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Insider April 14, 2022 — What fiction podcasters can learn from nonfiction podcasters

Fiction podcasters know nonfiction is better at monetization — but what we can learn doesn't end there

We are finally living in the era of fiction podcasting. After years of fiction shows struggling to be taken seriously, we now have adaptations of Limetown and Archive 81, the multimedia success of audio drama stars like Lauren Shippen, and star-studded networks like QCode and Realm focused specifically on fiction. To be clear: there have always been incredible, groundbreaking works of art in fiction podcasting. Now, we’re just seeing the massive medium hit the mainstream.

But while fiction is finally getting its due, nonfiction is still considered the primary mode of storytelling in podcasting. This can cause some understandable contempt from fiction creators, but there’s creative gold to be found in nonfiction. If you want your stories to have realistic goals, realistic sounds, and realistic characters, listening to real stories about real people can help you find those roots.

In 2019, my colleague (and brain twin) Elena Fernández Collins and I constructed and ran an Audio Drama track at Podcast Movement. Our track went alongside the other events at the conference — sessions on monetization, sessions on interview tactics, etc. — and we highly encouraged fiction podcasters to attend those sessions as well. In 2022, we seem well past the old divisiveness. It’s time to revisit the takeaways from that panel again.

Establishing the story’s flow

With most nonfiction podcasts that feature some degree of scripting, what often makes a story hook and linger with a listener isn’t just the story itself. It’s the structure of how the story is unfurled for the audience. When the story begins, what is the listener expected to know? When are they given more information, and how do they learn it?

Well-told creative nonfiction is a look at story structure from a top-down approach instead of the freely creative bottom-up approach of fiction writing. Essentially, fiction creators have specific stories they want to tell — a foundation — that they can then fill in the blanks to build up around. Nonfiction creators, meanwhile, have all of the information in front of them — a roof — and have to search, write, and edit to tell the story they want to tell. Nonfiction creators have to find the story to their story. They can’t retroactively add higher stakes to build momentum. Instead, they look at all the material they have to find the most vital parts of tension as well as the most important facts.

In my mind, learning story structure in fiction by studying nonfiction is not dissimilar from learning more about how grammar in English works, not by studying English but by learning another language. Figuring out what the hell the subjunctive is can be easier when approaching it with a new lens, learning from a different perspective. The same is true with analyzing story structure in nonfiction versus fiction.

Some recommendations for episodes that do great work with story structure:

Learning story structure from nonfiction can help you see the gaps in your planning. If you feel yourself pushing the plot too firmly to fit the narrative, try listening to how events unfold in nonfiction. Listening to nonfiction can help your plot feel organic and honest instead of stuck on a convenient railroad.

Conveying a story’s purpose

Likewise, figuring out why a story is being told can be clearer in nonfiction. This can be obvious, depending on the purpose of the show. Maintenance Phase, mentioned above, is a critique of the health and wellness industry. A news podcast will give a story because it’s, you know, the news. But with nonfiction podcasts in the Stories on a Theme format, a story’s purpose gets less obvious and more interesting. People are messy and complicated, and so are real-life events. Having different messes in conflict means you get further away from a clear fable and closer to a complicated, nuanced rumination on theme.

If you’re worried about fitting your story’s point with the bottom-up method in fiction, nonfiction accomplishes this goal through a top-down approach again. Nonfiction deals in how we tell stories that matter with messy, complicated people, who can’t — or, at the very least, shouldn’t — be manipulated to serve that goal. In nonfiction, all you have is a collection of people with their own motivations and perspectives, acting and reacting for their own goals instead of the goals of the story.

Learning from nonfiction can help you elegantly integrate your story’s themes both through their thematically complicated narratives and in how the people involved talk about those themes. How do characters interact with the main takeaway of your story? How do you convey that story without being too direct or on-the-nose? Nonfiction can help you navigate saying what you want your story to say without relying on easy characterizations or being clumsily didactic.

Some recommendations for episodes that do great work with a story’s purpose:

When you analyze nonfiction, you get a better sense of natural dialogue and how it can be used to hammer in what you’re trying to say. Nonfiction gives you how real people communicate, why real people communicate the way they do, and how those two things combine for real people to communicate what they really mean.

Sound design

Like many sound designers, once I started working in the field, I lost my ability to take nature documentaries seriously. All the footsteps and growls and flutters you hear? Those are all added in post and usually designed by a foley artist. Tigers look a little less intimidating stalking around when all you can see is someone in a foley pit making each sound. Sound design doesn’t seem intertwined with nonfiction, but that’s because when it’s done right, you don’t know it’s happening. Sound design can help display concepts not easily communicable over audio, too. It can give a sense of place and character to a setting, it can add suspense, or it can gesture to a sigh of relief.

When creating your fiction podcast, you want to avoid these two common traps of sound design: under-designing or over-designing. Under-designed podcasts can feel monotonous and hollow. Missing important sounds like footsteps, cutlery on dishes, or the breeze on the grass can emphasize that the audience is hearing a fictional production instead of immersing them in the scene and the setting. Having no music can make the stakes feel lower and the tension feel dull. The same is true for nonfiction, which usually won’t have stage directions or characters in the middle of exciting action. When nonfiction has great sound design, it’s because the creators have gone to lengths to make it great. Choices made to add sounds to an interview, or record on location, or add music to emphasize a mood all come from what keeps the listener enraptured.

But you also want to make sure your sound design isn’t distracting. It has to be subtle. It has to be natural. And it has to add something to the story. Fiction can often go overboard, adding sounds almost as punctuation or being fearful of necessary silence. The hum of a spaceship or the loud ambience of a forest can detract from what’s actually going on with the characters and plot, especially for audience members who have auditory processing issues. Because nonfiction usually focuses on clarity and simplicity, analyzing nonfiction sound design can help you edit down a cluttered soundscape in your fiction. Nonfiction can help you learn where to draw the line between immersive and intrusive.

Some recommendations for episodes with great sound design:

Making great art means consuming great art and paying close attention to it. Learning from other genres can highlight ways you want to grow, seen through a different lens. While I don’t need podcasts to go full Greta Gerwig mumblecore (though I could see an argument for Kaitlin Prest’s The Shadows getting close), I’d love to see more fiction podcasters learning more naturalistic tactics from our nonfiction colleagues. There’s so much room for fiction podcasting that draws from realism, even in high-concept genre works like sci-fi and fantasy, and I feel like we’re on the precipice of this trend emerging. Realism isn’t necessary to tell a great story, but it can be a refreshing way to connect with a narrative, and when listeners are connected, they’re there to stay.