The Broken Narrative

Listen to “The Broken Narrative”

There’s just something satisfying about drawing story structure on a napkin. Robert Smith of Planet Money carries a printed copy of Dan Harmon’s Story Circle around in his wallet. But, as spot-on as the Story Circle is, if it’s not drawn on a napkin, it’s just less satisfying. (Joking)

I first got the idea of drawing story structures on napkins from Bradley Campbell. He’s much better at it than I am. You can see for yourself at the post for the HowSound episode “My Kingdom for Some Structure.” Bradley and I chatted about the sketches he made for This American Life and Radiolab and All Things Considered and others.

Later, I took pen to paper for “The ‘e,'” perhaps my favorite story structure. The drawings? Not so much.

Now, the broken narrative. If memory serves, I first heard about it from Roy Peter Clark of the Poynter Institute. The broken narrative works like this:

The straight line is the narrative of the story. This happened then this happened then this happened. . .

At an appropriate point in the narrative, the story takes a step to the side. The writer puts the narrative on hold to provide context or history or reported information. That’s the “broken” part of the arrow above.

Then, slyly (if the writing is good), the narrative seamlessly continues. This happened then this happened. . . until it’s time for another break in the story for more context.

And so on. . .

NPR’s Greg Warner blew me away recently with his skillful use of the broken narrative on an episode of Rough Translation called “The Congo We Listen To.” Greg and I dissect the broken narrative in the opening to that story on this edition of HowSound.


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  • Doug Plavin



    Hi Rob,

    The use of broken or nonlinear narrative is what makes storytelling so much more interesting when done skillfully. Ironically, I found the podcast on “The Congo We Listen To” a bit confusing in that I was trying to take in the piece on a sensory level while following your directive. I found listening to Greg Warner’s entire piece and then circling back to your deconstruction was much more helpful. Kind of like reading a book before talking about it in class. Perhaps other Howsound listeners will feel the same. Thanks for all your inspiring work!

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