Episode 2: Focus, transcript

with your host Jessica Abel

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This transcript is adapted from our final script for the episode so while it may not be 100% accurate, it should be very close. If you want to quote from the podcast, please verify the actual text by listening.

It’s the best feeling: You’ve got a big idea
You dive in, following your taste. You’re hooked.

But how do you know if you’re on to something that other people will find compelling?

Or, perhaps more precisely, how can you make clear to everyone else what it is that makes this idea so gripping for you?

because actually, it’s not always clear to us what it is that keeps us interested in our own work.
How can you get at the crux of what’s so intriguing to you, yourself?

Ira Glass:
wait, what’s the focus sentence for the book?? I just want to know, I need some conclusion… I need some closure…the suspense is killing me. ha ha!

Jessica Abel:
all right I’ll read it…wait a second. Here it is…

I’m Jessica Abel, and we’re going Out on the Wire.
The show about making stories, step by step.

If you’re just joining us, this miniseries is no Serial, but it is a serialized. We’re taking a sequential look at how to build stories.

There are no spoilers here, so if you keep listening you won’t ruin it for yourself, but on the other hand, you’ll get a lot more out of it if you go back and start from Episode one, Eureka. It’ll be much more rewarding. I promise!

As a refresher, this is a show about how to tell stories, all kinds of stories, in any narrative medium. We’re getting 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’ll make new stories, following the principles of storytelling I discovered while researching my documentary comic, Out on the Wire: the Storytelling Secrets of the New Masters of Radio.

Last time around we talked about ideas, and how to follow your taste to find ideas that feed your curiosity. But then what?

Even if you’ve got a whole stable of ideas, how do you figure out which ones work, and which ones don’t? How do you know if your idea is even worth pursuing?

That’s what we’ll talk about this time.

Your ideas are seeds. Making stories is impossible without them, but you need to water them to figure out which ones are big strong oak trees and which ones are just scraggly little weeds.

In this episode, we’ve got two super-charged tools for you to use for idea triage, and to build the path forward.

And at the end of the show, we’ve got a new challenge for you, that will keep you on the road to building a great story.

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

This is episode 2: Focus.

These concepts are heavy. It’s not hard to end up feeling in over your head. But stick with me here, the only way out is through. And to make the path clearer, we’re going to do this in four chapters. I’m even going to name them for you.

chapter 1: focusing in.

In my travels with great radio producers, I heard a lot about finding and refining great ideas. As I said last time, this is their one, central, focusing desire: to make stories you can’t shut off. To hold your attention with super glue.

But if you wanna do that, you gotta know…What is your story actually ABOUT?

That’s not as easy as it sounds to figure out. But by a very fortuitous coincidence, I was handed a gift, right at the outset of my research for Out on the Wire.

The very first reporting trip I made was to the Transom Workshop, in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, an eight-week workshop where Rob Rosenthal teaches up-and-coming radio producers how to make better stories.

The students at the Transom Workshop were trying to figure out exactly what I needed to figure out as I was just starting a giant new project: how to discover what was at the heart of their stories.

I met Rob, and half the Transom Class, at WCAI, which is in an old converted Cape Cod house, complete with a fireplace in the conference room.

Jessica Kittams forged into the unknown while I sat in on the class.

She came in with four interviews with people involved in a pilot farming project on Martha’s Vineyard. Her idea had been to do some kind of overview of this project, but she was stuck.
It was all interesting, and there was no one thread pulling things together other than the basic topic of “there’s a pilot farming project on Martha’s Vineyard.”

In a way, it was a problem of too much information.

The class started digging into the interviews, and it quickly became apparent that the most intriguing character in the bunch was a young farmer named Lily with strong ideas about how she wanted to work.

Rob: What is your focus sentence?

Jess: that’s a great question. Um…

Rob: That will answer, Is it about the plot? Is it about the Farm? Is it about Lily? Is it about…

Jess: [pause] I think I do want to focus on her. I think that would be…better.

