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.
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.
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.
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?
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.