In the last chapter we took a look at the different kinds of fiction podcast you can make to tell your story. Now we need to take a look at the story itself. If you have an exciting idea in your mind for a story then that’s a great start. It’s important that we tell it in a way that will hook the listener early, and keep them engaged and listening to the end, though.
What is a Story?
It might sound like a stupid question, but this is key in the planning stage. How do we define a story? At it’s most basic level, a story is a set of circumstances in the beginning, which have changed by the end.
A change must take place in order for there to be a story. That change might be the destruction of an entire galaxy, or it might be someone spilling a pint of beer. It might be a physical change, or a change in mindset. As long as there is a change, you have a story.
But don’t go running off to write that story just yet. Having a story doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a good story, and good stories can still be told badly. We need to do your idea justice and present it in the most engaging and entertaining way possible, so let’s take a look at the structure.
Ever since I started making audio drama, a quote has always stuck in my mind. It’s from The Principles of Writing Radio Drama, by Tim Crook.
“The moment of arrival. This is how you drop your listeners into the story. Don’t give them a warm bed with comfortable pillows and a hot water bottle. The background and sub-text of previous histories is better explored through revelation in dramatic action. So parachute your listener into a top dramatic moment. Not the climax. That would be premature. Find the MOMENT to join the story. Avoid the slow snail’s explicatory route. Kick ’em into a high energy trip and woosh them through the rapids.”
To expand on this a little, when someone listens to your podcast for the first time, they’re not going to give you very long to impress them. In fact, if you haven’t hooked them within the first two minutes (and some might say that’s a generous estimation) then you’ll lose them.
You might have the best story in the world, but if it’s a slow, dull start, you’ll lose most of your potential audience before they ever get to the good bits.
The good news is that you don’t always have to tell your story in a linear matter, so you can even begin with your climax, then pull the story back in time to the beginning once you’ve set up the intrigue. Once your listener desperately wants to know what happens, you’ve hooked them.
We did an Audio Drama Production Podcast episode on this very topic a while back, where we threw around some potential ideas for opening your story.
The Three Act Structure
Every story has a beginning, a middle, and an end. In fiction writing this is presented slightly differently, but the same principles apply.
1. Setup or inciting incident
There will be a status quo in your story world where things are ‘normal’, and something will happen to disturb that. Think of Frodo’s life in The Shire before the whole ring incident kicks off.
Circumstances in your story lead to a critical point where tension and opposing interests lead to a confrontation, whether the main character likes it or not. During this period many stories inflict a crushing defeat on their heroes, signalling an “all is lost” moment, which they must rebuild and bounce back from.
The confrontation plays out and is resolved one way or another. All of the questions you’ve thrown up should be tied up and answered during the resolution as your listener will want that sense of closure.
False Climaxes & Unanswered Questions
It’s common to see a false climax in storytelling where defeat is almost snatched from the jaws of victory (or vice versa). Remember all those films you’ve watched and been frustrated that the victim has only bumped the baddie on the head, and not killed them? We all know what happens next there.
You can also have the story where you’ve been completely misled, all appears to be well until a late detail reveals the defeated serial killer wasn’t actually the murderer after all – it was the detective who’s now driving the main character home.
Many writers use the “info dump” in the late stages of a story to fill in any unanswered questions. We’ve seen this before many times too. The bad guy has the good guy tied up and ready to throw off a building – “but before I do, let me tell you why I did it!”
This sounds a bit cheesy and more than a bit cliched, but it can still be pulled off effectively.
Plot Arcs – Season Vs Episode
The structures we’ve covered and tried and tested, whether you’re making a 10min short story, or a 24 episode season. But if you’re doing a season, how does this structure fit in to your individual episodes?
That’s where your individual episode plot comes in. Series episodes will usually have a self-contained purpose as part of the wider season plot arc. You’ll often find two plots within an episode, Plot A (character 1 and 2 need to achieve task as part of bigger picture), and Plot B (a secondary plot where character 3 and 4 get themselves into a situation).
You might choose to resolve each episode plot at the end (sitcom style) or use them to throw up even more questions and plot details which boil over into the next episode.
Characters & POV
Will you focus on a main character (otherwise known as the protagonist)? Or a group of people? Will you tell the story from a point of view (POV), in which case the listener will only know as much as the protagonist. Or will you spend time with ‘the good guys’ and ‘the bad guys’?
You can go down the ‘ensemble’ route, where all characters are considered fairly equal, and given as much script time as the plot requires. This avoids you constantly having to ‘check in’ with a protagonist when they’re not actually too involved in the story at present.
One thing to bear in mind though – when you’re working in audio (particularly in dramatised pieces), you don’t want to overload the listener with too many characters. When you outline your story and you have 3 characters, can you merge them into 2, or even 1 person? You won’t manage this all the time (and never jeopardise your story just to cut characters) but having your listener know exactly who is who will go a long way to having them stick around until the very end.
I’ve squeezed a lot in here, but the idea is to get you working towards moving your story from the ideas stage towards being planned and purposeful. Laying a solid foundation at this stage is going to save you a lot of time, re-writing, and even re-recording, in the future. In the next chapter we’ll move on to writing for audio, so keep an eye out for that.
I’d be interested to hear the type of fiction podcast you have planned at this stage. Are you starting with a short story, or launching yourself into a series? Will you be focusing on one character or many? Let me know in the comments section below.
How to Make a Fiction Podcast Series Guide
Chapter 1 – Story Format
Chapter 2 – Story Structure
Chapter 3 – Writing for Audio
Chapter 4 – Finding & Rewarding Talent
Chapter 5 – Recording Your Show
Chapter 6 – Producing Your Show
Chapter 7 – Launching & Growing Your Show
Chapter 8 – Monetising Your Show