Rob: Think you could come up with focus sentence right now?

I’m a tools person. And the Focus Sentence is a really kickass tool.

What’s a focus sentence? It’s a format that allows you to slot in elements of the story in order to identify the essential question of the story.

There are lots of possible variations on the idea. Rob Rosenthal, the teacher at the Transom Workshop, uses one that he found in a book by Tod Maffin, in his book, From Idea to Air.

It goes like this:

does something,

Let’s go over that again.

A main character. A protagonist.

Does something.
The protagonist is in motion, in the middle of living his or her life.

The protagonist has a motivation–inner, or outer–for doing whatever it is that he or she is doing.

There is something that stands in his or her way. Something that makes this action difficult or problematic, and means that the outcome is unknown.

So here’s an example:

Good boy Luke Skywalker is frustrated, living a boring life on a farm on Tatooine. He buys some boring new farm androids, who turn out to have some kind of holo image hidden inside.
Because he’s a sucker for a pretty girl begging for help, he sets out to find “Old Ben Kenobi.”

But the Empire is looking for those same androids, and when Storm Troopers kill his family, it sets him on a path that will determine the fate of the galaxy.

Now, Here’s Jessica Kittams’ first stab at a focus sentence.

Jess: Lily “Blank” wants to run a farm, (I don’t remember the last name)…on the Vineyard but it’s really hard to find land. This is how she’s starting?

Lily wants to run a farm on the Vineyard but it’s really hard to find land, and this is how she’s starting… ? Hm. Sort of.

Andrew: what interests you about the story, about her?

Jess: you can tell she just has this vision for future that she’s pretty sure she’s going to get there. She wasn’t…She is facing challenges but she is positive about it and excited about it.

Rob: So what if focus sentence went like: Lily (whatever her last name is), who very much wants to be a full time farmer on Martha’s Vineyard, is now in charge of her first farming project, But the cards are stacked against her..
Does that sound accurate?

Jess: mm hm. yeah

There we go.

Once Jessica Kittams identified a main character, she was able to peel away the inessential and figure out what that protagonist wanted, and what stood in her way.

And suddenly it became clear that the story was not about the pilot program at all, but about the struggles of a young farmer starting her career under less-than-ideal circumstances.

Audio from One Acre by Jessica Kittams: Farming in Martha’s Vineyard is really difficult because land is really expensive and…

Notice, this is nonfiction, but we’re talking about character in the same way we would for a fictional story.

I’ll put a link to her final story, and all the stories I’m talking about, actually, in the show notes.

The focus sentence did three things for Rob’s class:
one: it helped Jessica choose among the many threads she had available for her story.

two: It gave the story a narrative arc (Lily wants A. She will have to overcome B in order to get it.)

And three: it gave Jessica the structure to guide her questioning in her next interviews.
We’ll talk a lot more about how focus can guide interviewing in episode 5 about interviewing and research.

Sometimes, what the focus sentence does is excavate the story out of what you’ve found, and shine it up nice and pretty so you can really see what it is you’re going for.

The Focus sentence sets up a question that begs answering. Which is the foundation of the story’s overall structure: Because whatever question you ask at the beginning tells you what your end is.

The end is the answer to that question.

I learned that from another quasi-student: Julia DeWitt, who, in 2012, was an intern at Snap Judgment, which is a themed weekly radio show that focuses on propulsive first-person storytelling.

She’s a full producer now, by the way.

While I was there, Julia was working on a story about Rocky,

From story “Rocky” by Julia Dewitt: This is Rocky…Hi, I’m Rocky…

a guy who lost his mother as a kid, and then left home to work at the carnival at the age of 13. He kept traveling with them until he was involved in a tragic accident on a ride, where a girl was killed.

It’s a great story. It has drama, conflict, and an interesting character at its heart, But you’ll notice, those are all things that make good BEGINNINGS, not endings…

Julia Dewitt: If you’re gonna get into such a sort of sad story, or such a personal story, you really need to think about how it’s gonna end, for example.

