kind of spitting out all the information you're doing it um and in order for a reason yeah and so at least the hope hope there is that you have you have just a ton of questions it's always it's always a little bit on the edge that intro is a little bit on the edge of just being confusing, which is like a tricky you know it's tricky when you're going to raise a bunch of questions with people sometimes that's good you can go too far over and have people have no idea what's going on um but uh yeah the way tension has set up there's just to raise a ton of questions that you then are dying to get answered also moving through your story map work stayed here the next thing you want to write down are all of your characters and the roles they play. This is pretty straightforward who do you want in your story and what what's their purpose for being in the story this is my students contend to struggle with the beginning is they don't want anyone remotely affiliated with the story to be in the story but write down what their reason is for being in the story in the extremist makeover piece. Um, it wasn't just this. This young man chi ce who was doing this experiment with his talent and his best friend was in on the whole time to, um but it got too messy to have the best run in it, so I just kept it on him. Um, so this, you know, this is omission. You have tio homemade a lot to have a good story, but, um, you know, try and keep it accurate. It's pretty straightforward on. Then you want to talk about your scenes? Um, yes. So on you also want to think through what? Uh, what scenes you're going? You're going toe. Try to capture what you specifically like, what seems you want talk about with your interviewee before you go in, um, and identifying why you no, like choosing those scenes pretty carefully. Something you will hear about radio specifically is that is, that is actually a visual medium. I think this just goes also for, you know, for writing and other non visual mediums. You still actually need visuals? Um, like itjust visuals that you construct and people need help constructing those visuals. Um this is the way that you don't just talk about a story but you tell the story like through moments um so one of the things that I do before I go into an interview has asked myself the question what are the moments um and like, what are the key moments when something changed or where something is perfectly captured or that are surprising a moment that you've never seen before you never encountered before um and then building out the scene around that like why when when someone had that like, that thing switched in their minds like where were they what time of day it was it was you know, how are they feeling? What did it smell like who was or wasn't there etcetera? Um and then you're gonna want to go in with a list of those scenes you could think of it as like a shot list um for blake and film and you probably getting the idea that like this story map worksheet and this build your story segment because it is really interview planning, right? You're planning for what you need to get to build this story um so you need scenes and characters and then it's really helpful to write down for yourself um two different kinds of tape you need and that's what I call your need tape in your dream tape um so there's certain things you need someone to save to make your story work and if they don't say you don't have a story and you're totally out of luck right so like in the extremist makeover story um I needed him to describe mollica far in this way that he did this taliban needed him to explain the guy was dangerous I needed him to explain his plan and explain his fears but what I really wanted for the story was for him to be like a little playful a little absurd like a little self deprecating and that like this is a totally this was a totally crazy plan um that like you know that war is absurd right and it's tragic comic the whole way through and like that was the feeling I was going for so that was my dream tapes so I had to kraft questions around that to um so I'll play you two clips hopefully um um that kind of get at that need tape and dream tape and wasn't like he could turn on you at any minute who thought of course of course you know any mistake in your life on that means either they will put in prison rape you many many times on dh psychologically just that destroys it for the rest of your life are he could just you know should you literally just shoot here and that's the end ofit and no one will care so that's tape to set up the stakes right that like what he was doing um was not safe I would my hands would be shaking my hands will be sweating that's why we always start our sentences with maybe you know, maybe you can you know don't wear a time and he said how do you dare tell me not wearing a turban I said, well I'm not saying that this is what how city goes think because they men and torment don't look attractive to them okay? So this next clip all plays very similar to that but I've just included my question um so that you hear how I did it so what I was dreaming on was that he would be like kind of you know, own up to the ridiculousness of it so I I kind of went for that in my tone I kind of just like broke it down for him in my tone with the question so you're just like, hey, tully maybe maybe a culture here a little bit please don't kill me I know I know so that's why we always start our sentences with maybe you know I would my hands would be shaking my hands will be sweating maybe you can you know don't wear a time and he said how do you but so go forward in your question you know like go for the tone you want in your question yeah you know, obviously that's you your voice on the question we have a question coming from tanya who says I sometimes feel awkward when I hear my voice on the recording you ever experienced that and how do you get over it? Were you always comfortable having your voice on there still not goingto how do you get over it? You know you just keep doing um yeah, I mean you just you get you get more and more used to it and you get, um you kind of learn what sounds what sounds weird it makes you feel self conscious or it doesn't you know doesn't quite come across right once you hear it back it is repetition and practice and yet for me it's never never like I hate this like I never like hearing my own voice it's its own torture I'm sorry I didn't get it in earlier is aboutthe seen liz it I'm still a little confused about that I got the tape part but um and I'm not really sure what to ask. So so you have to do the work first of identifying what seemed you need for your story so is this like sort of storyboarding saying I visualize that this will happen and then this will happen and then and then the more we talk it out that we keep realizing we might need to massage those a little differently and yeah possibly not super familiar with storyboarding um but I can tell you what I do and maybe you could do the same which is you know this's what makes narrative radio different than talk radio right is his scenes were moving a listener through a series of scenes we're not just talking about what was it like when the taliban came? Um so so I will write down the questions like and we get to this moron interview but tell me everything about the morning you woke up when you first met mulligan far what did it what was the temperature out what did you eat for breakfast? What were you thinking? What were your plans for that day tell me about the roads you walk down was a wider narrow what's their traffic wanted to sound like so that your getting the details of a scene because people don't talk like that and if you ask him like tell me about meeting good mulligan far you go is super scary like that that doesn't help me at all. Um so you need to ask all of the questions to make a scene and needed sometimes need to queue people can you start off with when I woke up that