Skip to main content

Power Your Podcast with Storytelling

Lesson 13 of 21

The Elements of Story

Alex Blumberg

Power Your Podcast with Storytelling

Alex Blumberg

most popular

Starting under


Get access to this class +2000 more taught by the world's top experts

  • 24/7 access via desktop, mobile, or TV
  • New classes added every month
  • Download lessons for offline viewing
  • Exclusive content for subscribers

Lesson Info

13. The Elements of Story

Lesson Info

The Elements of Story

We're gonna dive more into something that I touched on in the session previously, but we're gonna really dive into the nuts and bolts of this which is sort of what is a story and literally what are the physics of the story? What is the architecture of a story? What does a story actually look like, and how to do you construct a story? So that's what's coming up in this segment. But just before we get into that I want to review what we have done so far. So we've talked about this a little bit. We've talked about the nuts and bolts of a good story. We've talked about the art of the interview, where to sit and I think we had with my amazing co-instructor, Ann Rea, we learned a lot about that. We talked a lot about what audio is good at, emotion, and we talked about what audio is good at, narrative. And we're gonna get more into the narrative part of it in this segment. But before we do that, we had some homework that I've had a chance to review and it's really exciting. So I want to hear f...

rom some of you. The assignment again, the assignment, was to interview, you were each interviewing each other, and to take your favorite 20 to 40 seconds from that interview and send that to us, and so you all emailed your clips. And what I'd like us now to do, so we're gonna play some of those clips, and what I wanted you to do is whoever's clip we're gonna play, they're all in order, it's all labeled, whoever's clip it is, I want you to set up the clip and then we're gonna play it. So you're either gonna set up like what was, and the instructions were that these clips were gonna be some of the most honest or emotional moments for the interview or the best stories from that interview. So that's what these clips are gonna be illustrating. So are you guys ready to show your work? All right, so we have the first one is Cara Brancoli. All right, so do you want to set up what we're about to hear? I had to go pick up my daughter from school so I kind of cheated a little bit and I interviewed myself at home. And basically I just tried to think of in my life what was the most transformative or the most pivotal moment in my life actually and this is it. All right. I remember typing in the terms in every combination that I could think of, baby stops babbling at four months, resists eye contact, resists touch, and every combination that I came up with the results were always the same, red flags for autism. And my baby girl was four months old and she resisted eye contact, she'd stop babbling, she didn't like to be cuddled, all of these things that I saw came naturally to all the other babies we knew, and I felt like my world had crashed in on me. Wow, do you want to talk about that, talk about your interview with yourself, talk more about that. Talk about the story or-- Yeah. Well, I mean it has a happy ending. Oh, excellent. Yeah, so we just did what any parents would do 'cause you want to do something 'cause you feel helpless and we went to doctors and no one can make a diagnosis in an infant of autism because it's a social emotional developmental problem. Essentially we did all the research. I'm a librarian so I was on the computer looking for solutions, what could I do now? And there's lots of research about early intervention when you see these red flags, so like baby play therapy and developing connections early on to build that foundation of social emotional development which normally comes naturally to babies. There's a center in Israel called Mifne Center that is doing some amazing things in this realm. So we just embarked on major therapy for the next three years of her life. My point was that I don't really want to know if she ever had autism or not. I want to do everything. She is seven years old and she is definitely a unique, special, strong, powerful child but there's no diagnosis of autism. Oh, that's good, that's amazing. But I feel like that was again, I think that clip you selected it's powerful because we care, we want to know how your child is doing and we want to know what happens next, but again just in purely sort of auto mechanics terms it did the things, like you were sort of going through this list of like we checked this and we checked this and we checked this and it kept coming back red flags. It was like the sequence of actions that were leading to a conclusion. Not to diagnose your life in terms of the mechanics of creating good audio, but it laid out in that way and I think that's one of the reasons that it was an effective piece of clip. Maybe as we go forward, I think the protocol should be you set up your clip and then when it's done talk about why you selected that particular moment from the interview. So going forward, Julie was interviewing Shellie. So Julie, do you want to set it up? Sure, so I always laughed at after. I'm from out of town so a friend and I met for dinner. And it was a really noisy restaurant so I couldn't do my homework there. And so the clip is from the car ride. She was driving me back to my hotel and I'm thinking we already told all our stories, we've already caught up on everything, but I have to do my homework. So I turned on my microphone and I forget what I asked, something like how are you feeling? And she said, "Blah." And so I said, "Well, what do you mean you feel blah?" And I was thinking we need details. So I said, "Take me through your life, what's blah?" And then that's the clip. The routine of the day, getting my daughter up in the morning off to school, working, then picking her up, making breakfast, lunch, dinner, dishes, cleaning the house, you know those dreadfully boring routine things that need to get done. And then you do it again the next day. And again the next day. It never goes away, it's always there. And then again the next day. So once you think you feel so accomplished getting those tedious things done and then they're there again the next day. It sounds like those things don't bring you much joy. They do