Jessica: I’m sorry, can you take that apart for me a little bit? What do you mean?

Julia Dewitt: I was like, there must be a good story here. There’s tragedy, there’s recovery, Rocky had a hard life. He’s a really interesting guy, he’s got this very particular kind of, way of talking…If I’m naturally good at anything for radio, I’m good at recognizing the ingredients. The thing I need to get better at is understanding… the recipe.

The recipe. That’s a powerful formulation.

A focus sentence is a kind of recipe for a story arc.

Julia Dewitt: I would have been better served, and the story would have been better served if I had thought about the ending ahead of time: possible endings. But, really the key is to stay open enough so that you’re…you can see like, when a new unexpected opportunity opens up for the story, but that you know, you have a clear enough idea of what you’re trying to do so that you don’t come out with a bunch of…gobbledegook.

There’s an old saying in screenwriting: “Your movie is about the last fifteen minutes.” and nailing the ending is definitely super important. But that’s not quite what I’m getting at.

Knowing the ending, knowing where you’re heading, allows you to do the right research, write in the right clues, to set up the path to that end convincingly and compellingly.

You may have heard the famous rule Russian playwright Anton Chekhov laid down,

“If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired.”

SFX: Gun Cocking

The inverse of that rule is, if in the second act your character fires a pistol, you’d better have hung it on the wall in act one.

SFX: Gun Shot

None of which means that you’ll nail your ending, or your focus sentence, right out of the box.

Your first stab at a focus sentence will get you started down the path of discovery. But each turn you take in actually researching and creating your story could cause you to reassess your basic assumptions and revise your working focus.

And if you’re not flexible enough to see that, you could end up telling the wrong story, which reminds me of something Ira Glass once told me over Skype.

Ira doesn’t use a formal Focus Sentence, but then, neither will you, probably, once you’ve internalized that structure to the extent he has.

And, whatever he calls it, he certainly does a lot of focusing before he gets into the field. Ira likes to have the possible structure of a story worked out before he ever does his first interview.

But that does not mean he never gets it wrong. Reality has a way of messing with our beautiful story structures.

So, a while ago, Ira was reporting a story about a pair of identical twins who are middle-school principals that ran as the prologue of episode 485 of This American Life,

Ira Glass:
They’re identical twins and one of them will always play the bad cop, one of them will always play the good cop. And they have two different outfits. the bad cop I think wears a suit, and the good cop wears a sweater. You know? And then sometimes just because it’s boring being one of those roles, they’ll switch. And nobody can tell!

The pitch Ira got, which was what made him want to pursue the story, set up certain expectations. He was looking to find a kind of grown-up version of The Parent Trap.

You could imagine his focus sentence as something like: Identical twin middle-school principals take on good-cop-bad-cop roles because it gives them the upper hand with the kids. But sometimes they get bored with their usual roles and switch.

Ira Glass:
And then before we went out we realize that wasn’t true. Like, you know, we just checked. We just called the guys. And it’s not true. But we were doing a show which was a doppelgänger show.

So, no Parent Trap. OK. But still, really, all he needs is one minute, just a tiny clip of these guys talking about how it’s to their advantage to be twins as principals. And he’s got a top for his show.

Ira Glass:
And I went out there, and those were really sweet guys, and I think that they run a nice school. But, but they were really very positive men?

Good morning beautiful scholars!

Ira Glass:
Like they talk in that very like, I’m going to give you a positive lesson?

You come from greatness! You’re queens and kings

Ira Glass:
Which is entirely appropriate it to the principal of a middle school? But not ideal if you’re being interviewed on the radio, do you know what I mean?
So every anecdote would come back around to the kind of positive message they’re trying to get across.

So, time for plan b.

Ira Glass:
…and I think in the interview we asked, what relation do they have as twins with twins in the school, kids who are twins. And they talked about these two girls who hated each other. Who were twins. And how it drove them crazy, how they were just like, you shouldn’t hate each other.