morning or however you feel comfortable doing it up yeah I mean if you think of like this any really good storyteller you know they do they do do that we'll be like so so I was there in the back right like it was six o'clock jimmy was over here sam was over here you know, from the sort of boston man um yeah yeah so just kind of like that channel that's sort of like in the moment um sort of like great storytelling that you hear knows another people um and then you want teo it can be helpful to brainstorm a takeaway and this kind of links back into, um what the story is actually about or the meaning that was at least thinking back thinking back over that can be really, really helpful when you're trying to figure out like what people are supposed to walk away from this sort of thinking feeling have learned whatever you might call it the you know, in some format uh in some stiles might call it the moral of the story you know, we don't we don't prefer making that kind of sort of straightforward work but like what questions you want people to have cut to walk away that sometimes what you want be unresolved sometimes question that you want be asking yourself, um but do brainstorm sort of like yeah, what what you want people to walk away with? I often go into interviews like really having kind of no idea with that but that's going to be and I sort of well do it uh a little bit more on the fly um but it's a worthwhile exercise to do at the front and it's it's great to come up with multiple endings multiple possible endings um and this is hard to do on your own it's easier to do with a friend um somebody hears the story I've laid out what are so many things you see for this like wonder some dream endings right? Like helicopter comes and takes them away and they live happily ever after great like maybe that happened you know, just get at all the different possible endings and ending is the hardest part um of the whole of the whole thing I think I've said it about every part but I'll say it now to ending is really hard it's easy tio tell a story it's hard to land it um so in your interview you just have tio not give up on like, keep digging and keep digging for something that sounds, um final and that makes sense. So it almost sounded a moment ago like you were leading towards something you said earlier about not summing up the moral of the story like any stops fable is that is that what you're trying to get somebody else to say my big goal is to find a scene like are talking about with julia story I seen that exemplifies um the moral of the story um so that way you're showing in not telling um or it could just be a scene we like to end on plot at snap judgment because it's a way to not end on reflection it's a way to not sound moralistic at the end of the story, so if you can't find the beautiful scene that julia found that like, sums up the story, sometimes you could just find a scene that sounds final, you'll hear lots of my stories with the final scene is someone walking away from somebody you know and what this guy looked like and what the ground felt like beneath their feet and it's just oh, it's just a way to end a story that, like, makes you feel, you know, kind of complete and full and satisfied. Um, a lot of people like to end on a question like radio lab all the time will end on a question, um, make your listeners think just it's really a stylistic choice and it's kind of like the pits jamming, you know, when you've landed in when you haven't, so music helps. Yeah, and in those in those cases when the scene is ending, sometimes your takeaway is not going to be in there so that, like the ending, will be different than the takeaway hopefully love like kind of figure that what what now there's a thing people we want people to consciously think but they'll have felt that our figured it out before you get there and then the end is a different thing than take away sometimes though like in the case of this american life when they often have just like reflection at the end the sort of it's just like in good fresh writing that they kind of do a little bit of a moral of the story thing um but you don't feel like that that it's more there's sort of moralizing and so you don't feel like it's kind of sending us maybe like doing the moralist or anything to question back there we're going to get mike back there while you're doing that also you should definitely watch the simpsons episode where lisa and bart are both newscasters um because they, like really nailed the terrible cheesy and things that you should never use like parts I was like in the end, there's just no room for joe and his ducks way often have that as the ending of a story in the beginning like that in our first draft you're like okay, bart, um something you can't my question is since you teach this thiss materials also great can you guys also recommend some books on story mapping are interviewing or things that we can also follow up with? Two fell upon this lecture don't answer that right now uh the first resource is always transom dot or hg er the web's transom that order t r a n s so m dot or ge these they're going some mostly audio radio specific but I think it's worth I do think it's worth looking if you're coming from other formats because their stuff that's more generally kind of about storytelling but their audio on transom there's a ton of these kind of manifestos which just essays written by lots of folks in the industry you know what they're talking about and if you read those you'll be smart even before you had them know where we got everything we just yeah um they had on a wire um yes oh there's there too illustrated um books comic comic with this kind of graphic novels but did not um that are actually they're they're actually very educational one they just do this just this american life called jessica abel is the jessica abel is the illustrator yeah um and then the second one was called out on the wire that covered that that goes back to this american life fifteen twenty years later and then um does four other shows planet money snap judgement um maybe radio lab and maybe that's it maybe there's something else but that that's helpful cs represented in cartoon form so that you see me as an intern um occasional that's an educational yeah, yeah teo you go through like the sort of like creative process how to get through blocks like how do you know howto like managed the emotional challenges of editing and how jay did like arduous that khun b soundscape ing tension just like all of it is all of it has touched on um by different also likes this creative life yeah here in the studio then well, I've noticed that in many the podcast you just mentioned there are a few stories that are given at a time not just one is their utility in sharing more than one story at a time do they sort of bolster each other up or is it more just like logistics? And you need to fill in an allotted amount of time because we started a new podcast and there's just a few of us working on it's about sharing muslim american stories to create those that platform and because there are so few of us working on it, we don't have the resources to fill in three stories at a time. So does that diminish the effect in any way? No it's a stylistic choice I mean serials one of the most popular podcast ever and they did the same story for many episodes we like to think of, you know our stories more of like a magazine style so it's like a meal we try to give you both vegetables and dessert. So so some people like that experience, but it's by no means vital. Yeah, and podcast, especially because because, you know, shows don't have to fit a full hour, just half an hour. What if I can make you can release just one story a week, a month, whatever. And it can be of really whatever length you want it to be. So just I think the key is actually just making it really great. And then, you know, it's, hitting more people and more stories later.

