Episode 4: Bare Bones Transcript

with your host Jessica Abel

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This is our transcript of Episode 4: Bare Bones, adapted from our script. It’s about 90-95% correct. Please verify against the audio before quoting.


Ira Glass:

a story in it’s purest form is one thing coming after the other after the other

Chana Joffe-Walt:

it comes very naturally to me to do that, this person did this and then  they did this and then this happened and then this.

Soren Wheeler:

this happened then this happened, then this…


The power of the anecdote is so great…it is in story form it has a momentum in and of itself.


there’s a guy with a good story, that’s a narrative, that once you’re in it, you will listen because the character is interesting, and the plot points are interesting.


and you wouldn’t fucking believe it but this…


how to frame it as something that’s universal, or about an idea that’s going to be interesting to you, or about a question that you’ve always had,


…and the reason that is intersting to every single person walking the face of the earth is _____]


so that you have that feeling that, whoa this is about me, or this is about the world in a way that I haven’t thought about before,


I’m Jessica Abel, and we’re going Out on the Wire.

The show about making stories, step by step.

Out on the Wire is a show about how to tell stories, all kinds of stories, in any narrative medium. We go behind the scenes with the best radio and podcast producers out there, finding out what they have to tell us about story.

And together, we’re making new stories, following the principles of storytelling I discovered while researching my new documentary comic, Out on the Wire: the Storytelling Secrets of the New Masters of Radio.

In the last episode, we talked about characters. How they help stories function, and how to find, or how to create characters that connect with your audience.

This time, we’re building the underlying structure of our stories.

(end music)

I love to talk about how all storytelling uses the same tools. And it does, essentially. But obviously there are also endless ways to actually tell stories (and I mean, how boring it would be if not!). One of the biggest, most obvious differences is that some stories are true, and have to stick to facts that actually happened, and some stories are invented.

Some, of course, fall somewhere in the middle.

(start music)

This time around, we’re going to talk about a couple of approaches for structuring stories. One is more helpful for fiction writers, and the other perhaps, for nonfiction.

And then we’re going to talk about what you’re aiming for. Do you want to reshuffle tropes of existing stories and just tell your new version of an entertaining yarn?

There is nothing wrong with that. But if you’re aiming for something more, If you want to tell a story that sticks with your audience long after the credits roll, you’ve got to start to figure out what you’ve got that is larger than the sum of its parts.  

We’ve also got a fascinating interview with Jonathan Mitchell, the producer of the podcast The Truth, where he and his team make fiction that updates the tradition of classic radio drama with a distinctly modern ear for story and soundscape.

And at the end of the show, we’ve got a new challenge for you, that will keep you moving forward with your story.

Out on the Wire. It’s about taking risks. Putting it all on the line. Opening yourself up to the world. Telling your story.

So come on, let’s get out on that wire.

This is episode 4: Bare Bones.

chapter 1: Is that your final answer?

Here’s a little secret for you. My super-producer, Benjamin Frisch, is working on an epic tale of Elven adventure:


I’m working on an epic fantasy series called Forest Lords.

It’s going to be 10 volumes, I’ve already got a website, I’m working on the massive online role playing game…

But he doesn’t have a clue how to get started.

Who is the protagonist of forest Lords.

His name is Greenleaf Barksley.

And Greenleaf Barksley, what does he want.

I mean he’s just a normal guy.

[screech to a halt with music]

This is my chance to get meta. Because that’s what we do around here!

This is where I’m scheduled to tell you that “narrative arc is an essential tool.” You know, sketch out for you the parts, how it works. But I’ve had a hell of a time figuring out how to show you that this actually should matter to you. At all.

Writing this episode was an incredible slog. And I think that’s because I didn’t start out with an XY story formula, never mind a focus sentence! We’re talking:

“I’m doing a story about basic elements of story structure, and it’s interesting because, well, because it’s interesting! I like it!”

…I would slap me right out of storytelling class if I came in with that bullshit. Or how about….

“…It’s interesting because no matter what kind of story you tell, if you’ve got a chronology and some surprises, you can make it better.”

Except I don’t. Have surprises. Or…

“…It’s interesting because as much as I claim that all these story tools are universal, I can think of a million ways these rules do NOT apply.”

Except that is not interesting. That is annoying.