And as luck would have it, one of these twin girls just happened to walk into the school office while Ira and the producer were standing there.

He just called us kings and queens, something something. I wasn’t really listening.

Ira Glass:
And you know if you think about who’s going to be the most emotionally expressive person in the world? It’s going to be a teenage girl, anyway…
Ha ha
But even for that population she was like super expressive, really smart, really able to talk about her feelings, full of stories about how her sister was driving her crazy, which of course you would be if you were in the situation where your sister was driving you crazy.

I gotta see her when I wake up, when I go to sleep. And I don’t like her.

Ira Glass:
And um, and we talked to her and what her experience was like with the principal. Because the principal was trying to tell her no, you shouldn’t be mad at your sister, and how ridiculous that was to her, because, for all these reasons. She had reasons to be mad at her sister.
And then we got the sister, who was equally an amazing talker, and equally expressive and, you know like the rule of thumb is like, the people who are going to be the best talkers are people who are in the middle of a conflict that isn’t resolved. Just always.

So he’s got a brand new story. But he doesn’t have a plan anymore. The plan he worked out in advance is now out the window.

Ira Glass:
And I feel like, as a reporter you’re being the editor every second you are out on the story, I’m going out in the field with a picture in my head of what I need.
And I know exactly what I need.
Just to speak to the thing you’re saying about focusing a story… a lot of it is, you’re out in the field and you’re editing a story in your head the entire time, you’re thinking what’s the quote that’s the hook of the story. And you are noticing what’s working.
And in the middle of the day I and the producer I was working with went off across the street to grab like a sandwich. And sat down and just made a list of everything we had that we thought could work. And then made a structure, and then said, here are our holes that we have to get. And then went back in. All on that same day in the field.

Ira had a plan. He always has a plan. But he’s also always reworking his plan based on what he actually discovers in the world.

His new focus sentence might be: Twin Principals try to help twin girls understand one another and get along, because they see themselves in them, but the girls think being twins is irrelevant, and they can’t see past their differences.

So: A Focus Sentence is a kind of plan. But what it gives you is a hypothesis. It doesn’t give you all the answers.

You do some initial research forays, and you use that preliminary work to write a Focus Sentence.

After that, you do the bulk of the research work, guided by the understanding the focus sentence gives you. And along the way, you reassess your hypothesis. You rewrite your focus sentence. Does it still hold? Or have you learned something new that changes your direction?

Chapter 2: The big but

Once I learned Rob’s focus sentence, I asked everybody about it.
No one used it.

But I felt like I’d found a magic wand. And I used it myself.

What’s a focus sentence again?
does something,

Trish “Trash” Nupindju is a very talented young hover-derby player on Mars 200 years in the future. She wants desperately to go pro because it seems like the only way to escape a future of poverty and hard labor on her family’s moisture farm in Marineris Chasma. But even if she could make the team, she’s too young to get a contract yet, and her family is going broke faster than her escape velocity. And then a half-dead Martian shows up on her doorstep…

Writing a focus sentence for my sci-fi epic-in-progress was a piece of cake. It’s a story about a central character who has her own ambitions, but who also is stuck in a system that basically won’t allow her success.

That’s the BUT. Mars sucks. And if Trish wants to succeed, she’s going to have to not only be a hot derby player, she’s going to have to fix Mars.

And once I had that formulation, it gave my writing more focus.
I also just straight up stuck it on my Trish Trash Facebook page in the “about” section. It really does lay out the basic conflict of the book.

Conflict. That’s the heart of the focus sentence.

The But equals conflict.

(dispute video tape)
Here come Alice and Jerry on the way to school. Oh oh, what do they see? …

When I tried to come up with a focus sentence for my book, Out on the Wire, the book this show springs out of, it was not so easy. I kept trying, but everything I wrote fell flat–it just didn’t sum up what was driving the book forward.