not. So what does bring you joy in you daily life? What makes you not feel blah? Planning vacations, thinking about the future with no dishes. (laughs) Why are there no dishes in your future? Because I will have won the lottery. Excellent, so why did you choose that clip? What was the... I think I felt like a lot people could identify with it. Mm-hmm, yeah, do people identify with that clip, yes. All right, next, let's move on. Rodney was interviewing Michael. Do you want to set up your clip? So I asked Michael to tell me about a time when and I really didn't know what when was, so I let him answer when and then tell us this really fascinating story about his journey to Vancouver from New York City where he was living at the time. And as I'm walking into the parking lot at the entrance of this park, I hear a guy screaming. And he's yelling, "Look out, look out, he's got a knife." And I see these two guys come running through the park and one of them is chasing the other one with a knife and they're yelling. The guy with the knife is saying, "You got to get that guy. "Help me catch him, he's a pervert", and all this stuff. So I'm here hiking. I've been told I've got to watch out for bears. I'm afraid I'm going to fall off a cliff. And the next thing you know, what do I see? I'm in a parking lot and it's two men, one chasing after the other one with a knife. I don't really know what happened but the police came, they arrested the guy with the knife, and it was just crazy. It was like of all the the things that I thought were gonna happen while hiking that day, it was not that I was gonna see a crime unfold in the parking lot and that the Mounties were gonna come and force the guy to drop to his knees. Awesome, okay and then let's move on. We have a couple more. Let's go on to Willow, do you want to set up your clip? I was interviewing Jen and she is talking about her father getting a diagnosis. I don't think I need to say much more than that. And so I remember standing in a hallway with a doctor and him saying to me, "No, I don't think you understand. "We actually found a big tumor and he has rectal cancer." And then the room started spinning, and then I was like wait, what, what did you just say? And then he said, "We made a mistake and found a big tumor "and he has rectal cancer and he has to have surgery "and we'd like to schedule it for tomorrow." Wow, and then we have to schedule it for tomorrow it really comes out. It's sort of a shocking end. You don't realize that that's where you are until that very moment. Michael is interviewing Rodney. Michael, do you want to set up Rodney? Sure. So I interviewed Rodney after class here, asked him to tell me about a time where he did something that would be totally out of the norm for him. And he starts off by saying it happened on a day where he was just going about his normal business but it took a strange turn. So you were in Borders looking at the business section or anything like that? Yeah, it was in Borders. Basically it was a stop I always made on the way to work so I could look at magazines, and have coffee and whatever and just hang out and just sort of recalibrate my mind, or calibrate my mind just transition from leaving home to me going to work, but something to kind of stop and do before I got into work. So it was a regular habit that I did. So it was normal for you to be there but this day what happened? This day it was like the feeling of dread was almost overwhelming. Do you want to hear what happens next? I'll give you that, definitely. We're gonna come back to the point where, we'll come back to that. We'll save that for a second. All right, so and then I think this is the final one, Shawn and Ryan. Shawn, do you want to set up Ryan? Yeah, so I had the opportunity actually earlier in the day to find out something very interesting about Ryan and I wanted to hear more about that. Sloths are great at being held 'cause all they want to do is hold onto you. Sloths. So they just wrap around your neck and you just kinda cup their butt and they're happy. So I'd be like just sitting with her in my arms chatting with somebody and she would see a potted plant like right near where we're talking now and she would start reaching out for that. And I'd be like no, no, it's not your food. So I'm like trying to prevent this really long armed animal from reaching out and snagging food she's not supposed to have and it was just an incredible experience. Sloths, right, it's a description of holding a sloth and how they reach out and try to eat potted plants. No, it's great, it's very vivid, absolutely. These are great, like it's really like these were exactly the sort of the moments that we talked about. They were emotional, they were narrative driven, they were describing key details and stuff like that, and that is exactly what we're gonna be talking about for the rest of this segment. So what is a story exactly? And we were just hearing versions of them just right now and you guys were all collecting them. But I would say there are some very basic parts to them. There is a sequence of actions, right? So it starts, it has a place that it starts. I walked out my door in the morning, and I was walking down the street, and I looked up and I noticed that the sky was blue. There was a sequence of actions and they form a rising action. And you can't help, once we are wired, once we hear actions in sequence, we are wired to listen to them for at least a little bit. And then if they go on too long, then we lose interest. Or if they don't go to an interesting place, we lose interest. But the minute I say I walked out the door, I was walking down the street, and I looked up at the sky, you're with me no matter what. Like it's a boring couple of things but you're with me because I'm telling you the story for some reason, I must be getting to a point, right. The first part of the story is just simply a sequence of actions. It has a beginning and rising action. They're telling details that distinguish this story from other stories that you've heard. I went out my door, I was walking down the street, I looked up at the sky and noticed the sky was blue. I went over and I saw my neighbor. My neighbor was outside washing his car even though it was the morning. Weird, right? Okay, so you've got these telling details. I noticed my neighbor was wearing a Tommy Bahama T-shirt. Okay, so now you got the Tommy Bahama T-shirt, you've got me