Class Materials

Bonus Materials with Purchase

Interview Success Checklist
Sample Pitch Packet
Extremist Makeover Story Full Audio Clip
Find Your Story Checklist
Multiplicity Story Full Audio Clip
Story Map Worksheet

Ratings and Reviews

Serena Larkin

Loved this training---plenty of great takeaways from women who've done the hard work, done it successfully and well, and know how to share that with others. Especially enjoyed: 1. Their clear story checklist (Compelling lead, Unique angle, Who will listen?, Who will speak?) 2. Their hammering home of continuing to ask yourself throughout the process why YOU love your story, so that that passion helps to drive it 3. Their emphasis on the dynamism of storytelling and its taking shape between the producer and the audience Great stuff---thank you! PS Could commenters here please focus on content, rather than the presenters' voices? I liked both myself, but if you didn't, that's really not the point of this review section. Also, please see:

Georgia Buchert

Three hours and 10 1/2 pages of furious note-taking later, I'm feeling encouraged and excited to get back into some story projects I'd put on hold. Julia DeWitt and Anna Sussman brought to my memory some great concepts I've interacted with in my previous work and gave me fresh information to help me evolve and become a better storyteller. Thank you for sharing your wisdom and helpful resources.


My high hopes for this class were exceeded. Co-instructors Anna and Julia did an excellent job conveying what story collection is like in the field, offering pointers for capturing necessary tape, and explaining the building blocks of narrative that's strong enough to keep the attention of distractible listeners. I loved that they're seasoned producers who get the human elements of storytelling and understand that it's a messy, challenging process, but shared the paths they've mapped out that work. Also appreciated the pointers on pitching, which was one of the most useful part of the session to me. I second the comment of another reviewer that the moderator's interjections distracted a bit from the flow of the instruction, though understand why CreativeLive wants to do this.

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