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Attention, Filmmakers: Here Are the Secrets to the ‘Serial’ Podcast’s Storytelling Success

Attention, Filmmakers: Here Are the Secrets to the 'Serial' Podcast's Storytelling Success

For now, at least, there are still two Americas: the half
that is totally consumed by the podcast “Serial,” and the one that will
be once someone convinces them to start the first episode.

If you know someone who’s listening, and they have not
already talked your ear off about it, you should feel free to ask them — it will not be difficult to pry an opinion
out of them. But if you’re in the
latter half, and none of your friends is yet a convert, here’s what you need to

“Serial” is a new show from the producers of “This
American Life” that has, in two short months, become the most downloaded
podcast in the world. For the
entire first season, it’s covering a single murder case — the murder of high
school student Hae Min Lee, which took place near Baltimore in 1999. Each
episode of “Serial” takes a different angle on the crime and the
conviction of Lee’s ex-boyfriend Adnan Syed, who has been in prison for fifteen
years based on one witness’s shaky testimony.

“Serial’s” meteoric success — it’s now chalking
up around 1.5 million listeners per episode, and its growth shows no signs of
slowing — may seem baffling to
the majority of Americans who are not yet fans, but it’s worth their attention:
“Serial” is one of the most compelling stories anyone’s telling in
any form of media today. It’s worth asking, then, what filmmakers and other
storytellers can learn from the podcast’s success.

Not Knowing

“Serial” often gets compared to that other
critical and fan darling, “The Wire,” for reasons that may be obvious:
both are ethically complex crime stories set in Baltimore told from a range of

What makes “Serial” unique is the way it puts the
conventions of high-concept scripted crime drama to work in service of a true
story. It’s a high wire act,
because some of the subjects are almost certainly lying — some contradictions
are unresolvable otherwise — but the storyteller, producer Sarah Koenig, is as
unsure of who to trust as her audience.
She’s not controlling the story, and as she continues to investigate, what
she learns often colors everything that has come before.

In this way, the work of documentarian Errol Morris may be a
better comparison than “The Wire.” His films — as well as his recent book about the Jeffrey
MacDonald trials — often revolve around multiple perspectives and
irreconcilable accounts. Morris’s work hovers seductively in the realm of the
uncertain. Through the lens of true crime, he has investigated the
ramifications of not-knowing, the limits of what can be known, and how we can
find meaning when, despite everyone’s best effort, not-knowing is all that

But Morris enjoys the advantage of perspective: he can
conceive of a cohesive (if sometimes self-contradictory) whole before he lets his
story out into the world. Koenig,
on the other hand, is working week-to-week. As “Serial” progresses
and listeners grow ever more invested in the story, a gnawing dread arises: its
central questions simply may not have answers, at least for us, at least for

What’s the lesson in the risk that Koenig is taking? Storytellers are obsessed with structure,
with act breaks, with satisfying endings. This is perhaps doubly true for
non-fiction storytellers: when you set out to tell a true story, you have to do
justice to the truth even as you cram it into a satisfying story-sized box.

If you want to tell a story but don’t know the answers to
your central questions in advance — or even whether you will find the answers
— it’s a big risk to trust that you can wrap it up in a satisfying way. But, as
Koenig told Rolling Stone
, “The sensation of thinking, ‘Wow, I got deep
inside this thing, and I learned everything I could about it’ — there’s a satisfaction to that.” Even if the show ends having answered few of the mysteries
it raised, Koenig will have pulled off a tremendously satisfying feat. (Take a lesson, “The Killing”!)

Ira Glass and New

Early adopters know “Serial” owes the most to the
show that spawned it: Ira Glass’s public radio institution (and former number-one-podcast-in-America)
This American Life.”

Glass’s voice kicks off the show each week with the words
“previously, on ‘Serial.’” Those
words serve a dual purpose: first, they grab the attention of — and signify Glass’s
stamp of approval to — the millions who tune in weekly to “This American
Life.” As importantly, they succinctly set what is to come squarely in the
genre of episodic drama.

Glass speaks often about his desire to create a new kind of
journalism that is outside of the medium’s stodgy traditions, as he has railed
against the idea of the reporter as an impartial, omniscient authority. Radio, he has said, is an intimate
medium. In the place of bombastic
declarations of The News by his radio forebears, he advocates a conversational
tone. Reporters, in his view, should allow themselves to be surprised by the
things they learn in their reporting, and should allow the audience to know
they are surprised.

Glass’s view, once radical but now de rigueur for a
particular school of journalists, is worth considering for any aspiring
storyteller: Have you assumed conventions of authorial authority in your work
by default? Does this serve the story you hope to tell? Can you make the way the story’s told
more direct and personal? If you’re not having a conversation with the
audience, did you choose that consciously?

