My Kingdom For Some Structure

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Napkin #1 – This American Life

Bradley Campbell says drawing story structure is like using Google Maps for directions. Structure offers a path, a way to figure out where to go… what to do with all the tape. To help him plan out his stories, Bradley thinks pictorially. He makes story structure drawings in his head. I asked him to make a few napkin drawings of how he sees structure. Indeed, that’s how he first learned about structure — in a bar on a napkin.

Many years ago, Bradley was a print reporter. He says everyone he worked with kept talking about structure. He knew they meant the way in which a story is organized, but that left him with a question: Organized how? So, he asked a friend of his from the Village Voice “What’s structure?” The guy grabbed a napkin and a pen and made a drawing. “Click!” Suddenly, it all made sense.

Now, Bradley’s a radio reporter for Rhode Island Public Radio.  (Update: Now Bradley works for PRI’s “The World.”) He says he’s listened long and hard to stories on public radio to understand how they’re configured and to create skeletal renderings of their structure.

“Napkin #1″ is Bradley’s drawing for This American Life, a structure Ira Glass has talked about ad infinitum: This happened. Then this happened. Then this happened. (Those are the dashes.) And then a moment of reflection, thoughts on what the events mean (the exclamation point).

On this edition of HowSound, Bradley talks about his napkin drawings for TAL, All Things Considered, and “The e” (on a napkin below labeled “Transom”). And, as a bonus for you because you’re reading the blog, I’ve also included his napkins for Morning Edition and Radiolab.

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Napkin #2 – All Things Considered

To be sure, Bradley’s drawings are not approved by the shows they represent. These are not official. Nor are they the only way stories are told on these shows. But, for Bradley, they depict frequently heard story arrangements.

Here is his All Things Considered (ATC) napkin. It starts with a straight line. That’s the opening scene where the reporter introduces listeners to a character often in action. Bradley gives the example of a story about ticks he produced for ATC. In the opening minute or so of the piece, we meet a biologist plucking ticks from shrubs in Rhode Island.

The dip down and up is what Bradley calls ‘the trough.’ “Throw whatever reporting you have into this middle section,” he says. In the “trough” of the tick story, Bradley included info on tick biology, lyme disease, and lyme disease research.

Then, the final line is a return to the original scene. Perhaps time has passed and  the character is doing something new. But, it’s like book-ending a story — end close to where you started. Bradley’s tick story ended back out in the woods with the biologist.

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Napkin #3 – The e

Bradley named this napkin “Transom” for Transom.org. It’s fair to say that’s a misnomer. The stories featured at Transom vary widely and can’t be summed up on a single napkin (which is true for all the shows listed here).

However, I teach at the Transom Story Workshop and since “The e” is probably my favorite structure, you can hear that approach to story in a lot of the pieces produced by Transom students, hence Bradley’s label.

“The e” is what the Village Voice reporter drew for Bradley many years ago. The beginning of the line is the present or somewhere near the present. (Frankly, you can start wherever you want in terms of time, but the present or recent past is fairly common.) And, typically, there’s a character doing something — a sequence of events.

Then, at the point where the e loops up, the story leaves the present and, perhaps, goes back in time for history and or it widens for context.

When the loop comes back around, you pick up the narrative where you left off and develop the story further to the end. Somewhere in that second straight line the story may reach it’s climax then the denoument or resolution of the story.

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Napkin #4 – Morning Edition

Even though this napkin looks different than the others, Bradley’s Morning Edition structure overlaps with the others.

The first line is the opening scene. Then, it’s followed by history, context…. a widening of the story. Then, a return to the opening scene only further along in time. Then, that’s followed by several characters each of whom have a connection to the story. That’s what the horizontal lines on the right represent.

When I spoke to Bradley about how a story might play out using this structure, he suggested considering a story about Lutheran ministers advocating for same-sex marriage in the church. In the first line, we meet a minister who is in favor same-sex marriage and he’s in church preaching. In the “V” we learn about the history of the issue in the church and the proposed changes. We return to the minister, perhaps at a meeting where he’s advocating his position and that’s where we meet several people linked to the issue and their perspectives.

What’s cool about mapping structure like this is that the pieces are moveable. You can rearrange the parts like they’re Tinkertoys. In the Morning Edition structure, for example, you could open in a scene, then introduce two people with other views (like the lines on the right of Bradley’s napkin only on the left). Then the “V.” Then a return to the first character and the lines again. Or, maybe you start with the “V” then meet a character…. See what I mean?