walking out the door, you've got the sky is blue. And then it has to arrive at a conclusion like some sort of resolution. The conclusion, I sort of call it the punchline 'cause sometimes a good joke is a story where you have a series of actions or risings and then there's a punchline where it's like the conclusion is not what you expected and that's what makes it funny. But it can be a realization. It can be a dramatic revelation. It can be any sort of thing. It just has to just resolve into something. And for audio, it has to happen within a certain amount of time. So the sequence of actions can go, I don't know, 25 to like 40, 50, maybe a minute long. But once you're over a minute long and all you have is action, sequence of actions, people are gonna start to flag. I mean, okay, where is this going? So the punchline or the resolution or the revelation has to happen within a certain amount of time. Or there has to be enough telling detail, there has to be something that moves this, something has to change in the story to move it forward. And then often what makes a great story is that there's after that there's a moment of reflection. What did this mean? What did I think about it? And the moment of reflection can be very short. It can be a line. It can be a long story in and of itself. But it helps us, once we have heard, especially this is true for audio I think more than most other media, once you've heard the story, you've heard the sequence of actions, you heard the punchline, you want to know okay what do I think about that? And I'm gonna be talking a lot more about that this segment. The difference between a good story and a bad story is in those, you know the mechanics are the same. And the difference between a good story and a bad story is all in the details. So my story about walking out the door. I was walking out the door, the sky was blue, I looked over and noticed my neighbor was wearing a Tommy Bahama shirt, we waved, and I looked down and I realized something. Okay, so you're with me, right? You want to know what I realized when I looked down. I realized that my shoes were brown. Bad story, right. (laughing) Like there's nothing, right? So what, so your shoes are brown. I looked down and I realized I forgot to put pants on this morning. Okay, that's a good story, right? How did you forget to put pants on? All right, so then there's something. A lot of what we're talking about, so story problems come from either the story details are too familiar and the punchline isn't good enough or, and I'm gonna get to this later, sometimes the order isn't right. The mechanics are all wrong of the story and you have good parts in place, but they're arranged in the wrong order. I'm gonna play the story that I played last session. It's the story with the actor, Tate Donovan. I'm gonna play the whole thing all the way through. I won't stop it in the middle this time. But as you're listening, I want you to identify what are the parts to the story? What are the sequence of actions? What are the telling details? What is the punchline? What is the moment of reflection? Just note to yourself, maybe write them down as they come along. Note to yourself what is happening when he's telling the story because he's a great storyteller, and so he gets a lot of this stuff intuitively what makes a good story. So we're gonna play that. And again, the setup is it's an actor, Tate Donovan. He was a character actor, wasn't very well known. He was the kind of actor that walked out on the street, didn't get noticed. But then he'd been getting bigger and bigger parts and he had a big part on Friends, and so he actually found himself at a Broadway show and all of a sudden he was getting recognized. Everywhere he went, he was getting recognized, all the different people who were going to the show. And it was great because for him it was this moment where he finally got to be the celebrity that he'd always wanted to be, that he'd always wished he would have met, the magnanimous celebrity who was happy to hand out autographs, happy to greet the people, and he was doing that. People were coming up and he was signing autographs, he was chatting, he was being magnanimous, he was living the dream. I was exactly how I wanted to be. I was doing it, I was doing great. And then the kid with the camera came along. (playful music) This nervous kid, I don't know, he must have been 16 years old. He was in a rented tuxedo, unbelievable like shy and awkward, and he's got like acne, and he's got a camera in his hand. And underneath the marquee is his date who is in admittedly like a prom dress and she's got a corsage and she's really nervous and clutching her hands. He sort of comes up to me and he sort of mumbles something about a picture. And I'm like, I just feel for him, so I'm like oh, absolutely, my gosh, sure, no problem, my god, you poor thing. And I go up to his girlfriend and I wrap my arms around her, and I'm like, "Hey, where are you from? "Fantastic, are you going to see the play, that's great." And the guy is not taking the photograph very quickly. He's just staring at me and he's got his camera in his hands and it's down by his chin, and she's very stiff and awkward. I don't know what to do, so I just lean across and I kiss her on the cheek. And I'm like, "All right, come on, "take the picture, hurry up." And finally he snaps it. And I'm like, "Okay, it was really wonderful to meet you." And he just stammered over to me and was like, "Could you take a picture of us?" And the whole time he just wanted me to take a picture of him and his girlfriend underneath the awning of the play. He didn't want a picture of me. He had no idea who I was. (laughing) Oh, god. (playful music) They were in shock. I don't think they'd ever come across a human being acting this way, you know. I mean could you imagine you ask someone to take a picture and you just get in it yourself and you kiss them, hey? All right, so let's diagram that story. Let's take all fun out of that story. But I think it's actually an instructive exercise. Let's diagram that story. What was he doing? Why was that something that held your attention that was pleasing to hear? So first of all, what were the sequence of actions that he was laying out? Anybody, where did it start? Where did that story start? What was the first action? Yeah, Michael. Well, he starts right away by talking about there was the kid with a camera, he's nervous, they're