It’s interesting because seriously, stories that don’t have some kind of structure built in before you’re too deep, they will eat you alive. You’ll be drowning. Having something you can grab onto, like a narrative arc or an XY story formula, that will save you in those dark moments. It will be your lighthouse in the storm.

I’m telling you because I know: even writing something short and simple can take you down for ages. Take this episode as an object lesson: I went into it with a vague idea of what I wanted to do, but without a plan, and I spent 2 weeks, weeks I cannot afford, flailing on this thing. I mean, seriously, will I never learn?


OK, starting over:

I’m making a story about essential narrative tools: the narrative arc, chronology, and framing. And what’s interesting about it is, these tools can feel abstract and artificial at the outset, they can feel like you’re minimizing what’s really good about your work, but they are your beacon in the storm. They will save you when you’re most lost.

… so let’s go back to the narrative structure basics.

[start music]

What does Greenleaf Barksley. Want.

Why can’t why can’t he just be like a cool awesome dude, who’s just cool and doesn’t have any problems like I don’t…

Well he can be, but then he does not make protagonist grade. great protectionists have to want something.


Because if they don’t want something then they don’t act.  If you don’t want anything, then you don’t do anything.

…Your life has got to be really freakin’ interesting for me to want to watch it day in and day out.

The protagonists’ motivation is potential energy. That’s the “because” in the focus sentence. A “cool dude” who’s just hanging out lacks motivation. And a protagonist without motivation…

You better be doing something pretty unusual. But if there’s no desire in there. If there’s no desire nothing somebody…nothing that character is moving towards.

There’s nothing for me to emotionally invest in. and there’s nothing for me to to hook onto and empathetically and say, “I hope Greenleaf is going to make it one day.”

Last episode, I told you, without a lot of  backup, that characters are cogs in your story machine.

What story machine, you might well ask? That machine is called the narrative arc.

And the way those cogs mesh with other elements is all about motivation. And that brings us straight back to the focus sentence.

Someone…does something…because…but…

A successful focus sentence is the most basic, bare bones version of your narrative arc. You’ve got a motivated character that’s on some kind of journey, a journey set off by an event, some kind of change of circumstances. That’s what the “but” in the focus sentence points to.

That’s what I call a spark. As in, that’s where the FIRE in the story comes from. It’s what you may have heard called an “inciting incident”.

Before the spark, no matter how motivated and pent up, the character is at the train station, just waiting.

OK so he’s looking for the golden leaf of the legendary Elf tree. And he needs the golden leaf, he wants the golden leaf because his mother is dying. And it’s the only way that he can save her. Because it’s also the golden leaf is medicine.

OK He wants something…for him to do something. Emotionally important to him.

You have just plotted your entire epic.

You might also remember seeing a chart in your high school textbook that maps the narrative arc. At the bottom left is a point, that’s where the character starts, and then a conflict occurs, and a diagonal line goes up from left to right, that’s your rising action. Then it hits a high point, your climax, and then the line falls down, steeply, to the bottom right. That’s your resolution, or if you’re fancy, or French, “denouement.”

I wrote a whole chapter about the narrative arc in my book Drawing Words & Writing Pictures. And I drew my own narrative arc, which I’ll include in the show notes.

EVERYTHING that happens in a traditional, character-based narrative can be mapped more or less to this sort of structure. And it seems so simple, right? Like, it’s just an isosceles triangle.

But actually figuring out the pieces you need to make a narrative arc with rising action that functions, and a satisfying climax, that’s the art of writing a compelling story. And it’s way more complicated in reality than it looks in that neat little chart.

You have just plotted your entire epic.

How so?

page one. We establish how much. Greenleaf love his mother. The only necessary backstory to get the story rolling, Is that he loves his mother.

But what about like I’ve worked out all the stuff about Elf culture. And all the leaves that they eat…

later and they’ll fit in later Believe me you’ll get to it. It’ll happen.

But it’s.

Trust me.

I’ve got I’ve got binders of lore.

Trust the system.

So Page one. We learn how much Greenleaf loves his mother. And he really really love his mother. Not only that she’s probably somebody who’s very wise and important to the entire of clan, right? She is a necessary person. Not only for him to feel emotionally whole. But also for his entire village to continue functioning. Perhaps they’re in the middle of some kind of crisis and her knowledge is necessary.

So. Page two. She’s hit by magic spell, falls ill. And somebody tells him, or she tells him. The only way that she’s going to get better is by getting the golden leaf.

