I Know All There is to Know About the Crying Story Game

I'm around two or three weeks late in getting the next episode of Random Waves out.  This is not good, but I totally understand why I'm delaying.  I've been worried about writing this one.

Back in August, there was one bit of feedback that poked up again and again.  It was too long.  I imagine that to mean that I wrote it in a boring, long-winded way.  I've gotten that, in so many words, in feedback on my storytelling.  Too much set up.  Too many chronological details before the tension is set.  So, when it comes to this new episode, I'm scared I'll write another stinker.  Too many details in the set up.  People getting distracted before the good stuff.  I tried writing this episode twice now, only to give up.  I couldn't figure how to structure it.  So I took another week off it to clear my head.

About two or three days ago, I listened to an episode of This American Life.  Now, TAL will put a "prologue," a brief anecdote or story at the head of their episode as a cold open.  This particular prologue was awesome.  It had tension and surprise twists.  It was entertaining.  So I thought to myself: I need to study this story.  What makes it so good?

And so, I took pen to paper and listened to prologues from six recent episodes of This American Life, and I discovered something surprising.  Now, everybody who's ever looked into how TAL tells stories, or listened to Ira Glass talk about his show, will know the standard story structure they use -- this happened, then this happened, then let's reflect on all of that (repeat as necessary).  But what I found was that these prologues all use a structure subtly more complex, and that they all tend to use this same structure.  In other words, these prologues are formulaic.  TAL hit on a great formula to lure people into their show, and they appear to use it consistently, episode after episode.

In one sense, this is amazingly comforting.  Here's a formula that's time-tested over 500 episodes, over twenty years, that I can just use for my stories.  No thinking required, at least until I develop my own voice!  On the other hand, this is depressing.  I'll be listening for this structure in every single episode of TAL from now until eternity, or at least until Ira retires and some new writer is given the chance to experiment.

Have I just ruined this show for me?

In case you're curious, below is the basic formula for every modern cold open of This American Life.  Now, this is only gleaned from six episodes from the last six months, so it is not an extensive survey.  But it's pretty consistent in this small sample size, so I'm inclined to believe this holds true for many more episodes from recent years.

  1. Set the scene, ending with tension
  2. Surprise!
  3. Back and forth between Ira and the subject, explaining the surprise
  4. The subject's reflection on what happened
  5. Ira asks a big question
  6. What happens next
  7. Surprise!
  8. Another back and forth resolving the second surprise
  9. The subject's reflection
  10. Ira's reflection

This formula will grow and shrink depending on how much material they have to work with.  A shorter story may lack the second surprise.  Or the second surprise may come from a third party that enters the story after the big question.  Or there may not be an interview, so you just get "set up/surprise/what happened next/Ira's reflection," which I suppose is the basic cellular building block of this structure.

I don't know if this carries on to the larger stories of the episodes, but I suspect there might be something similar going on.  I may follow up with an analysis some day.

As a side note, knowledgable readers will make note that TAL's music is a huge part of that show's appeal.  I didn't bother to discuss that here.  I'll direct you to two amazing posts on the subject over at the Transom.org website: here and here.   You'll be glad you checked them out if you're into podcasting.