Ira Glass on storytelling: building blocks (1 of 4)

One of the things I think is really important if you’re making stories for television and radio is that you understand the building blocks of the stories. And there are different ways to think about this.

One of the things you don’t want to do is you don’t want to think about it the way you learned in high school. The way we’re all taught that the way you write is there’s like a topic sentence and then there’s like the facts which fill out the argument.

In broadcasting it’s completely different. In broadcasting you have two basic building blocks and they’re very powerful and you can use them as you will.

One is an anecdote. An anecdote is literally just a sequence of actions. What is a story in its purest form. A story 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, like one thing following another. And some of the things in the sequence can be, and that made me think of this, and then I said this. There can be thoughts and ideas as part of it but one is leading to the next is leading to the next.

And the power of the anecdote is so great, that in a way no matter how boring the material is, if it’s in a story form where there’s an anecdote happening, it has a momentum in and of itself, no matter how boring the facts are. Like I’m trying to think of the most boring possible story. Okay there’s a guy and he wakes up and he’s lying in bed and the house is very very quiet. Just unearthly quiet. And so he sits up and he puts his feet on the floor and he walks to the door of his bedroom, and again just very very quiet. Walks down the stairs. Looks around. Just unusually quiet.

What I’m telling you is the most boring possible fact pattern, and yet there’s suspense in it; it feels like something is gonna happen. And the reason why is because literally it takes a sequence of events — this guy’s doing this thing, he’s moving from space to space — and you can feel through its form inherently that you’re on a train that has a destination. And that he’s gonna find something. So one of the most powerful things you have to figure out is do you just start with the action, and generally you want to start with the action.

So that’s one of your building blocks. The other thing that that little anecdote has is it’s raising a question from the beginning. And that’s the other thing you want is you want bait. You want to constantly be raising questions.

So in that little story the bait is that the house is very quiet. So the question hanging in the air is “why?” It’s implied that any question you raise, you’re going to answer. So again that’s another thing you want to manipulate. You want to constantly be raising questions and answering them. From the beginning of the story. The whole shape of a story is that you’re throwing out questions to keep people watching or listening, and then answering them along the way.

Okay. So you have the building block which is like the actual sequence of actions, the anecdote part of it. This thing happened and then this thing and then this thing. That’s one building block.

Then the other big building block, your other tool, is that you have a moment of reflection. And by that I mean, at some point, somebody’s gotta say, here’s why the hell you’re listening to the story. Here’s the point of the story. Here’s the bigger something that we’re driving at. Here’s why I’m wasting your time with all this.

One of the things that’s very unfortunate for people who are launching into the kind of jobs that people who are making videopods are launching into, is that often you’ll have an anecdote which just kills, it’s just so interesting, like this thing happens and it leads to the next and it leads to the next and it’s so surprising and so many things happen and you meet these great characters. And it means absolutely nothing. It’s just completely predictable, it doesn’t tell you anything new. And so that’s one huge problem. And then the other huge problem is you’ve got a kind of boring set of facts, a boring story, and actually someone has something kind of interesting to say about it.

And a lot of us, when we’re beginning, we get caught in the problem of, we know we’ve got something here, we know that there’s something here that’s kind of compelling, but it just doesn’t seem to be coming together. And often, it’s your job to be kind of ruthless and to understand that either you don’t have the sequence of action — you don’t have the story part that works — or you don’t have a moment of reflection that works. And you’re gonna need both. And in a good story you’re gonna flip back and forth between the two. Like there’ll be a little bit of action and someone will say something about it, there’ll be a little bit of action and someone will say something.

And that’s really a lot of the trick of the whole thing is to have the perseverance that if you’ve got an interesting anecdote that you’ve also got an interesting moment of reflection that will support it. And then the two together, interwoven, will make something larger than the sum of the parts.

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