Perhaps she forbids him from going because it’s too dangerous.

So he has to decide whether he’s going to disobey his mother and go save her life by going on this dangerous quest. Or he’s going to obey his mother and let her die and perhaps see the end of his entire village.

The next ingredient you need is STAKES. The stakes are why this all matters to the characters. In the case of…Greenleaf Barksley, elf protagonist…the stakes are that he loves his mother, and that she’s a wise old elf whose experience is needed to survive the onslaught of the Orcs or something. So he needs to do this thing in order to save her and everyone he knows.

If he needed the golden leaf for something mundane, like, I don’t know, removing stubborn stains from his elf tunic, why would he bother to risk this dangerous journey? Why would he care? And if he doesn’t care, why should we care?

But in this story, it’s way heavier than that: Greenleaf’s got to choose between risking his life, or letting his mother, and his village, die.

that sounds like a dilemma.

That is the definition of a dilemma.

A dilemma is to a decision in which a character has to decide something but neither decision is easy. And that is the ideal kind of thing you want to have at the very beginning of an epic tale of elf lore.

OK, so we’ve got the beginning now. But, you know, now he’s going to go on all these adventures to sort of find the golden leaf.

It’s going to be tough to just sit down today and outline all the adventures that ole Greenleaf Barksley will have to go through to get that Golden Leaf. You’ve got to do it eventually, but in the meantime, put aside the middle section of your story. Because if you’ve set up the beginning properly, you already know a whole lot about one other essential piece of the story.

The climax.

But you do know what the book ends with.

do I?

Yeah you do.

Can you tell me?

It ends with him either getting a leaf and bring it back to his mother in time for her to stay alive. Or, he fails. And she dies.

Basically, the spark at the beginning of the story sets up a question: it sets up what the protagonist wants, what he’s fighting for throughout the work. And the question is: will the protagonist get what she wants?

Can Greenleaf Barksley save his mother, and his village?

Is Nomi Malone going to become a top showgirl?

Will The Thing ever be turned back into a human?

Will Trish Nupindju ever become… Rollergirl of Mars?

What does the character want? What stands in his way? That’s it, that’s the secret. Period.

The climax of the story is the final challenge the protagonist must face, where we get the ANSWER to the core question set up by the motivation plus the spark. In the end, they either succeed or fail to resolve the basic question that set the story rolling in the first place.  

In the story we talked about from the Transom Workshop in episode 2, Jessica Kittams’ “One Acre,”

[Farming in Martha’s Vineyard is really difficult, because land is really expensive…]

the question is: will young Lilly make it as a farmer on Martha’s Vineyard, or will she fail? That’s the natural end of the story. Of course, like most journalistic stories, this story is a snapshot of a life being lived, and we don’t have the luxury of a final answer to that question. But that’s what’s animating our interest in the story. We want to know: will she make it? or not?

CHAPTER 2: what’s gonna happen?

Can you remember back to the beginning of this show? I barely can. I recorded episode 1 in the summer, August I think. Today it’s raining and the sun came up at like 8 am. Back then, I was clear about one thing, a fact that I think has faded in and out of view for me as well as for listeners: I don’t know what the hell I’m doing here. I’m way out on the wire, just like you are.

I say that not to be self-deprecating, but to emphasize that I’m learning from the process of investigating and explaining. My ideas are evolving as we roll here, and a lot of it is down to what you’re telling me.

You know how I keep talking about how great our Out on the Wire Working Group is? After episode 2, where I asked participants to try a focus sentence and an XY story formula, a whole bunch of people did.

But it quickly became apparent that I had given you one other tool that I’d severely undervalued, even tossed off as a joke: the Soren.

[the soren]

In workshop episode, 2.5, we talked about one of the stories that proved this point. I called up the author to ask her about her graphic novel in progress, “Taking Turns: Stories from Unit 371.”

I’m MK Czerwiec.

MK is almost done with her book. But still, her first attempt at an XY story formula didn’t get close to showing us why we should be desperately checking her website for news on the pub date.

I’m doing a story about a new nurse on an AIDS care unit in the 1990s. And it’s interesting because she becomes an artist along the way.

Then, she tried again.

I’m doing a story about a new nurse on an AIDS care unit in the 1990s. And it’s interesting because she struggles with appropriate boundaries, has a needle stick. And, as a way to cope, she becomes a visual artist along the way.