Cast of Characters

Koenig’s approach is all of the things Glass advocates and
more. She’s so charming and human,
it’s hard not to identify with her, but she is still a reporter foremost. Her
fundamental ambivalence toward the guilt or innocence of her characters is
necessary to pull the story off.

Critics have observed that the protagonist of this piece is
Koenig herself; it’s easy to see why “Serial” only works as long as
this is true. She’s not an
advocate for any player in the drama, nor for a grand ideological stance about fairness
in America. She’s just
curious. She’s objective and often
skeptical, as journalists should be, but she follows her own subjective judgment. She allows herself to be surprised by
what she learns.

Her curiosity — and the forthright way she discusses her
doubts and what she does not yet know — allows the listener to imagine her as
an avatar for his or her own curiosity, with a remarkable ability to ask the
questions that the audience would like to ask.

Also, Koenig has selected an exquisite cast of supporting
characters, and done a tremendous job of humanizing each interview subject (a
skill you might expect to find in an alum of “This American Life”). So
far, two of the central characters in the case have gotten entire episodes
dedicated to them, and in both cases, the new depth recasts everything that
came before. But even the
supporting players — like Dana, a fellow producer who accompanied Koenig in
one episode as she put the prosecution’s timeline to the test — are
three-dimensional. (Is there anyone listening to “Serial” who did not
daydream for a minute about being Dana, riding in that

Storytellers love characters who make bold choices and are
changed by them. But there are
many stories that are best served by putting a narrator in the middle of the
action, and reporting what they can see from there. When this is done well, it’s
a neat trick: the narrator melts away and the audience imagines itself in her

No Spoilers

The rise of binge-consumption is one of the most significant
changes in our on-demand media world.
“Serial” is an antidote to binges. Koenig has said in interviews that she is not much farther
ahead of the story than listeners; she told Vulture at the end of October that,
as of episode six, the show was more or less reporting in real-time.

This fact is key to the show’s success. While Koenig has been researching the
story for more than a year, she’s working without a script for the next
episode, and she says she doesn’t have a resolution in mind for the show.

It’s not possible to spoil a show that has no ending.

Constraints often make better art than does boundless freedom,
and the unique constraints inherent in producing “Serial” have a huge role in what makes the show so appealing. What
constraints shape your work? Would
it be better served and more fun to create if there were a few more?

The Self-propelled Story

There’s another genre in the mix that adds to “Serial’s”
originality: interactive fiction.
The Information Age is the promise of Choose-Your-Own-Adventure writ
large; “Serial” is what happens when the new possibilities of
networked-storytelling meet true crime.

The show has reached a critical mass. The part of the story that has already
been told, and the reaction to it, is now serving as its narrative engine. Its popularity begets popularity; and
with popularity comes more resources, more ears, more data. Episode 9 began
with three important revelations that came from listeners who had some real-life
involvement in the case, demonstrating that there those in the audience who can
move the story along by adding material facts.

But the genius of “Serial” is that even for
listeners whose lives are far removed from the case, the show has the allure of
a classic whodunit, where the solution to this crime is knowable, if we listen

A conventional true crime story is a closed loop. Everything that will be in the final
version has already happened; the only question is how to package it. But in “Serial,” the story up-to-now
is in the driver’s seat, and the reactions to and ramifications of it are
increasingly steering toward what comes next. That’s one of the most radically
inventive things about the show. It creates a
recursive loop where the listeners become the story, even as participants in
the story become listeners. The line becomes blurry.

By providing case evidence on its website, and
encouraging listeners to pore over it as they listen, “Serial” taps
into a relatively new cultural assumption about the ubiquity of information.
Our ever-broadening access to data makes us feel as though there’s no
question we can’t answer. Not knowing
seems archaic.

In the most extreme versions of these daydreams
of detection, online communities have sprung up around the research. They take
the idea of crowd-sourced investigation seriously. (This is happening at the
same cultural moment that “doxing” has entered the lexicon; they are, perhaps,
different consequences of the same assumptions about the easy availability of
networked information.)

“Serial” is a product of the internet,
both literally and philosophically.
But technology’s influence on storytelling is not new: the printing
press also drove new narrative forms, as did radio, and silent films.

Not every modern
story needs a feedback loop, but it is worthwhile for storytellers to consider
how new assumptions and new technologies change the art, and what new stories
they may make possible.

While the show combines genres in fresh ways, on a
fundamental level it works because of good old-fashioned storytelling: Complex
characters, a protagonist on a quest, surprising reversals, big stakes. The
most critical part of any storyteller’s education is to see those fundamentals
done well.

READ MORE: ‘This American Life’ to Sell Live Show Directly to Fans as Ira Glass Continues His Expansion Beyond Radio

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