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Napkin #5 – Radiolab

If nothing else, the Radiolab napkin looks cool, right?! Here’s what Bradley told me about this drawing: 

“Radiolab! Oh man…. I mean, who hasn’t spent an evening driving in their car and all of a sudden Radiolab pops on…. And you’re just listening to it and the stories just get, you know, they start to build out kinda small and then it feels like you’re going on a roller coaster and you approach this one sort of “Whoa!” and then it gets even cooler and then it’s like KSSSHHHSSHSH!

“…And all this chaos comes through and there’s all sorts of sounds and noises and excitement that’s building… and then it starts to get even bigger and it builds on top of that…

“(You know when) you approach the final incline of a roller coaster and then you shoot down and then it ends? Sometimes it feels like when I listen to Radiolab it’s like the roller coaster is just shooting off a ramp! And it’s like the whole coaster goes “whoosh!” and they just launch you!.. and you’re like “Whoa! Whoa! Whoa! Where am I? Where am I?”

————————–

Looking for more structure in your storytelling life? Try this link to a Google Image search I did for “story structure.” It’s crazy.

And, John McPhee, a master of narrative non-fiction, recently wrote an article about structure for the New Yorker. It’s worth the read.

Oh, and here’s a link to the song by They Must Be Russians featured in the podcast.

Cheers,
Rob

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24 comments to My Kingdom For Some Structure

  • Hi Rob,

    Our group up here in Toronto has been looking to hold some kind of workshop on story structure and this is perfect for that. I loved this episode. My only complaint is that it is too short! Please do a part-2! This kind of stuff makes such a difference when you’re sitting with a pile of tape.

    Thanks,
    Sean

  • Did it work or was it a disaster?
    Well, I’m on the chuo line heading into Tokyo. It’s 8:42am and the train in packed but on my phone I has the podcast running and the website up and learned all about structure. Worked like a charm. And I think I would have worked without the visuals.
    I’m hooked on howsound just like I’m hooked on 99% invisible.
    Great job once again.

  • [...] guy doodled on some napkins, these people wrote about it, and I think it’s pretty [...]

  • No, far from a disaster. Great descriptions of the visuals, with enough leftover to tie back to the blog, which I’m visiting for the first time as a result. (I don’t think I would’ve tried to tackle the Radiolab diagram, either.)
    Well done, as per usual. Thank you.

  • [...] Despite this deficiency of dramatic design, when I ran across this super-cool collection of napkin-sketch story structures, I was hooked. The simplicity of the medium is catchy (not kitschy) and the pictorial way of seeing [...]

  • Christine

    Really very helpful. Thank you!

  • [...] storytellers, I have another interesting and useful episode of that podcast to link to – My Kingdom For Some Structure goes over the various methods of storytelling used by well-known radio programs.  I especially [...]

  • Jon

    Nice one, Rob. I listened to it in transit without access to the napkins/web. It was a little work but I think I kind of got there, however I totally imagined the ‘e’ as having a much more, er, upright structure. Anyhow, it was a good little think piece. I’m off to read the articles you recommended now. Thanks again for the great podcast.

  • Catherine Stifter

    Hey Rob,
    Talk about “the e”! When I click the Google Image search, a few of Bradley’s napkins appear.

  • [...] radio journalist who learnt how to structure his stories by sketching out the models used by other [...]

  • I just discovered this great program, really useful and fun stuff! Loved loved this episode too, very successful from where I sit as a Prof. teaching storytelling at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communication, can’t wait to use it in my classes.

    Thanks again for the great work!

    Ken Harper
    Assistant Professor
    Multimedia Photography & Design
    SI Newhouse School of Public Communications
    Syracuse University

    Director of Visual and Digital Media
    NewNarratives.org – Africans Reporting Africa

    CONTACT
    315.443.6131
    (S) kyharper
    (T) kenharper

    WEBSITES
    newhousempd.com
    newnarratives.org
    togetherliberia.org
    ironcladimages.com

    LONGTERM PROJECTS
    rioharper.com

  • Joe

    Interesting concept, but I don’t really understand the difference between the ‘ATC’ and the ‘Transom’ versions. Seems to me that ‘throwing n everything you know about ticks’ is much different to ‘context’ in the loop of the ‘transom’ e. And ‘Morning Edition’ just seems to be the same thing again, but without looping back to/near the starting point. Maybe I’m thinking too hard about this.