Better, but still no cigar. And so I suggested she try a Soren.

Remember, MK is almost done with her book. She has an advantage in that she’s got the chronology and the arc written. But that doesn’t mean she knows why she’s been working so hard all this time.

MK’s dad died while she was in nursing school. Then she went into AIDS care so patients wouldn’t remind her of him. Then she started painting wooden boards to memorialize her dead patients. Then she became friends with a patient who was an artist, a painter, and you wouldn’t effing believe it. But she had an accidental needle stick or caring for him. The reason that this story is important to every single person walking the face of the earth is because we all deal with loving and losing those around us and we are all taking turns being sick. And there’s no real divide between a patient and a caregiver. And it turns out. Art can help us. As the poet Marie Howe said, Art can hold it.

That is just… so good. But she felt she couldn’t have gotten there without having tried a couple of XY Story Formulas first.

You know, I do think it was definitely a step-wise process. Because you know it’s like opening the door. And then the focus pries the door open a little more. And when you asked what I was thinking it made me dig deeper and find the essence. And then the third one took that, then to the next level. so it felt very much to me step-wise.

Why are you putting this out into the world, not just making it for your own enjoyment? That’s the question you need to answer for yourself.

The Soren really helped me pull together why it was important. and it’s really important that last part too.

Because what you’re when you as the person creating the story, it gives you that distance of not looking at it as yourself. Not why I think this is interesting. But here’s why everyone should be interested in this, because that’s that universalising piece.

I didn’t understand this until the Working Group helped me get clear:

    • The focus sentence is a baby narrative arc.
    • The XY Story Formula will tell you the hook: why will you listen? What’s odd or unusual or surprising about the situation or events of the story?
    • The Soren encapsulates the major chronological points of the story (and demands that the events in question be fucking unbelieveable).

MK found that the simple process of laying out the events in order, where they depend on one another, was key to her breakthrough.

I think it had to do with pulling out, What are the essential pieces of the story. And putting them in order. The “then” is very powerful because it makes you put it in order.


a story in it’s purest form is somebody saying, this happened, and that led to this next thing, and that led to the next thing, one thing coming after the other after the other…

The power of the anecdote is so great…No matter how boring the material is, if it is in story form it has a momentum in and of itself.

That’s ira glass from a Current TV interview. Chronological sequence. Possibly the most essential narrative form.

try and think of the most boring possible story…

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 quiet, he walks downstairs, and just unusually quiet…

what I’m telling you is is the most boring possible fact pattern, but it has suspense because literally it’s a sequence of events, you can feel in the form, you can feel inherently that you’re on a train that has a destination.

That’s all good, and it’s all true. But think about it for a minute…this series of events tells us we’re on a train to a destination, and you’re the conductor. You had better be taking us someplace worthwhile.

So the Soren does one other thing: it sets up the framing of the story.

Why is this a story that the whole world, or at least a large slice of it, should care to read, or listen to, or watch?

chapter 3: this is that THING we all do

The word framing can be a bit vague or confusing. I’m not talking about framing a picture, or a literary “framing device.” Framing is about connecting the very specific ideas and events in a story to something larger.

It’s about telling the world WHY your work is worth listening to.  Finding the core meaning and connecting it to something universal.

Meeting tape:

Just chronology, one thing and another thing, creates suspense, questions.

but if there’s no payoff. you better have framing, will tell you why you’re listening. people at end, are like fuck you. you know. how many times has that happened?

where you have a story where you have this and then this and then this, and…oh my my god, I have to know! And then…

that’s it?

why did I just totally waste 30 seconds of my time?

B: That’s a question of poor framing?

Absolutely. What’s the stakes, they don’t help you understand stakes, they don’t give you a frame for the story, they’ve failed.

It doesn’t have to be like hitting you over head. And the reson this is important is blah-blah-blah…you can do that in some circumstances…but

If you don’t set it up properly, if you don’t know it and build into story, even very interesting sets of events will leave you feeling flat. Why did I just pay attention to that.

b: So you can’t expect people to like assume that your story is going to be interesting?

Yeah, why should they? there are a zillion things out there to watch and pay attention to. yeah, of course.

I’ve been reaching for a way to incorporate framing into all the best parts of the various focusing-XY-thingies. And the ideal might be a mashup of all three, plus a little dash of Jessica:

Let’s call it a Story Madlib.

