Serial and how to tell a long story well.

I am late to this particular party, but have now caught up with the first series of Serial. Because I’m late, you probably know that it’s a podcast from the makers of This American Life which documents the journalistic re-examination a cold case; the murder of a teenager in 1999. The story is narrated by journalist and would be investigator Sarah Koenig.

Like many others, I was hooked and have listened intently to all 10 episodes and 3 updates. My interest though is divided between the story it’s telling and how it’s being told. Because what this series does expertly is tell a long story, in a detailed but also compelling way.

In some ways this is counter intuitive; it shouldn’t work. Are we not conditioned to the short story? To want to get to the point, omit the unnecessary detail and demand the edited highlights? But on the other hand, the saga is still with us, in new media – devouring full seasons on TV drama on streaming services, for instance, remains popular. It seems audiences still want to follow one story over multiple installments. Even the name Serial recalls the serialised stories told through periodical magazines at the turn of the last century.

Serial’s story is intricate, complicated and spans many years. It involves dozens of people and a dizzying array of data: dates, names, titles, legal jargon and procedural ephemera. How does Serial construct a narrative out of this birds’ nest of input, let alone one which has kept listeners engaged, episode after episode?

Part of the answer is structure. Telling a long and complicated story involves a set of decisions about what to tell first, next and last. In Serial’s long and winding case, the choice of what topics to cover in each episode is crucial. Early episodes concentrate on introducing the people involved and telling their stories, setting up the case’s unanswered questions. The middle episodes follow the narrator’s attempts at investigating the story, in a roughly chronological fashion. The final episodes provide us with expert opinions and nuances on information previously offered, leading us to a conclusion. The structure is not hidden from the listener. Instead it’s regularly referred to, most memorably at the start of the final episode when the man convicted of the murder, Adnan Syed, tells Koenig, “I’m worried you don’t have an ending.”

Some of the reasoning for these structural choices is self-evident. You wouldn’t lead with an episode focusing on the deficiencies in the defence lawyer’s performance at trial; the audience needs to be both well grounded in the case and invested in Syed’s fate before diving both hands into that legal cat’s cradle. Other narrative strategies are subtler but also more oratorical. Koenig will often give the listener navigational pointers throughout her narration – I’ll tell you this bit later, I’ll cover that in another episode, go back and listen to this part again, here’s an interesting side issues, you’ll remember this incident from last episode. She’s part re-teller, part story satnav.

Koenig is a gifted narrator. She speaks in a precise yet conversational style, somehow simultaneously relaxed and authoritative. Her accessibility is crucial to telling the long story, as is her fascination with the case, apparent even when debating mobile phone tower call logs or calculating driving times between local landmarks. Because she cares about the case, we care about it. We want her to get to the bottom of it. Like Syed, we want her to find an ending. So a kind of empathy for the story teller becomes important. Part of the reason we stick with the story is to see if she succeeds in her quest for the truth.

Her relationship with Syed, told through a series of recorded phone calls, peppers the series, and fragments of those conversations become touchstones in each episode. We return to them regularly, to help us make sense of each new piece of information we’ve heard. They are narrative downtime, or perhaps processing time, for the listener. Syed is a measured, charismatic figure, but worryingly ambiguous for Koenig and therefore for the audience. Her concern, voiced many times throughout the series, is that although she can find fault after fault with the prosecution’s case against Syed, she may ultimately be being duped into believing in a guilty man’s innocence.

If this was a movie, we’d call Koenig’s and Syed’s relationship the sub plot. It provides another strand of the story to follow alongside the murder mystery and helps highlights the narrator’s confusion and frustration, as the case gets more and more complex, but answers prove elusive. In dramatic terms, Koenig’s dilemma gives the story’s it’s momentum. It’s the “what’s at stake” you search for in any drama. And what’s at stake is worth caring about. Koenig’s investigation could result in an innocent man being awarded long denied justice, or a guilty man using her as an escape plan.

(I should also note the criticism of Serial for using a family’s very real pain as vicarious entertainment for the masses. Who owns these stories and is permitted to tell them is important. For now, I hope that analysing the way in which Serial works doesn’t perpetuate that approach and continue what others may see as the trivialisiation of that case.)

As we reach the later episodes, real life events start to influence the narrative. People start to write in with new information. Others who had previously declined interviews with Koenig now contribute. Prior speculation is clarified, facts put into context. Even the podcast’s ads start to get slicker. People are engaging with the series, and showing that legitimises our interest in it. See – it was worth sticking with. People are noticing. This thing is important.

So structure, guidance, personality, responsiveness and communicating why it all matters. Plus, although I haven’t mentioned it above, knowing what to leave out. This is how Serial kept us all listening.

 ****

PS While embedded in Serial, I started reading another long story: a PhD dissertation on a topic similar to mine (will be), by a researcher I know through my work. I’ve descended upon it, hungrily. I wanted to see how the author put her ideas together, linked one concept to the next, kept me wanting to read the next page, in much the same way as Serial encouraged me to click through to the next episode. Both are long, complex stories demanding to be told in a compelling way. Although one is journalistic and one is academic, I think the tactics for telling a long story well – structure, guidance, personality, responsiveness and communicating why it all matters – are applicable to both.

Chicago Public Media (2014). Serial. [podcast] Serial. Available at: https://serialpodcast.org
Savage, S (2017). An investigation into local government’s ideal role in enhancing community liveability via the creative industries, Doctor of Philosophy thesis, School of Management, Operations and Marketing, University of Wollongong. Available at: http://ro.uow.edu.au/theses1/38/

 

 

 

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