So then I went to Ira with my problem…

okay here it is: a band of talented radio producers make some of the most exciting and effective nonfiction narratives in our culture today because they have a crazy intense drive to tell the stories of the world around them and a powerful set of narrative tools. But the tools are not necessarily anything new under the sun, but these producers recombine them in such a way that the end product sounds absolutely new.

SFX: Trombone: Wah wah wah waaaaah

Ira Glass:
I thought the sentence was going to be…um… artist starts to get interested in radio with the best of intentions, and a curiosity about the world, because she’s life-loving and embraces other art forms, but then finds she has to deal with a bunch of really eccentric people, each of whom has their own points of view.

Yeah, my first version was something like this, something like: “Jessica is making a comic book about the new masters of narrative on the radio because they’re the best to telling great stories, and she wants to know why. But the subject is vast and she is a mere mortal. And she doesn’t know what the hell she’s doing.”

Ira Glass:
That has more heart.

Ok, all right. That would be a good story. But that is definitely not what the book is about. The problem for me in trying to use the focus sentence, is that my book was not about me and my journey. It’s not even really about the producers. It’s about their ideas.

And while it’s completely possible to use a focus sentence on a book about ideas, the core utility of the focus sentence is defining the central conflict.

And for many people doing nonfiction works that are not directly telling the stories of individuals, while the focus sentence can function as the arc of a story, it’s not compelling.

Why not? Well, in my case, the “but” of the Focus Sentence isn’t much of a conflict. “These techniques are old, BUT they feel new?”

So what?

And when I figured that out, I got pretty worried, actually, that the book that I thought was really interesting, wasn’t.

But why do we need conflict? Can’t we all just love each other?

I mean, don’t get me wrong here. You can do whatever you want with your story. And I’ll talk more about that later.

But if what you want is to hook your audience and hold them, the strongest tool you have is suspense.

What is suspense?

Suspense is an unanswered question.

Suspense is what you felt at the top of the show. You were waiting to hear what Ira was reacting to, weren’t you?

Ira Glass:
Wait, what’s the focus sentence of the book, the suspense is killing me.

And that’s what you get when you’ve got conflict.

Because when there’s a conflict, there’s always a question, which is, Will this get worked out? How? And because we’ve been introduced to the protagonist and his or her burning desire (that’s being thwarted somehow), we CARE. We want this conflict to get resolved. And that all adds up to a giant question, and that magic quality: suspense.

chapter 3: What’s interesting about it.

For Out on the Wire, I definitely didn’t have a whole lot of suspense. But I was deep in, nonetheless. I was pretty sure others would find it engrossing, too.

But then how can you think through that question of the angle, the hook, the interestingness?

Alex Blumberg, whom we heard from in episode one, formerly of This American Life, co-founder of Planet Money and now of Gimlet Media, invented a tool for this.

The XY Story Formula is a statement of your project in two sentences.
It’s a way of looking at that character and conflict, or that character-free “topic”, and deciding how interesting it is—how much do we need this story to exist in the world?

As a counterpart to the focus sentence, it helps clarify a very important piece: maybe you’ve got your narrative arc, you’ve conflict.

But is… it… interesting.

Here’s how you do it:
You tell someone, out loud, (and the out loud part is important–you have to hear yourself talk)

I’m doing a story about X.
And what’s interesting about it is Y.

“A story about X.” X is a topic, any basic subject area, a person, an event.
“and what’s interesting about it is Y.” What is that special sauce that makes this particular person, event, or subject, worth our consideration?

And the key is, Y actually has to be interesting. It has to be something surprising and unexpected.

I was talking to David Kestenbaum at Planet Money about this idea, right in the middle of their offices. And he was whispering for some reason. (For a radio guy, he’s very quiet.) So for once, the tape is so bad that I don’t dare play it for you. Wait, listen, this is what it sounds like…

DAVID Kestenbaum
Like how do you get into it?

I’ve put a lot of crappy tape on this show, but even I have standards.