First, a bit of focus sentence:

Someone is motivated to do this thing he’s doing because of this…

but then this happens, and so he has to do this….

then, some chronology and key turning points.

And therefore, this…which leads to this…and finally, you won’t believe it, but THIS…

And then a frame. Tell us why this is all so bloody important.

And the reason this matters to everyone walking the face of the earth is THIS.

Does that does that mean like a metaphor? like “elves are a metaphor for racism.”


Chana Joffee-Walt, who we also heard from at the top of the show, thought the Soren was a bit too over the top. But then, she too works in a very similar way.


I think there is like a slight tweak to that sometimes which is like, “and that is that thing that we all do,” And I think that’s a smaller, like it’s a smaller way of saying that this can be universal, not because you can’t fucking believe it and it’s huge and you never thought about it before, but it’s interesting to you because it’s a relatable thing that you do, that has happened in your life.

You look for the frame up front, before you start working. That’s the Y in your XY Story Formula. That’s the “this is why it matters to every person walking the face of the earth” in your Soren, that’s the “that is the thing we all do” in Chana’s approach.

But the frame doesn’t always come clear up front, or it may change. And that’s OK. You build your idea for framing in your structure, and then you often forget when you’re writing, and need to be reminded in the edit of what’s important. You lose it and have to find it again.


And so I often have a moment like a third of the way into writing, where I’m like, fuck, where is the thing gonna be where I’m sort of stepping back.

And the thoughts that I’m usually having are, oh this is like that thing that everyone experiences. This is interesting because… and sometimes it’s really explicit.

I don’t love writing, “you’re interested in this because of X.”

But in my head, that’s often like, okay this is going to be interesting for this reason, and I need to say that in some way explicitly. So that people know that that is why this is interesting.

I’m sure that if you broke down each part there is a section of third or two thirds of the way through, is like a paragraph saying, here’s why this is interesting.

Framing is at the core of choosing the right stories to work on. Sean Cole learned this the hard way.  

 sean cole:

I feel, I hope that I am better at identifying what is actually a story now than I used to be. Like. sometimes I would be like here’s the shiny thing, I wanna do something about it.

…even if he knew it wasn’t really a great story. Where he had no frame for it.

But, I would just f…do, do it.

Then one day, he stumbled, almost literally, on a fence in lower Manhattan that had the poetry of Walt Whitman and Frank O’Hara built into it. And Sean is a poet, as well as an audio producer. And Whitman and O’Hara are his personal heroes.

Now that I think of it, when I first went down there with Malissa, that first time, I, we were so floored. I went around talking about fence for like a month. to everybody, including my mom. And I was so excited, I was like, you would not believe what Malissa and I found down by the wharves.

She goes, You should do story about that. I said, For who? That’s ridiculous! Not everything is a story, Mom. Like, nobody’s gonna want to…It’s a fence! I mean, it’s great, I think it’s great…

this is is Sean failing to pay attention to his attention. Anything you go around talking about for a month? There is a story in that.

With the fence, the fence could have just been a fence, and had nothing… what if there was nobody to talk to, like what if people who made it weren’t around anymore. Who would I have talked to, what would I have said? I might have talked to a couple poets and a couple architects. But it would have been just like kind of a bunch of ideas. And there wouldn’t have really been a story.

Right, there’s luck required: many of the main players were alive and findable. But at a more basic level, what is this story about?

But that changes if you put this story into the frame of a show that’s about the built world, and what it says about us as humans…

And he knew a guy with a show like that.  

This is 99% Invisible, I’m Roman Mars

for 99% invisible, it’s like, I mean, you have to present it in terms of stories, even if it’s a big idea.

that’s the sound of me furiously taking notes, by the way.

And, I look for … for 99% invisible the secret is sort of a mundane fact, that somebody, it’s the thing that somebody will remember when it’s all over with, and that takeaway fact is the thing that I look for it’s the thing that sparks my imagination.

I don’t want things that are beautiful and amazing, that’s arts reporting, of me talking to you about something that’s already cool. I want to make something boring, cool.

And if I can find that then, that’s the takeaway fact.

[tape from story: Fences are a barrier…poetry breaks the barrier the idea that it doesn’t stop you, I’m making that up as I go.]


