Storytelling Lessons From the S-Town Podcast

Just this past week I finished listening to the new 7-part podcast from Serial and This American Life called S-Town. Once again, the incredible staff does not disappoint. I continue to admire how they can masterfully craft stories that immerse and captivate.

I'm a filmmaker who produces a lot of short-form documentary content for my day job, so I'm always interested in finding ways to improve my storytelling techniques. That's why I love listening to podcasts like S-Town on my commute. I want to analyze each episode and deconstruct the process:

  • How is each story structured?
  • What's being done to make it so engaging? 
  • What isn't working for me, and why?

The more I watch documentary film and the more I listen to documentary podcasts, the more I can learn about how to craft and tell stories. Here are some things I learned from S-Town about great storytelling (*Disclaimer: I will try to be as spoiler-free as possible, but if you are at all sensitive to anything that strays slightly into spoiler territory, you might want to bookmark this article and come back to it later.)

Find the hook.

What will grab your audience's attention and encourage them to keep watching/listening? How can you introduce the story in a captivating way? One of my pet peeves about documentary filmmaking is how so many of them simply open with a prolonged series of talking heads, followed by a title card. Have you ever noticed this? The film starts and we're bombarded with a lot of people whom we don't even know yet, talking summarily about the subject of the film - a story we don't even care about yet. It's as if the filmmaker is saying "Here's what's coming up. Stay tuned." To me, this just isn't interesting. 

Contrast this with the way producer Brian Reed starts Chapter 1 of S-Town:

When an antique clock breaks, a clock that’s been telling time for 200 or 300 years, fixing it can be a real puzzle. An old clock like that was hand-made by someone. It might tick away the time with a pendulum, with a spring, with a pulley system. It might have bells that are supposed to strike the hour, or a bird that’s supposed to jump out and cuckoo at you. There can be hundreds of tiny, individual pieces, each of which needs to interact with the others precisely.

Reed goes on to talk about how challenging it is for people to restore these clocks, because of all the hands that have touched them over the years. Restorers look for what are called "witness marks," indications of what other people have done to the clock over the years that can provide clues about how to restore the clock to its original state. He then concludes the introduction by saying that he learned all of this information about clocks from an antique clock restorer who contacted him and asked for his help in solving a murder.

And we're off and running.

What's so brilliant about this introduction is how layered it is. In a little less than 2 minutes, Reed has managed to...

  • Introduce the name of the main character
  • Tell us about what the main character does (restore antique clocks), so we immediately know he's a craftsman, a handyman, an artist, etc.
  • Tease us with what's to come (details about a murder case).
  • Hint at the complexity of the story and the characters within it by using the intricacies and complexities of an antique clock as a metaphor.
  • Foreshadow the twists and turns that inevitably result from a complex story like this, by drawing parallels from the role of a clock restorer, as he/she follows the "witness marks" on a clock to determine how everything should fit together.

Remarkable.

The story should be as long, or as short, as it needs to be.

I have to admit, I bristle a little when I receive feedback from a short-form documentary and the critique is simply, "Make it four minutes," as if some group sitting somewhere in some board room decided that every video produced henceforth should be exactly four minutes long.

Yes, I realize that data exists showing just how long an audience will sit and watch an online video, but I don't adhere to the idea that every story can, or should, fit into a specific run time. Stories should be as long (within reason) or as short as they need to be to tell a nice, tight, concise story. S-Town decided that seven, one-hour episodes was the right amount of time they needed to tell their story. Serial season one needed 12 episodes; season two, 11 episodes.

Some of my short-form pieces have been around 6 minutes, while others have been as short as 2 minutes. You as the storyteller should realize how much material you have and should structure and edit accordingly. Always be asking yourself, "Is this section REALLY necessary?" Continue to trim and tighten the story. Your audience will thank you for it.

Allow the story to take you where it takes you.

I'm sure Reed had ideas about where the story would/should go as he embarked on his investigation. But life doesn't unfold into a nice, three-act structure. So, when Brian's story suddenly shifted, he went off into a new direction. This happens to documentarians all the time. Watch the film The Queen of Versailles if you want another example.

Embed yourself with the story's subjects.

Access, access, access. This is what you need if you want a story that feels thorough and complete, with characters with whom your audience can identify and sympathize. I'm sure Reed could have conducted a majority of his interviews via email or over the phone (after all, it's a story that takes place in a small Alabama town and he's a New York reporter), but the story would have suffered. It would have felt shallow. The people in the story would have felt more like caricatures, not real human beings. He needed to be there, in the town, meeting with the people, learning about them on a personal level. That's how you build rapport and trust, and if you have that relationship established, the people in your story will feel more comfortable opening up to you.

S-Town host Brian Reed (right) on location with an interview subject (Photo: Andrea Morales)

S-Town host Brian Reed (right) on location with an interview subject (Photo: Andrea Morales)

Always maintain a sense of time and place.

Even though it's radio, S-Town does an incredible job of providing the audience with a sense of place. You can't see John B.'s house, or his workshop, or the tattoo parlor, but you can envision it, based on Reed's descriptions. You don't know what John B. or any of the other townspeople look like, but you have an idea, again based on Reed's descriptions and the interview tape from each individual.

It's easy to see how this translates to documentary film. As you gather footage for your story, always make sure you capture b-roll that tells your audience something about where you are. Keep your audience oriented. Don't rely solely on close detail shots, or shots on long lenses that blur out backgrounds. Think about the relationship between subject and environment and how you can compose your shots to accentuate this relationship. Tony Zhou of Every Frame a Painting demonstrates this point in his video essay on how the Cohen Brothers use shot/reverse shot. Take this example from No Country For Old Men: Consider how much you already know about this woman based on her appearance and the environment around her.

You wouldn't get that same sense of place from a tight shot with a soft background.

Allow yourself to be self-reflective.

Along the way, and at the end of the series, Reed allows himself these moments of reflection: What have we learned? What does it all mean? Where do we go from here? Your story too should bring up these questions. They don't all have to be answered, but they can be presented to your audience, forcing them to think for themselves, to draw their own conclusions, to find something of themselves in the story you're telling.

We can learn a lot by observing and analyzing the work of others - people who have experience and a knack for crafting great stories. That's why I continue listen to podcasts like This American Life, Serial, and S-Town. I admire the work they do and I can draw lessons from their experiences and apply them to my own short-form documentary work.

Have you finished S-Town? What thoughts do you have on the series and on documentary storytelling? Be sure to add them in the Comments section below.