outside of a theater. So you get like this visual of exactly where they are and who he's interacting with. Right, right, exactly. And then what else, what's another? So there's the actions and then there's the details. What were some of the other actions that happened? Yeah, Ryan. The kid comes up and asks for the pictures, and then Tate goes over to the girl instead of taking the camera from the guy and puts his arms around her and then eventually kisses her. Yeah, so you've got these actions. The actions are like everything is going the way he wants it to be, the kid with the camera shows up, comes up to him with a camera, stammers over. Tate goes over to the girl, puts his arm around her, kisses her, the kid doesn't take the picture. So those are the actions, right? What are some of the telling details that are in that story? Yeah, Jordan. Morgan. Oh, I'm sorry, Morgan, oh, sorry. He talks about how he's shy and awkward, how there's acne, how she's in a prom dress, there's a corsage, it just goes on. You have this total picture of this high school couple on their way to prom. Any other telling details? There was the acne, there was the prom dress. What was another telling detail? Yeah, Richard. Well, he described the body language. He said that the guy looked confused and the girl felt awkward and stiff. Right, right, right. So there's something there. What's another one, do you remember? Well, he actually, the first description he gives of them is that they're nervous. And I guess what is implied to the listener is that they're nervous because they're meeting him. Right, right, yeah it's kinda true. It's a misdirect in a way, yeah. I love when he described the camera by his chin. Like I know that position. I know I was thinking about that too. He has his camera by his chin and you can just sort of see him like, oh, okay. And it's like this nice, like you get this visual from that, yeah. All right, punchline, what was the punchline? Right, can you take a picture of us. It's an obvious punchline. So that's like the unexpected reveal. And then there's the moment of reflection. What was the moment of reflection after that? I think the moment of reflection was he said he was putting himself in that boy's shoes. Like what if that happened to me? It would be very, very odd. Right, right, and it's sort of like this nice moment where you're just like exactly where it feels like oh my god, that would be so weird and where he's commenting on the weirdness of it in a way. That puts a bow on the story. Yeah, Ann. I have a question. The music is masterfully woven into the voice track, and I wonder if the music is deliberately delineating these parts of the story. I don't know, it really, really carries you along. We're gonna talk a lot more about music. Well, not a lot more, we're gonna talk a little bit about music towards the end of the session. But just on that because what I'm gonna talk about when I talk about is music is actually slightly different, but absolutely. So one way that you use music is a way of evoking a mood, like pulling out some feeling from the thing that you're listening to. But it can be used for many other things as well. So that story actually goes on for a little bit like there's a lot of really interesting details. He's a pretty charming character. So what the music does is it moves the story forward in a certain way. He says, "Then the kid with the camera shows up." Music starts and you're like okay, and it sort of resets you. It resets your mind to be like okay we are now starting again and now I have another 45 seconds before I'm gonna get bored, right. 'Cause now I'm like okay, now I'm intrigued. There's music coming into that, it must mean something. Often what music does is, if you're in the middle of a long story at least, this is the way we use it at This American Life, in the middle of a long story and the details are really good, but you haven't gotten to the punchline yet and there isn't an obvious, and then the next thing that happened was this, there isn't that sort of obvious moving forward, you can stick some music in there in the beginning and it just resets your mind and says okay, now I'm prepared to listen for longer. And then it also is essentially just a rim shot sort of like (imitates rim shot) like after the joke then you bring out the music. It's a breather. Are there other questions about that story? I have a question coming from Allison W in the chatroom who says, "How much editing went into the Tate Donovan story? "Did it come out organically or was it up to you "to sort of move the parts around into the right order?" I am so glad you asked that question, 'cause that's coming up in the very next moment here which I'm gonna get into. It all depends on who you're talking to how much editing you need. Are there other questions though 'cause I'm gonna definitely answer that question? Is there anything else from the chatroom or anything else that's in here that people wanted to ask, yeah? The thing that's so interesting to me is we heard the precursor to this story yesterday where he was high on life that people were finally recognizing him, so it's kind of like this deflation even more when you know the backstory. Right, exactly. Yeah, I want read one that came in here. Veronica Lingo says that, "The best details "how Tate Donovan paints himself into the picture, "muffling his voice in the dialogue "as if he was in that mid-cheek kiss." And she also says, "I really love how the reporter "allows herself to react and feel "the moment of awkwardness and embarrassment. "She's also along for the ride in the story "and it's very charming to hear that from her." Absolutely, yeah, those little moments like it's funny when you're telling a story in audio how small the details can be. So the reporter was Starlee Kine who's a producer of This American Life. And you just hear her go ohh. And that's also like it does a lot of work for you. It's like a little sound. And then you're absolutely right. Details can be the things that your describing but they can also be what you're doing with your voice. And when he's like, "Come on, take the picture." Like that's a great detail, absolutely, and because he does that, it creates this visual in your mind and you see him like bending over and going, "Take the picture." You know you just see it, and it's all because of what he's doing with his voice. So that's a really good comment.