Here’s the gist of what he said:

There are so many important stories out there. You could do a story about world hunger every day. But we don’t. Instead, we have this awful human reaction of, “I know, I know. Don’t bother me with that.” We don’t want to feel pity. And we have a very hard time feeling connected to that kind of suffering. It’s just overwhelming.

So how do you get into that kind of story?

A reporter at a panel David was on asked how David would handle a story the reporter wanted to tell, about alcoholism on an Indian reservation. The hook was that there was a liquor store there selling a million bottles of liquor a year or something.

And David and the other participants were like… “there’s nothing surprising about it. it’s obviously terrible. But what do I learn from this story?”

And so people were throwing out ideas. The problem was the character. Someone said, “I know, what if the character is a obsessive recycler, and then they drink all these bottles, they have to recycle them.”

The point being that the recycler has an ironic detachment, we don’t have to pity him.

The underlying topic is sad and relevant and illuminates real issues of the community, which would be fine for what Adam Davidson calls “commodity” news, top of the hour stuff, but for narrative journalism, it lacks a character we can connect to, someone who comes at the topic from the side in some way. It lacks an element of surprise.

David Kestenbaum:
Surprising right, like what surprising. There’s nothing surprising about cheap houses, but there is something fun and surprising about a 12 year old buying one.

There’s something surprising about a 12-year-old buying houses. That’s a reference to a famous story Chana Joffee-Walt did for Planet Money to explain what was going on in the housing market after the crash. She found a girl in Florida—who was actually 14 at the time—investing her babysitting money in foreclosed houses.

Tape from Chana Joffee-Walt story:
My name is Willow Tifano, and i own a macbook air, a paddle board, a longboard, four ferrets, and I own a house.

That’s definitely interesting.

You know, the fact is, I never really have figured it out for Out on the Wire. Why is this project so engrossing for me? Why has everyone who’s read it so far felt pretty much the same way? Why am I diving into what is essentially an expanded audio version of the book—meaning this show—just as I was about to finally be done with the whole thing??

Sure: I have backstage passes to some of the best shows out there. But it’s not like I’m showing slap fights in the breakroom.

Not that there ever, ever ARE any slap fights in the break room.

What’s interesting about this to me, I suppose, is that the creative process is so very mysterious, and so hard, and so basically engaging. And I was able to find some tools and general principles that I’ve been able to apply in my own work, both fiction and nonfiction, and that CAN be applied across the board, to any narrative work.

No one actually craps out awesome screenplays while sunning themselves by the pool, sipping daiquiris. This is hard work, it’s complicated. But it’s also wonderful and worth it. And these producers have a suite of approaches we can learn from. And that can make our work better.

Plus they’re funny and charming and have amazing stories to tell. Of course.

As much as I’d like to find a classy, polished XY Story Formula, I think that’s just gonna have to satisfy me.

chapter 4: really. that’s it.

Everyone I asked about the focus sentence and the XY story formula said, yeah, sure, sounds great.

But that’s not REALLY what we do to make great stories. They’re just a basic organizational rule.

Like, sure you want to find a narrative arc for a piece.
Sure you want a character experiencing conflict (if you can find one).
Of course you want something surprising to hook the listener.
But what results from all that can still be the most workaday story imaginable.

Jay Allison is the producer of the Moth Radio Hour, Lost and Found Sound, The Sonic Memorial Project, and dozens of other shows and series. He also founded the network PRX, the site Transom.org (which you should be reading if you like this show), and Atlantic Public Media, which runs several local radio stations on Cape Cod. The guy’s a legend. And he’s kind of the spiritual head of the “slow radio” movement, which would probably soundly reject all the formulas I’ve just spent the entire episode explaining to you.

Jay was one of the first people I talked to for Out on the Wire, that week I was out visiting the Transom Story Workshop in Woods Hole. We sat down in his backyard studio, a cabin looking out on the trees.