    I think ‘Radiolab’ is really much the same as “This American Life’ except that the sections in Radiolab are more related together and build to a crescendo, I think the diagram disguises why both are interesting to listen to (rather than too random and annoying)… which I can’t really put my finger onto. The radiolab style mixes in many moments of uncertainty and odd chunks of music and sound. But then maybe both are several ‘Transom’ pieces patched together into a whole. Seems this is similar to ‘Snap Judgment’ and ‘The Dinner Party Download’ too.

    British public radio (which I’m much more familiar with) seems to lack something of the final lesson or context. In magazine format programmes, the individual pieces seem to be more introduction-stuff-interviews-more stuff-why this matters. Most live news interviews seems to be more like background-questioning of the interviewee about the background-neat resolution (or not)-move on. It seems to retain something more formal than North American Public Radio pieces.

    Dunno, maybe again I’m thinking too hard about this.

    • Bradley Campbell

      Hi Joe-

      The difference between the ATC and the E diagrams is the story keeps on going in the E past the starting point. You get to guide the narrative to its climax and end it with a neat little ribbon. The ATC story just ends where it starts.

      The Morning Edition diagram is similar to ATC, but it has numerous characters all interacting with one topic… be it a piece of legislation, building, or a memory. Just know with storytelling, all the parts are interchangeable. Structures overlap. Public radio shows borrow, and in the words of Robert Krulwich, steal techniques from each other. Yes, public radio is less formal in its presentation. A friend described it as journalism with a lower-case j. But it’s sneaky, too. The journalism you hear on public radio is top-notch, accurate and thorough. That’s why people pay local stations to keep it on the air.

      If you’re still confused, just head to your local watering hole. My favorite stories are always told at the bar. It’s narrative in its natural habitat. And if you find yourself in Cleveland, OH, go to the Harbor Inn. Look for the burliest guy in the room. His name is Pete. He’s known as the Bard of Lakewood. He’ll explain structure better than anyone in the industry.

      Hope this helps.

      • Joe

        Hi Bradley, thanks for taking the time to reply, much appreciated. I think the need to gain funds from a local population to pay for local public radio must have an impact on the quality (and style) of the output (compared to the UK, where the local public radio stations are uniformly paid via a form of national taxation, so there is very little direct influence of local people on the local BBC station). Other than talk and sport stations, we do not have a culture of independent local public radio stations in the UK.

        Good to talk, thanks again.

  • [...] Bradley Campbell used some napkins to diagram the narrative structures of radio shows. [...]

  • […] We’ll listen to Witness to an Execution and discuss its style and effectiveness in class. What kinds of audio do you hear? What techniques worked or didn’t work? We’ll listen to several “Sonic IDs” from Transom.org. Sonics are 30- and 60-second portraits, actualities and stories.http://transom.org/?p=33526 My Kingdom For Some Structure http://howsound.org/2013/03/my-kingdom-for-some-structure/ […]

  • […] “This happened” structure, the “trough,” the “e,” Morning Edition and Radiolab’s rolle… […]

  • […] Over the last two years I have got to know a highly talented graphic designer and video guru, Jess Halverson at Indiana CPA Society. Stalking her on Twitter, I spotted a tweet on storytelling and a chap called Bradley Campbell who draws pictures as an expression of story structure (based on story lines used in US radio or TV programmes) – those interested should take a look at the original blog. […]

  • […] TUESDAY, NOVEMBER 26: We’ll talk about different story arcs and forms in class to help you structure your final projects. Review My Kingdom for Some Structure. […]

  • […] Campbell drew the story structures of various public radio shows down on cocktail napkins. Here’s the structure of This American […]

  • […] little exercise of turning longform radio story-telling ala the internet intelligentsia’s favo… is nice. Because thinking about how to structure stories is an interesting exercise – for […]

  • […] You can see the story structure for this and other radio shows yourself in the article “My Kingdom For Some Structure” on How Sound: The Backstory to Great Radio Storytelling, drawn on napkins for your delight […]

  • […] many story structure tips out there for when you get stuck (we recommend this episode of How Sound “My Kingdom for Some Structure” and Nancy Updike’s excellent Transom manifesto on radio […]

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