Class Description

Short on time? This class is available HERE as a Fast Class, exclusively for Creator Pass subscribers.

Join Alex Blumberg, award-winning reporter and producer for This American Life and co-host of NPR’s Planet Money, for Power Your Podcast with Storytelling, and learn podcast tips on how to tell powerful, memorable stories through audio.

Storytelling is in our DNA – integrating its principles into a podcast not only helps you tell better stories, it allows you to authentically and emotionally connect with your audience. In this class, you will learn the unique approach to interviewing and story composition, which has made This American Life a fan favorite on public radio stations across the country. Alex will share production techniques you can use to create a multi-layered sensory experience and share tips for standing out in the ever-growing field of podcasts. You’ll learn: 

  • How to develop your narrative instincts
  • How to prepare for an interview to get the best answers
  • The elements of a good story

Alex will teach you how to create a “driveway moment” — that experience when the story is so good, it makes the audience pause what they are doing just to listen through to the end.

Whether you already produce a successful podcast, are a creative entrepreneur looking for a new marketing method, or just a public radio-loving audiophile – this class will help you tell better stories.


Matt James Smith

The best storytelling resource I've come across bar none. I've read all the books, paid for all the online courses, listened to all the podcasts but for me none have been anywhere near as useful, engaging, moving, fun and outright inspiring as this course. If you're trying to tell stories with factual material, whatever your medium, this is as good as it gets. Regarding those reviewers saying it was haphazard and underprepared - huh? He doesn't offer strict formulas and perfectly structured, detailed approaches, but that's because he's the real deal. Those things only exist for snake-oil-merchant online "story gurus" who charge through the nose for "the perfect strategy" (*cough* Patrick Moreau *cough*). Alex offers what he can of tricks and formulae, but where it's about experience and gut feelings, he's honest. Thank god. Superb.

Gregory Lawson

This class is great on multiple levels. Are you interested in interviewing? There are great tips and techniques. Interested in Storytelling? Great insights into the basic structures and tools to test how compelling your story idea is. Interested in podcasting? Great tips and ideas here too... Alex is a seasoned pro, has an easy, approachable style and allows his class (and you) time to really consider and work through the concepts. Excellent all the way around!