Imagining The Story

October 25th, 2011 | by Rob Rosenthal
Rob Rosenthal

Rob Rosenthal

As a teacher of new radio producers, I encourage students to do something risky – plan a story before going out to report it.

Sounds counterintuitive, right? Producers are supposed to enter the field to find the story, not impose one.  Well, I agree with that, to be sure. But I also think it’s important to dream about what a story could be in advance.

And, to be clear, I’m not talking about simply making a list of characters, sounds, and questions. That type of planning goes without saying. What I’m suggesting is that students imagine how the story might eventually be told — that they sketch out the narrative.

After some story research and before starting fieldwork, I encourage students to ask themselves a few questions. Questions such as:

• In my wildest storytelling fantasy, how would I like to tell the story I’m producing?

• What will grab listeners by the ears?

• What’s the most narratively compelling way to communicate both the factual and emotional truth of the story?

• What might work as the beginning, middle, and end?

• How can I be sure to capture conflict, tension, and other dramatic elements?

By imagining the story in that way, they end up creating a “narrative to-do list.” That list will inform their reporting. They’ll determine what scenes to capture and questions to ask to best represent a story’s drama. Here’s an example of what I mean from this fall’s Transom Story Workshop.

(By the way, I gleaned this method from Robert Krulwich’s essay “Conceiving Features: One Reporter’s Style” included in the first Sound Reporting: National Public Radio Guide to Radio Journalism, which was edited by Marcus Rosenbaum and John Dinges and is now out of print.)

The Story.

Joan Lederman is a potter who makes dishes, bowls, mugs and other objects. She glazes her clay with a unique substance – sediments from the ocean floor.

Joan works in Woods Hole on Cape Cod, an internationally renowned center for ocean research. Scientists donate core samples from remarkably obscure locations. She’s glazed pottery with sediment from the Atlantic Ocean’s Kane Fracture Zone and the Hydrothermal P-Vent in the Pacific, as well as the mud from the shoreline off of Martha’s Vineyard and samples from the Arctic floor.

No two sediments produce the same results. Joan says no matter how hard she tries to repeat patterns or color or opacity, another outcome appears. This creates an element of chance in her work.

Joni Glazebrook, a student in the Transom workshop, stumbled upon Joan and was intrigued by her work. She considered producing a profile of Joan and conducted some preliminary research. Joni learned much of the information I outlined above from a pre-interview and a visit to Joan’s workplace.

Sounds interesting, right? Now what? Plan the story.

The Plan.

In class, we batted around a slew of possible approaches to the story. Some stuck. Some didn’t.

One obvious way to start a story about Joan is at the potter’s wheel. There’s the sound of the spinning wheel and hands shaping clay. There’s also a cool visual to describe — a piece magically taking shape from a mound of clay.

But, frankly, that’s a little too obvious. Don’t get me wrong. Joni should record that moment for possible use in the story. But, narratively speaking, it’s a predictable beginning.

Perhaps a less obvious and more intriguing beginning might be the moment Joan places the objects in her kiln. Why? Because of one seemingly minor detail Joni discovered in her preliminary research – chance.

After Joan glazes the mugs, plates, pots, and other items she’s shaped, she places them in a kiln and doesn’t know how they will come out.

If you begin a story with a mystery, you’re off to a good start. Tension is established – “What will happen?” I realize this is not murder mystery-like tension. But, it’s tension nonetheless. And, it’s a significant part of Joan’s process. If you start the story there, the hope is listeners will stick around to see what happens.

As we talked about this idea in class, another scene became obvious – removing the pottery from the kiln. That’s the moment the mystery is resolved. Resolution is good for a story, too.

Now the producer, Joni, had two solid scenes on her narrative to-do list  — a possible beginning and end. The middle of Joni’s story might include the scene at the potter’s wheel, a tour of her shop, a meeting between Joan and a scientist or Joan and a customer. Those potential scenes for the middle of the story might help round out the profile.

With a plan in hand, now it’s Joni’s job to go get the tape. Joni needs to schedule time to be at the potter’s studio to capture those moments. And, during the interview, she has to “drill down” with questions about closing the kiln, opening the kiln, and chance.

Keep Your Ears Open.

One cautionary note about this type of pre-fieldwork planning: Joni, or any producer, has to remain open. They can’t be blinded by their plan. Maybe the element of chance isn’t all that important. Maybe the weight of the story should be focused elsewhere. The planned scenes are written in pencil, not pen. They give you a place to start. Something to work from, something to work toward, and in some cases something to work against.

As fate would have it, Joni did shift direction once she got into the field. Other topics were more interesting. You’ll have to find out what those were when we post student work at the end of the Workshop.

Give it a try. Conduct research. Imagine the best way you might tell your story. Make a plan – in pencil. Then, move toward it. Just be sure to keep your ears open.

Rob Rosenthal is an independent producer and a teacher. He’s the host for How Sound, PRX’s podcast on radio storytelling. He ran the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies’ radio track for 11 years. And, he is now the lead teacher for the Transom Story Workshop, which launched in the fall of 2011.


8 Comments on “Imagining The Story”

  • Meg RIckman says:

    I like this! It’s like a little class for those who want to tell a tale.

  • Allison Swaim says:

    Thanks for this reminder, Rob. It’s really helpful to have some sort of plan as a starting point, while still remaining open to new things that come up that you didn’t expect. It can be overwhelming to navigate the field when it’s wide-open with possibilities for where I could point my mic, how I could direct my energy for research.

  • koci says:

    Brilliant! Sharing this my students!

  • Alain B says:

    Thanks for this small peak inside the class. Very nice for the those who could not make the class or are simply curious and really interested.

  • Joan Lederman says:

    Eerie to find myself written about here which I found after hearing Transom student’s work AND ira glass today WHILE investigating a request TO ME to deliver some photos, video or audio about scientists getting mud FOR THE PURPOSE of supplementing materials for a show of my work at Georgetown University. What I’ve learned from your work (entire cast of characters with mission, high standards and heart) is that there’s nothing I can offer that comes close to what you all are birthing.

    In today’s world with so much input, MORE THAN EVER I require being touched. I wonder…Do we ALL need to become tekkies? Having such a whetted appetite is inconvenient to manage for a compulsive/passionate one who knows the real deal. Thank you all so much for bringing this vitality forth. It’s a great model for doing more than producing good radio!

  • Suzanne says:

    As a writer who is interested in learning radio storytelling, I found this article incredibly helpful. Perhaps the first or second draft of a any story is imagining how it might be told and then letting the elements of the story form a whole using the elements of reality, but forming them into something that doesn’t exist prior to the telling, a story. Thank you for this and so many other wonderful programs. I am learning so much!

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