by Tracy Johnson
Writers create stories around a formula that creates a story arc. The goal is to take the reader on a journey, leading therm from chapter to chapter with a compelling story. The process of creating the structure creates a sticky thread weaving through the telling of the story. Building a story arc adds expectation, suspense and texture to the storyline.
The same concepts that work for a novel can be use on the air. A story arc can be found in online marketing, sales pitches, songs, screenplays and movies. It even works for a radio show.
The typical morning show is usually more about moments than stories. Moments are great for gaining attention, but their impact is short-lived.
Adding storylines is simply connecting the bits in a series. Each bit is fine, but when connected each segments leads a listener to hear more!
Some story arcs are small, others are larger. A simple story arc is when a topic stretches across multiple breaks. This is common when executing a feature like Second Date Update. The problem is set up in the first segment and paid off later in the hour.
But story arcs can be so much more powerful. Let’s explore.
Here’s how story arcs work in television.
Think of your favorite sitcom. Each episode is entertaining when viewed independently, but multiple storylines are embedded into the fabric of the show. Some storylines are based on the characters lives. And then there are recurring references that build in small ways through the episodes.
Seinfeld is a great example. Every episode was a story. But inside the episodes are sub-plots. George’s ongoing struggles with keeping a job and Kramer’s constant scheming added richness to the episodes.
Storylines can also add suspense and expectation. NPR’s hit podcast Serial tuned into a runaway smash by leading listeners wonder what would happen next at the end of each podcast .Fans couldn’t wait for the next episode to provide answers to questions raised in the previous podcast. The intrigue increased word-of-mouth and contributed to the spread of this hit series.
Storylines can exist on the air within segments. But in a broader sense, story arcs develop through personality traits.
Identifying each personality’s central conflict is a key in developing a 5-star personality profile. That central conflict could be a divorced mom dealing with teenage kids, for example. This becomes on embedded, ongoing story arc, allowing listeners to identify specific traits and introducing a richness in content creation.
Story arcs through multi-break content can be a great weapon. But it’s tricky. If the storyline doesn’t move forward, the topic will stall. And if the story moves too fast or is not reset, the audience is confused.
To create an effective story arc, follow these simple guidelines:
Serializing content that builds from one break to the next is valuable, and you can do it without alienating those who have just tuned in. But this takes planning. A tool that can help is the Storyboard Template. When preparing a storyline, sketch the main points of the story. Then figure our how to tell the story through breaks.
Here’s a sequence of breaks from The Bert Show (Q100/Atlanta and Syndicated).
This sequence happened the morning after Taylor Swift and Harry Styles broke up while on vacation in the Virgin Islands. These six breaks took place over 75 minutes of their show.
During this time, they mixed in other topics as well, but they found a way to relate to the day’s big topic six times, or an average of once every 12-13 minutes. This is an important factor: They’re being relevant!
But the value of this sequence is how they lead listeners deeper into their content hijacking the topic to make it their own.
The show touches on Entertainment news every 30 minutes, alternating between a longer conversation about stories in pop culture and a short update on the top story.
This first break in the story arc is a short update for the Entertainment Buzz feature.
Since pop culture is an important part of the show’s core content, it’s important to regularly mention the top story of the day (Taylor & Harry). By referencing the story and setting up the Entertainment Buzz, this break promotes their feature and sets the tone for story arc the show had planned.
About 12 minutes later, Bert teases the same story. Since the audio turns over frequently, this tease serves as content as well as promotion. They subtly let the audience know they’re in touch with what’s happening today:
Here are both breaks:
They still haven’t introduced the topic, but it’s coming!
In the feature, Kristin relates the story and gives details of Taylor and Harry’s breakup.
This is where the story advances. Bert hijacks the topic by placing the show directly between the topic (Taylor and Harry) and the audience’s interest in the story. Attention is redirected to Vacation Breakup Stories. It’s still related to Taylor & Harry, but they’ve now made it their own.
Note how he invites participation with the phone number while the Buzz continues. This gives the producer/phone screener plenty of time to arrange the first calls to give the story arc energy.
Many times, shows set up a topic, discuss it, ask for calls and it’s 10-15 minutes before those calls come in. The invitation to participate comes at exactly the right time. And Jeff comes in with a comment about cruises that adds just enough interest to add color to increase anticipation.
Listen to breaks 3 and 4:
Notice how the show is constantly promoting forward. The more it’s promoted, the more important the story becomes. Then, after the Buzz, Bert resets the story arc, and re-invites calls to teases the next break (audio not included).
By this time, the Taylor/Harry topic has been hijacked. The topic is now about vacation breakups. It’s still important to reference Taylor and Harry because it’s the top story of the day. But, they refer to it as a part of their story. Here is break 5:
Notice how each caller contributes a different type of story, yet each is consistent with the topic. Phone topics often bog down because each call is similar to the one before. This is a unique type of repetition that causes audience fatigue.
In the sixth break, the top is re-introduced for new listeners, and the show is quickly back to listener stories.
But in this break, a new subplot emerges. And here’s break 6:
The caller has an interesting story with potential. The show expertly seizes the moment to create an appointment tune-in for tomorrow’s show to follow the storyline with the caller’s ex-fiance.
The story has now advanced to following the relationship. It’s no longer about Taylor and Harry or vacation break ups. it’s about the drama between this couple.
This is a good example of a simple story arc that threads across quarter-hours, a show and into the next day. In a way, it’s like a soap opera. Each episode leads to the next.
When radio personalities master this concept, they discover a key to unlocking TSL gains. Listeners stay longer and come back again. In other words, building story arcs could be a secret formula for higher ratings!
This is what novelist Darcy Patterson means when writing,
It’s easy to write a chapter. It’s hard to write a novel.
Keep working on chapters (bits), and as you do, find ways to extend them to novels (shows) through story arcs.
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