The Sticky Power of a Story Arc
by Tracy Johnson
Writers create stories around a formula that creates a story arc. The goal is to take the reader on a journey, a story with a beginning, middle and end. The process creates a sticky thread that weaves through the story, adding texture and continuity to their work.
The same concepts that work for a novel can be applied in many ways. You’ll recognize a story arc in online marketing, sales pitches, songs, screenplays and movies. It even works for a radio show.
Entertainment without storylines is simply a series of bits. Bits may be fine, but when your show is nothing but individual elements, you have to start from scratch in every break. The average morning show is usually more about moments than stories. Moments are great for gaining attention, but their impact is short-lived.
It’s much more effective when segments lead the listener to hear more!
Small story arcs happen on the air 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. That’s all well and good, of course, but great radio shows develop deeper story arcs and storylines that regularly come back.
Similarly, in radio we have an obsessive drive to be topical-it’s all about what’s hot NOW. There’s no past, no future, just now. Immediacy and instant gratification are important, but when there’s no story, no arc to draw and emotionally involve the audience, we are like hamsters running in a wheel, working hard but never really gaining meaningful ground.
Story Arcs Outside Radio
Here’s an example of how story arcs work in television.
Think of your favorite sitcom. Each show is entertaining when viewed independently (one episode), but chances are that you recognize storylines that weave from one week to the next. It adds a richer experience and becomes addictive. Storylines with a dramatic arc are connective tissue that holds audiences and creates fans.
That’s part of the appeal that turned NPR’s hit podcast Serial into a runaway smash. Each episode left listeners wondering what would happen next. And how would it turn out? That’s the trait of a great storyteller. Fans couldn’t wait for the next episode to provide answers to questions raised in the previous podcast. It created irresistible expectation and anticipation.
Creating Story Arcs
Storylines can exist on the air, within segments. That’s fairly easy. But in a broader sense, you can develop story arcs through your personality.One of the steps in developing a 5-star personality profile is identifying each individual’s central conflict. Your central conflict could be a divorced mom dealing with teenage kids, for example. This becomes your arc, allowing listeners to identify with you while framing topics and content in a relatable, serialized way.
If this is hard for you, or if you’re not at a point in your personality development to pull it off, there are other ways to build in sticky, recurring content. A show I work with has created a dramatic storyline around a listener who “found” a diary and hoped to return it to the owner through the morning show. When nobody claimed the diary, the show began reading excerpts on the air each day, which created curiosity, drama, daily topics and a new character that never actually appeared on the air.
What are your arcs? Is each day simply a new and self-contained episode or is it a developing chapter in a connected series? Do listeners eagerly anticipate what will happen tomorrow morning, or have they been trained to expect more of the same features at the same time each day?
When we demand little of the audience, it’s no wonder we get little in return. A radio show can be like a soap opera. Try to find ways to thread a continuing storyline, unfolding one chapter at a time. This creates history for the characters. This can be a key to transform a personality from somebody audiences laugh with to a character they care about.
If radio personalities could master this concept, we’d discover the key to getting listeners to stay longer and come back again. In other words, building in story arcs could be a secret formula to the fountain of higher ratings!
Yet, we rarely hear great story arcs on the radio. Perhaps it’s due to PPM programming practices or maybe we just became addicted to self-contained “in the moment” content. But that’s short-term thinking.
This is what novelist Darcy Patterson means when writing,
It’s easy to write a chapter. It’s hard to write a novel.
Tracy Johnson specializes in radio talent coaching, radio consulting for programming and promotions and developing digital strategies for brands.