Jay Allison
Let me just ask you then. SO, DO YOU HAVE AN EXPLICIT SET OF RULES? DO just YOU KNOW WHAT YOU’RE LISTENING FOR? The structure of a story, not necessarily the order of ….the pieces that need to go into it?
You know it’s utterly dynamic, which is why it’s not boring. Because if it were the same each time, if there was only one set of rules, all stories would sound the same.
I just went to this NGO, and they called it “Maria makes tortillas” you know, Maria is making tortillas by herself but she has trouble getting the corn, she can’t find a market to sell them, so her family has hardship, but you know, the NGO comes through and it figures out how to get the corn to Maria and how to connect Maria with the…you know, then the camera pulls back, and then there’s the…and now Maria needs to hire others, which is making the village more… this story is told over and over and over again…
But the real trick is to tell the story in a fresh way each time, being informed only by, not by the rules of storytelling, but by the material at hand.
And then you can apply the rules of storytelling. But you start, start with that stuff.
The phrase we use is, “the moment you know you have a story is the moment you realize it’s not the story you thought it was.”

Jessica: Hm
And that requires that you be awake, and alert, and sensitive, and dynamic in your attitude.

So that discussion framed my understanding, right at the beginning. After that, I was cautious not to assume anything.

As much as I liked the idea of the focus sentence and Alex Blumberg’s XY Story Formula, I could see how they might feel reductive.

One of the last interviews I did for the book was with Soren Wheeler, the senior producer of Radiolab. And he straightened me right out.

Soren Wheeler
I mean, I’m, clearly, I’m looking to be surprised. And…Are you telling me a really compelling narrative set of events.
This happened, than this, then this, and then WEIRDLY, this.
And then after that, I want to have some reason for that story to exist. I want to be like, it needs to say something back to the entire universe, or say something back to me in my life in some kind of way.
Yeah, so maybe my sentence would be,
this happened ____, then this _____, then this____, and then you wouldn’t [BEEP] believe it but _______ . And the reason that is interesting to every single person walking on the face of the earth is _________.
But, that is little too demanding.

I mean, basically, what we all want is to make stories that feel non-optional. You can’t turn off the radio. You can’t close the book. I want you to lose sleep over me.

And to take it up just one more notch, let me leave you with this thought:

When I talked with him, Sean Cole, formerly of Radiolab, at that time an independent producer, and now of This American LIfe, was a ball of nerves. Maybe that large coffee he had while we talked at WichCraft in New York didn’t help.

He was on his way to meet with Ira Glass about a big story he’d been working on for ages. This American Life episode number 505: “Use Only as Directed.”

Sean Cole:
I’m just afraid he’s gonna kill it. Because they’re so killy there. You know, and we’ve working on it for months. I dunno, I don’t want him to. But he may, who knows. That’s another thing I learned. You have to always be prepared at TAL, whether you work there or you don’t.

Right from the start, Ira designed This American Life, from a production standpoint, to be able to kill something like 40% of the stories they work on. That’s how they end up with only the best.

Sean Cole:
it’s survival of fittest, and it is a vicious vicious game, it’s like every story is guilty before proven innocent, and everyone has to… and everyone is always looking for weak part to get the spear in to kill it. That’s why only strongest stories survive. I mean, unless something is like, ahhhh, we need something…

The system is stressful. Everyone loves their own stories, and it’s terrible to have to let go. I asked Sean if that caused a sense of paranoia among producers, a watch-your-back competition.

Sean Cole:
No! You’re trying to do it. To your own self. Everybody’s trying. To kill everything. You might love something, but you’re constantly saying is it worth it, or should I kill this. And you’re like, ah…

For you, for me, for all of us. Our job is to not settle.
Find the thing that will be incredible, and make it even more so.
Let’s all be killer.


Now let’s get to this week’s challenge.

But first, let’s review how this works:
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.

But it’s very hard to have the perspective you need to make your best work all alone. So to make it possible for all of us to work together, we have started a Google community.

