Ira Glass on Finding Ideas and the Story Structure That Is Not Taught at School (but Should Be)
“The most basic thing that a story can do is make it possible to imagine: Oh, here is what it would be like to be you.”
During a Talks at Google session, Ira Glass, the host and producer of hit podcast This American Life, elaborates on many topics, including the quest to find ideas for stories, and the story structure he thinks that should be taught at school but isn’t.
Glass is a master storyteller on his medium and beyond and if you are familiar with podcasts such as Serial or StartUp (both Sarah Koenig and Alex Blumberg worked many years on This American Life) you probably noticed that powerful storytelling is at the core of their episodes.
The full conversation deserves an hour of your time, Googler Logan Ury did an amazing job at being prepared to help emulate the most out of their 60 minutes together. But if you are short on time, here are a couple of highlights that I found particularly interesting for storytellers:
Ira Glass On Finding Ideas for Stories
“Finding ideas for stories generally for us, and I think for anybody, is like inefficient. I think one of the thing when you start doing creative work that nobody talks to you about is that where ideas are going to come from. And you have this idea that they are going to be like sprinkled on your head like fairy dust, and maybe this is true in engineering and other kinds of work too, but where I come from you have to kind of surround yourself with a lot of stuff and a lot of ideas, because ideas lead to other ideas.
And so at some point we just go on a massive search, which will include googling, but also doing just all kind of research. We’ll brainstorm all kind of things that could possibly fit in the theme.
Also when we have a situation where we have a very serious story, that will be the anchor, with a lot of weight and a lot of stakes, we’ll consciously be looking for something funnier, or lighter, or more personal, or smaller, so the whole episode won’t be so heavy. And for us to find three or four stories that will go on the air, often we’ll look at fifteen to twenty-five different story ideas, and we’ll go to production often on seven or eight stories.”
Ira Glass On the Story Structure They Should Teach at School
“There is a thing in writing that I feel I had to learn on my own and I was surprised it wasn’t taught in school, and that is that people don’t teach story structure properly in school.
I think that when we are all taught how to write, we’re taught topic sentences, we’re taught the way that you would write an essay, with topic sentences at the beginning of the paragraphs, and then you fill up the paragraphs. And that basically was learning to write in school, but in fact, there’s a structure of telling a story that’s more effective than that, that I feel I had to learn by sort of reading and whatever, which is much more anecdote base.
So for example, the stories on our show, the structure of them is really built around plot and ideas, and it’s a very old structure, it’s a very traditional kind of story structure where it’s like you want to just think through the sequence of actions where one thing leads to the next, leads to the next, leads to the next. And so really you want to break down whatever is going to happen into this happen and then this happen, this happen and then this happen.
And the advantage of that, of having forward motion, is that it inherently creates suspense because you wonder what’s going to happen next and so you pull people’s attention, because simply moving forward action creates suspense, and you can do it with the most banal story possible or everyday stories.
And so as long as one thing is leading to the next is leading to the next, you create suspense and then periodically you want to jump out of the action and have some thoughts about what the story means.
And it’s really like the structure of a sermon, you know a sermon is basically composed of a series of anecdotes, and then thoughts about what the anecdotes are. And you know certain writers just naturally write that way, and radio definitely works best that way, and there is a certain kind of journalism that works that way too, if you read like a really great narrative writer like Malcolm Gladwell or Michael Lewis, they are constantly giving you the action and jumping out of the action to make some thoughts and then back into the action. That’s the structure of Money Ball and a lot of really great books.
And when we’re in school, nobody tells us that that’s a way to write that’s so much easier in a way, and so much more mesmerizing than topic sentences. Because you are utilizing the thing that is so primal within us because you can create suspense. And I think the thing we don’t learn when we learn how to write at school is how to make fascinating.”