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Why Characters & Story Aren’t Just for Fiction Podcasts

So, let’s say that you’re working on a non-fiction podcast. You have a topic. You’ve researched data, interviewed experts, and now you have a lot of pieces of information. You want to find a way to focus the information into a cohesive story.

If you can humanize the topic, your listeners are more likely to feel empathy, and feel like this story is part of them. This makes the topic more immediate for your listener. It spurs them to continue listening, and come back for the next episode. Nonfiction podcasts can use tools of fiction writing to craft a plot that engages the listener and makes them come back for more.

The simplest of these tools is the throughline.

Creating a Narrative Throughline

First, you need a protagonist. Whatever your topic is, someone lives with it. They have goals, take action, succeed or fail, and experience change.

Having a protagonist, or person at the center of the story who takes action to move it along, gives your listener someone to identify with. It’s a simple image for them to follow.

The simplest possible way to make a throughline is to use this statement:

A wants to B in order to C, but comes up against D, and ends up E.

  • A is your protagonist (main person or character)
  • B is the action they take
  • C is the goal they want to achieve
  • D is an obstacle in their way
  • E is how A is changed by the action they took and the obstacle they met and /or surmounted.

Another way to think about it is: (Person) wants to (action verb), in order to (goal), but comes up against (obstacle), and ends up (changed state).

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Outlining Your Story

What can we do with this statement? You can use this as a basic outline for your story, filling in details and fleshing it out for your listener.

Here’s a simple example. Your podcast is about public policy and the environment. You have an episode about the history of Flint’s water crisis. You can read off a lot of facts, timelines, and numbers about lead levels, government spending, and so on. These are important facts. Unfortunately for the listener, they can blur together into a lot of data that’s hard to digest meaningfully.

Writing about one person affected by the crisis, who takes action, makes the topic less abstract. It helps the listener feel like this is an issue that happens to people like them. They can empathize with the topic.

Let’s say your protagonist is Mari Copeny, also known as Little Miss Flint.

So, if A is “Mari Copeny,”
B is “contact the president,”
And C is “have clean, safe water in her home town”

You can set up your statement as “Mari Copeny wants to contact the president in order to have safe clean water in her home town.” You can fill in details, such as quotes from Copeny about how the water looked and smelled. You can find out how she contacted the president (a handwritten letter? Email? Fax? Phone call to the White House switchboard?) and fill in details to make your story more specific and clear.

If your podcast describes the image of a girl washing her hands in brown water, writing a letter and taking it to the post office, your story hooks listeners in a way that facts and figures alone don’t.

Obstacles are inevitable, and they will make your story more complex. Mari Copeny contacted the president, and the governor of Michigan started a free bottled water program for Flint residents. In the short term, our protagonist achieved her goal. Unfortunately, Flint’s pipes are old and need fixing, a long and expensive process. So, Mari came up against the obstacle of government and city infrastructure. Though Copeny was able to use social media to bring resources to Flint, there is still a water crisis.

In an April, 2019 article, Copeny said, “I will never fully trust the government or media… Flint has taught me that we need to listen to science and to always question, even the things we take for granted the most.”

Solidifying Your Plot

Let’s take this information back to our plot statement.

A wants to B in order to C, but comes up against D, and ends up E.

We have:

  • A= Mari Copeny
  • B= Contact The President
  • C= Clean, safe water in her home town
  • D= Flint’s old, worn out pipes
  • E= Loss of faith in government, gain of faith in science and critical thinking

So, our new, more vivid plot statement is:

Mari Copeny wants to contact the President in order to have clean, safe drinking water. However, Flint’s pipes are old and not easily fixed. She becomes a more critically-minded, careful activist.

From there, you can fill in details. How old are the pipes in Flint? What is the federal action level for lead? What does the EPA consider safe? What’s a band-aid versus a sustainable solution?

By placing these facts around a human narrative, with goals, action, obstacles and impact, your information has a compelling, focused throughline that arouses your listeners’ empathy. This motivates your listeners to invest emotionally in your podcast.

Next Steps

Try taking the information that you’re using for a podcast episode, and apply it to this structure. Nearly any reasonable way of filling in these blanks will come up with a solid story.

Try making up several, based on your podcasts’ information. For example, if your podcast is about libraries, try making up a statement about a library user, their actions, goals and obstacles. Then try making the same sentence, but about a library worker. Both sentences will give you perspective on your podcast topic and help you make clear and specific images to keep your listeners engaged with your show.

For more information about how to organize your ideas, take a look at Chapter 2 of our Content Stacking series, Finding Content Ideas and Getting The Most From Every One.

And if you'd like to work directly with us to craft your podcast's own unique narrative, then check out The Podcast Host Academy – that's where you'll find all our courses, community forums, and regular live Q&A sessions!

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Written by:

Lindsay Harris Friel

May 15th 2019