What novelists can learn from Serial Podcast

Anyone else get into the Serial podcast these past few months?

True crime, compelling storytelling, angle by angle each week–I was hooked!

Serial is the most popular podcast in the history of the format, 5 million downloads and streams. So what makes it so powerful? Let’s unpack it.

So what can novelists learn from the power of podcasts, and Serial?

1. Power of narrative. Everyone knows what great storytelling can do: make you cry watching a commercial, make a book unforgettable. Even the simplest stories, if done well, can bring you to the brink of tears. (Opening of Up anyone?)

2. Serialization format. Like Wattpad, Serial worked because we learn a little at a time which ends up contributing to the greater picture and brings anticipation with each instalment. Wattpad has had many success stories that lead to traditional publishing deals and is a great way for writers to see if they have what it takes to tell a story chapter by chapter.

3. Learning character motivation. One of the most interesting things about Serial was trying to figure out who had the motivation to commit Hae’s murder. People are complex (and your characters should be too) and there often isn’t a reason for everything. So how do you make characters 3D? Give them real life situations and life-or-death motivations. Everything they do should feel bigger than what’s on the page.

4. Universal themes. The reason Serial was such a big hit was that it touched on emotions and triggers that are universal in nature: love, loss, jealousy, revenge, friendship, secrecy, trust. Don’t try to make human nature more complex than it is. We’re simple in that we’ve had the same concerns since Shakespeare, and even earlier than that really.

5. (Un)reliable narrators. Who do you trust? Who is telling the truth? A classic dilemma in literature and in life. Do we really know anyone? How can you bring this dilemma to your writing and to your narrators?

6. Multiple angles. Serial had experts, friends and family weighing in. Seeing the act of murder from many people’s eyes makes you wonder which perspective is the most accurate one. Can anyone have an opinion worth hearing if they weren’t there? Think about how multiple POV can bring more to your book than a single POV.

7. Memory. Memory is a very strange thing. What do we really know? And if we don’t remember something does that mean it didn’t happen the way people tell us it did? Memory has had a long history in literature, but it’s always an interesting writing trope. Human’s don’t have perfect memory and it shouldn’t be surprising when your characters don’t either.

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Q: That’s what I took from Serial. What was your favorite part of Serial from a writer’s perspective?

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13 thoughts on “What novelists can learn from Serial Podcast

  1. Great points, all, and since I can’t get enough of Serial, I think I’ll use all of these in the current work I’m writing. Tension is the number one takeaway for me, from Serial. Damn, I was tense listening to some of the participants, and then I was tense all week until the next episode arrived! BTW your Wattpad link is bad; and thanks for turning me on to that, Carly. So . . . did Jay do it? Or what??!

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    1. Tension is a good one! I that came with the anticipation for me.

      I don’t think we’ll ever know who did it.

      I was confused about what Adnan didn’t fight harder, but I guess you come to accept things when you’ve been in jail for 15 years.

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      1. Probably so, but many would have crazy unsurpressed anger after 15 years in prison, too. I found his acceptance to be one of his most redeeming traits. Presumably the fight is out of his hands now. Definitely offers much for a character study! Really liked how you took Serial apart for its relevance to writers, Carly.

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  2. I think one of the best aspects of Serial was its ability to generate discussions. People could interpret a small quote so differently from the next person. “I can’t believe he said that, he’s totally guilty” and the next comment would be something like “I’m glad he said that… that just proves he was innocent the whole time.” I’d love to have a piece of work that could generate so much discussion about my characters.

    It also is encouraging that Sarah essentially didn’t get bogged down pre-planning the whole thing months ahead… I believe she “went with the flow” week-to-week which made things more exciting. It also encouraged me to write my next novel like that instead of following a semi-rigid pre-planned structure.

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  3. I loved that Serial has spawned great discussions about the law and how our legal system works. It is reasonable to say that Adnan *may* have done it, but the real question is: did the state prove his guilt beyond a reasonable doubt? I also liked that Serial made it clear that juries are never given the whole story, by design. I don’t think that’s generally well-understood.

    As a writer, Serial really drove home the unreliable narrator concept in a way I haven’t experienced before. It is easy to say there are two sides to every story, but how often do we really take the time to dissect the motives behind each side?

    Such good stuff.

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  4. My big thing was the characters: The whole time we were being asked to consider “What if Adnon is innocent?” but my brain, almost immediately, went to “I think Jay did it.” And I listened to almost every episode for an angle that made Jay the killer. I can’t think of a time Sarah ever implied anything about Jay other than he wasn’t really a trustworthy eye witness, and yet…

    Interesting to consider how a third person narrator can do the same for our characters.

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  5. I thoroughly enjoyed Serial for many of the reasons you delineated here. From a storytelling perspective they easily hit 9/10 for me. However, I think the ending left something to be desired. People like to make arguments about how true crime doesn’t necessarily flesh out into easy conclusions, but I disagree. Overall, good post, great podcast, I just hope they tie things up a little better next time, or start the story with a clear conclusion in mind.

    More thoughts here: http://joshuarigsby.com/2015/01/14/thoughts-on-serial-season-1-a-podcast-post-mortem/

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