I recently saw Ira Glass, host of the popular radio show This American Life, give a talk/semi-theatrical performance at a nearby theater. I enjoyed it very much, and I thought I would write out what I remember from the main points that he made.
He talked about how the aesthetics of an episode of This American Life are different from a typical journalism story. For example, the default, and usually only, options for tone in a typical journalism story are drama or lighthearted humor, and the focus is on very serious, significant things. Which is all stories are anyway, but the problem is that the two are never mixed and only a narrow range of possible tones is usually used within those options.
To illustrate this point, Ira compared two stories about the same aircraft carrier near Afghanistan, one by CNN and one by This American Life. The contrast was clear: the CNN story was a typical news story with a very action movie tone but it didn’t really say anything very interesting (Ira: “You would have to have a loved one onboard the Stennis in order to find this interesting.”), and the This American Life story was an entertaining story about a marine whose job it is to refill the vending machines on the aircraft carrier every day. It made interesting points about the reality of life on an aircraft carrier, and about how young the people are who work there.
He also talked about the difference in structure between a typical journalism story and an episode of This American Life, essentially criticizing what he called the “topic sentence industrial complex.” A typical news story is organized with the most important facts first, followed by the second most important and so on. It’s a very logical and orderly way to communicate information. A This American Life story is organized by plot. The structure is a series of events, followed by a reflection or idea about those events. Ira argued that this is a much more engaging way to tell a story because following a plot structure makes us naturally want to know what happens next.
He also pointed to the long history of storytelling using plot and to the field of semiotics, which is the study of signs and symbols and their use, in the context of explaining why a good story is satisfying.
There was a lot more to the excellent talk, but those are the main points that I remember.