It’s a private community, and we’ll be doing our best to moderate it to make it a safe and productive space for working together. You join by going to my website at jessicaabel.com/podcast, and signing up to receive my newsletter.
That’s Jessicaabel.com/podcast.

We will post workshop episodes in intervening weeks between the full episodes, where Matt and Ben and I will discuss some of the most interesting work posted on the community that week.

Even if you miss the initial release of this episode, there are discussions devoted to each episode’s challenge, and you can dive in at any time.

This week, I’ve given you two major story-building tools, the Focus Sentence and the XY Story Formula. They work in somewhat similar ways, but they can also be used to in conjunction with one another.

So, for this week’s challenge, I want you to take your idea from last week, and craft a focus sentence for it, or an XY Story Formula, or, even better, both.

Post your focus and XY in the Community, and jump into the discussions.

Your first try, like mine, might be kind of enh. But just because your Focus Sentence isn’t any good doesn’t necessarily mean that your story is no good. Dive in again and make it better.

Where can you seek the magic that Soren Wheeler wants for Radiolab stories?
What is the universal question you’re addressing?
Bring all that back to your Focus Sentence and your XY, and build your plan to go forward. This is your path into more focused research and deeper interviews.

At some point, it’s likely that you’re going to be asking yourself: If I’m just supposed to keep jumping in and going deeper, but I’m also supposed to be ready to kill it if it’s no good, how do I know if my story is garbage?

That, my friend, is a deep question. And not one I can give a definitive answer to. Let me just ask this: can you say your XY Story Formula out loud to someone and see their face light up with interest? That’s a start.

Remember what Sean Cole said about how he works on his stories: “You might love something, but you’re constantly saying is it worth it, or should I kill this.” You’ve got to both invest open-heartedly in your idea, and also look at it with a gimlet eye and judge if it’s got what it takes. It’s a tough balance to strike.

And in general, this kind of discussion is what our community is for. Honing an idea, and making the call: is this a go or not, that’s what editorial collaboration is all about.

Collaboration is key.

One more important note, with a nod to Jay Allison.

There are stories that don’t have a strong question. That don’t have a powerful narrative arc. There are great stories like this.

If you don’t have a narrative arc, or you don’t want one, you should probably start by being clear about your goals with yourself (and your audience). If you want to float into a reverie, or paint a vivid scene, or simply get to know a character, try to know that up front.

Because if you think what you’re doing is tight narrative storytelling, and what you’re actually pulling towards is something like, for example, a non-narrative poem (in written or visual or audio form), you’re setting yourself up for a lot of confusion and frustration.

And make sure you let the community know what you’re aiming at when you post there. If you don’t want narrative-oriented critique, make sure we know what you do intend.

Work posted by Sunday September 27, 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 the air.

To review: for this week’s challenge, I want you to take your idea from last week, and craft a Focus Sentence for it, or an XY Story Formula, or, even better, both. Post it on our private, moderated Google Community. And then get into the discussions.

On your own, you can use this focusing and discussion to build your plan for research and, if they’re relevant, interviews.

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

Let’s do this thing!

I’ll have show notes on this episode, including

Ira’s handwritten refocusing notes from the middle of his day with the twin principals (no help on the handwriting, however)
Links to the stories I mentioned in the episode
a PDF about the Focus Sentence and the XY Story Formula
and a written reminder of this week’s challenge

on my site, at jessicaabel.com/podcast.

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

Please subscribe via iTunes now, and it would be enormously helpful if you’d leave us a review while you’re there. Reviews are the number one discovery engine for new listeners, and new listeners help us build the strongest possible creative community around your projects.

To support this show, please consider contributing to our Patreon. If you’d like to become a patron, please go to my website, at jessicaabel.com/podcast.

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 special thanks to our actors Cynthia Neves, Jackson Rees, and Grace Wilson.

See you in a week with Benjamin Frisch and Matt Madden for a discussion of some of your work from the Community in our workshop episode!

and then in two weeks with…Episode 3: Walk in My Shoes

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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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