By the way, that moment, my favorite moment in that show is when I say, I bet there’s a date on it.

from show: “1989”

And then we find it, and she’s like we’re such assholes. We’re sitting around going, who did this and when? How would we ever know, it’s like, oh yeah. Read the fuckin plaque.


Always read the plaque.

He made me put that in there.

always read the plaque


There are so many ways to think about structuring stories, and I was lucky enough to get a chance to talk about a few more with Jonathan Mitchell of the show, The Truth. Unlike the nonfiction shows I talked about in my book, Out on the Wire, The Truth is one of a few very innovative shows featuring fictional stories. The Truth’s take on radio drama incorporates up to the minute narrative and soundscapes into often-unsettling one-shot stories.

We discussed his storytelling philosophy and writing process. The clips you’ll hear come from two stories, Silvia’s Blood and Naughty or Nice. We’ve got links to those episodes on the show page.

My name is Jonathan Mitchell and I produce the Truth.

The idea is to have a show where we can experiment around with how to make fiction in audio. We felt like it was a really fertile area that you could do a lot with. That wasn’t really getting explored very much. And that radio is such a great medium for storytelling. That that should include fiction storytelling to I mean it’s just there’s. It’s just wide open it’s a huge field. It helps to have an identity for a show you know

You have to kind of plant your flag somewhere. And just planting my flag and fiction I don’t think was specific enough. And so we started making conscious effort to make to make speculative fiction stories. So there’s something something that couldn’t exist. And that the characters react to in a really realistic way.

[tape from “sylvia’s blood”]

You know. Stories. Want some kind of conflict and. I feel like horror in science fiction genre has offered opportunity to express conflict. Through sound a little bit more. You know that you can. You can do a lot with music, and like drones and ambiances. And blurring the line between sound effects and music.

[sylvia’s blood]

So in my mind, like a story is the process of transformation. So you’re starting at one state and you’re ending at another.

it’s sort of like one metaphor. A visual metaphor. I like to think of is a is a butterfly. So you have a caterpillar is act one. And then the cocoon is act two. And then a butterflies is act three. And that’s basically the arc of the story is something transforming from one thing to another. Usually it’s, it’s the protagonists the protecting us changes. And so basically the opening moments of the story are establishing the world as normal. The caterpillar world. For the protagonist. And then making the thing happen. That sends the caterpillar into its cocoon or or forces the in the case of our story. It forces the protagonist to take some action that they wouldn’t have normal in their normal life.

There’s two questions I ask like what is this about. And then who’s the protagonist. And how does the protagonist change.

And. And those two things are connected. Like how the protagonist changes. Is is should express the theme. And if you’re having trouble figuring out who the protagonist is and how they change. Look at your theme. And think what will what. What person is at the center of this and will have the most need to take action.


It’s a process of transformation. And so something has to change. And so what’s changing who’s changing and. What does that imply about where the story starts and where it ends.

I did want to ask you about Naughty or Nice because did you get an assignment from All Things Considered?

Yeah they wanted a Christmas story. That was the assignment. with a happy ending

Probably this is a very common is I just you know I start making a list of ideas of potential things that we could do. And I was actually talking to a screenwriter named Danny Rubin who, who wrote Groundhog Day, about working on this because we we’ve been we’re working on another story at the time. And he had this idea of the naughty or nice list.

[story tape]

To me, it suggested a story that was a metaphor for surveillance. And. And that it is sort of brought up all these questions of like, well, how does this list get made? what kind of implications does that have for how the world works? And you know, who said, why do we why are we OK with Santa, like watching our children? like this very very very strange idea.

That suggested an inciting incident where like an elf is tasked with doing this and he’s not comfortable with it. And that was a good, you know, inciting incident.

[story tape]

Where do you go between this moment when you have the basic idea? And when you start actually scripting the thing?

What I like to do…I have a document that’s just ideas. Just story ideas and. I’ll get those ideas usually by doing a lot of research. So in this case I was sort of hooked on this surveillance theme. And so I started reading a lot about Edward Snowden and all kinds of that stuff. Just just. And also like Santa Claus mythology and, you know I also like to go in and watch movies that have very similar themes.

And so you sort of start collecting these ideas and before we had our weekly writers meeting and so you know I bring these ideas into that. And we start bouncing that are around even more. At least just start talking and I record them. I record our writers meetings. And so no one has to take notes and also nothing gets lost in translation.

So then I go back and I listen to the, I listen to the brainstorm. And I’ll take notes on the brainstorm and, and, one of the things that came out of that was this coal lobbyist idea.

