An Element of Surprise

One of the most elusive qualities in radio documentaries is surprise. It’s elusive because the harder you chase it, it seems, the further away it is. It’s elusive because you can’t plan surprise. Planning is all about managing outcomes. And by definition, surprise is all about the unexpected, something beyond our control.

Of course, there are those who try to force surprise. Reality TV traffics in it. You know the deal. A woman recites her painful story in front of a studio audience. “And what would you say to your brother if you could see him again after all these years,” asks the host. Close up of the woman. Cut to long lost brother waiting in the wings. And, then…well, you know what comes next. It’s not that the tears and hugs aren’t genuine. The reunited sister and brother are surprised. The problem is, we aren’t.

For there to be authentic surprise, the unexpected must happen. This poses a problem for the radio documentary maker. You can’t plan surprise. You can’t force it. You shouldn’t contrive it. What you can do is open your process up to surprise, and secondly recognize it when it happens. Consider this clip from The Secret, a documentary by my friend and colleague Carma Jolly. Here’s how it begins.

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Listen to “The Secret”

I love that opening. In 30 seconds you get this rich picture of Jarrod. Not the whole picture, but enough to want to know more. The screwed up ID could have landed in the outtake pile. But at some point, Carma recognized there was something telling in that moment. The lesson? When things go wrong, step back and sniff out the opportunity. What does the unplanned reveal?

I’ve listened to, and made, far too many documentaries that unpack information efficiently, but in which nothing happens. That’s a failing. At the heart of storytelling is that moment to moment quality in which “something happens.” Of course, that’s what a page-turning novel does. And that’s what the great radio documentaries do.

So how do you accomplish that? One building block for radio storytelling is the scene. What’s a scene? Action unfolding as we listen. It doesn’t have to be something big. Recently I listened to a charming documentary by Josh PagĂ© about two guys in an ice fishing shack, bantering as they waited for a fish to bite. Not a lot happened. But every so often they’d get a nibble, or they’d see a fish through the ice, and they’d get excited. That was the action. But you never knew what was going to happen next, or how it was going to end.
A somewhat different example of surprise would be Elizabeth Arnold’s recording in the Great Bear Rainforest from the series Stories From the Heart of the Land.

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Listen to “The Great Bear Rainforest”

When you keep rolling, and keep talking, you never know what’s going to happen next.

In 2008 Teresa Goff and I led a radio workshop for a group of aboriginal youth in Alert Bay, BC. Our hosts set us up for the week in an old classroom in the derelict former residential school. It was a creepy place. We asked 17-year-old Alvin Stevens to do a walkabout the halls. Record what you see and just keep talking, we asked. Here’s what he delivered – unrehearsed, unedited.

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Listen to “My Life So Far”

I have never heard such an eloquent description of the residential schools before or since…a complete surprise in its spontaneity and emotion. (Click here to listen to the full piece.)

One last example, slightly different. I was working with Emelia Symington Fedy on a piece about her brief, enchanted time on the south sea island of Maevo. We needed some way of describing how remote it was. I asked her to go to the main library in Vancouver, recorder in hand, and find Maevo in an atlas. It sounded like this.

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Listen to “Paradise Lost”

That lover’s sigh? There is no way that either of us could have predicted that. It was gold. All we could do was court the possibility of something happening. …all of which leads me to my final point.

We are all obliged to plan when we make documentaries. Commissioning producers are stressed with deadlines and trying to squeeze as much as they can from a tight budget. They expect a plan. It means one less Rolaid to pop. If you are a field producer, a certain amount of planning is essential if you’re going to deliver the goods, and not waste your time. So planning is fine. But over-planning? Not so much. If we plan our stories within an inch of their lives, we will be blind us to those moments of opportunity, moments when the plan goes wonderfully surprisingly wrong.

Radio thrives on the live moment. A bear attack. An angry sibling. An atlas inspired reverie. Would that such blessed events happened more often. Would that we are always rolling when they happen.

Neil Sandell

About
Neil Sandell

Neil Sandell is an award winning documentary maker and a senior producer at CBC Radio in Toronto. He was senior producer of Outfront for five years.

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