[story tape]

And so you sort of start building these things and, and I think the structure actually really popped into place when I thought oh well, what if what if he he goes to seek Santa Claus and then as a result of going to see Santa Claus he gets fired. He gets demoted to the factory. And then once he gets what could be you know like how do you get yourself out of that.

I felt like he needs to want to go see Santa. And so the question is the question there is like Well where does he how does he get to Santa. What how can make this is fun as possible and I thought well the most fun way to actually get to go see Santa is to go sit on his lap.

[Story tape]

Because because you know. Say I like the idea that Santa is like completely shut off. Like you can’t see him he’s a C.E.O.. He’s a high powered C.E.O. he’s got, you know, layers of of secretaries. But then, but, but children can go see Santa. Just by standing in line. Going to the, you know, the department store. And so he sort of circumvents it sort of all clicked into place like that.

[story tape]

I also brought Seth in a certain point and. He was helping me write it too. And he had like he had the idea that maybe Santa gives him what he wants and, and then I wasn’t quite sure how to get him fired. And how the Santa. Conversation should go and Seth’s idea was well he should get what he wants to see and it’s then he gets fired so there’s like a reversal. And that was that was really great that really made it work.

And so. So once we had that sort of event. To turn the story on. Then everything else became….Became a question of all. You know how do you make this make sense. Land most effectively and get us there in as few steps as possible.

But OK so there’s this, this document and it looks kind of like an outline. All the ideas are in order. It’s sort of starts to grow, grow dialogue. You know. As the outlying kind of accumulates Moss. Or whatever. And so it becomes before you know you sort of have a scene. And then you’re working on the scene and.

For this one. We. It was very, we didn’t ever have like a final script. Of it that we just went and then executed it was more like what we’re recording this scene. Tomorrow and we are recording these scenes on Friday so we just need to know what we’re going to do in for this scene we know what place it has in the whole story about the specifics of how that happens.

Let’s, let’s try to figure that out. And so we’d write that scene out and then we’d bring the actors in and what I like to do is have actors do the scene. Like write it out for the actors have and do that and then. And then just like. Let them reinterpret the scene. Once they know the beats and where it’s going and what it’s about, have them reinterpret it however they want, and do lots of takes of that. And then just like piece the scene out to get out of the, the moments that really work for the story. It doesn’t matter if the actors give be something I can’t use as long as they give me the thing that I need in the end.

[story tape]

Thank you so much for spending time with me.

Yes, Thank you.

challenge intro

Now for this week’s challenge. Remember, we post new full episodes every two weeks. At the end of each episode, there is a challenge, designed to get you working on a narrative project of your own.

The challenges build on one another, so that over the course of the season, you move forward with your project.

And man, is collaboration ever the key–as I demonstrated vividly in this very episode. Having 30 or 50 brains at the ready is so very much better than having just one. Please come join the Working Group! You’re welcome to lurk, but you’re even more welcome to comment, whether or not you have your own project you’re developing.

And this isn’t school. There are no deadlines. Even if you’re listening to this episode weeks or months after the initial release, you can post your work in the discussion devoted to each episode’s challenge. You can even skip around, posting in one challenge, but not the next. No rules, baby.

You join the Working Group by going to my website at jessicaabel.com/podcast, and signing up to receive my newsletter.

That’s Jessicaabel.com/podcast.


OK, Here’s your challenge: This episode is a flight check. It’s getting all your duckies in a row.

I’m going to come right out here and say that this stage of preparation may feel artificially extended, especially for nonfiction writers. Because really, what we’re doing here tails right into pre-interview prep and research, but we’ve got to cut it off somewhere.

So this week I want you to do a Story Madlib–and I’ll also post the Story Madlib form on the show page. This is pretty similar to a narrative arc, and will push you towards thinking that way, from a different starting point.

Someone is motivated to do this thing he’s doing because of this…

but then this happens, and so he has to do this….

And therefore, this…which leads to this…and finally, you won’t believe it, but THIS…

And the reason this matters to everyone walking the face of the earth is THIS.

Remember, as you lay out the chronology, to focus on conflicts, turning points, moments where there is a dilemma. If you’re missing hunks in the middle, that’s OK. Get as far as you can.

…and that last bit is for everybody. You want to check yourself now. Are you making a story that’s just weird or exotic, or does it have something larger to say back to the world?

If that’s what you’re aiming for, you need a frame. Your understanding of the frame will evolve as you work, but stepping back and thinking about it explicitly is incredibly valuable in making choices about how to move forward.

If you’re making a character-centered work, you additionally want to make sure you’re clear on two things: What is the spark? And then define the question that it poses for the protagonist, that the ending will need to answer.

If you’re working in nonfiction, you may not know the answer before you interview, but you can certainly identify the options.

I’d also note that talking about this out loud with someone is bracing and clarifying. I talked about the frame for this episode multiple times with both Ben and Matt, and could not have finished it without that. Talk it out with someone.

We will, in fact, be running a live hangout about story structure in the Working Group the week after next, so join now, and you’ll be able to ask me your questions directly. Scheduling of that hangout will happen inside the group, so check it out.

As you probably know, we post workshop episodes in intervening weeks between the full episodes, where Matt and Ben and I discuss some of the most interesting work posted on the community that week.

Work posted by SATURDAY October 24, 2015, at midnight Pacific Time will be eligible to be featured on the next workshop episode. But don’t worry: We will always ask permission before talking about your work on air!

Note that this is a day earlier than we have been doing. We realized we need a day to get in touch with people before we record!

And if you’re listening after that date, you can still post and get feedback! We just can’t time-travel back to talk about your work on the show.

You can get access to the group by signing up on my website: jessicaabel.com/podcast

Brace up, and let’s go!


I’ll have show notes on this episode, including

  • the narrative arc chart from Drawing Words & Writing Pictures
  • and links to all the stories we talked about
  • and the story madlib

on my site, at jessicaabel.com/podcast.

You can also get show notes emailed to you, if you’re on the newsletter.

Out on the Wire stems from my new graphic nonfiction book about how the best producers on the radio and in podcasts make their incredible stories. Get your copy of Out on the Wire: the Storytelling Secrets of the New Masters of Radio. go to jessicaabel.com/outonthewire.

Hey! We’ve got a Patreon to keep this show happening! Please consider becoming a patron. It’s a huge boost for us, obviously financially, but really it’s just such an enormous shot in the arm to know that you are willing to commit to us like we are committed to you. Every time I get a confirmation from a new Patreon, whether it’s a $1 pledge or a $40 pledge, I feel like it’s proof that someone out there is really getting something out of all this mess.

This week, we’ll be adding an extended version of the Jonathan Mitchell interview for patrons, over one hour of fascinating fiction talk, with lots about Sylvia’s Blood, and Ben’s deep questions about soundscaping the stories.

We’ve got links to our Patreon at my website, at jessicaabel.com/podcast. And we would love it if you’d take look at what we’ve got there for you.

You can find me on twitter at @jccabel. Benjamin is @BenjaminFrisch.

We’re also on Facebook, Tumblr, and Pinterest. Those links are on our webpage.

Produced by Benjamin Frisch, with music contributed by Matt Madden.

Made with the support of La Maison des Auteurs, Angouleme.

And thanks to our voice actors in this episode Giorgia Marras and Grace Wilson.

See you in a week with Benjamin Frisch and Matt Madden for a discussion of some of your work from the Out on the Wire Working Group in our workshop episode!

and then in a few weeks with…Episode 5: you’re not lucky, you’re just good.

How do I like how can I am like bring my story to the next level. Like I want to be. JR JR. Tolkien. I want to be George R. R. Martin.

Oh my gosh they both have double Rs in the middle? That’s what you have to do!

I think they might


Yeah I think so that’s what you have to do! Benjamin RR Frisch.

That’s the answer.

That’s the secret.

Help us out by sharing this show with your friends!

Get Bonus Content & Support Out on a Wire


Check out the Out on the Wire Bonus Pack. Featuring all of the new interviews we conducted for the show, plus our soundtrack music by Matt Madden. It’s ten bucks (or more, if you’re feeling generous.) It’s a great way to spend more time with our fabulous guests and support the show.

Includes full length interviews with:

  • Stephanie Foo (This American Life)
  • Jonathan Mitchell (The Truth podcast)
  • Larissa MacFarquahar (The New Yorker)
  • Kazu Kibuishi (Amulet)
  • Our edit with Robert Smith and Jess Jiang (Planet Money)
  • Rob Rosenthal (the Transom Workshop, How Sound)

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