What the "Serial" Podcast Teaches Us About Writing Novels
By Michael Nye
“Do you listen to Serial?” is a question I’ve been posing to people almost daily for the last two weeks. I was late to the party—I often am—but now I’m fully caught up and all aboard on this new podcast, a spinoff from This American Life. If you’re unfamiliar, Serial is a new weekly podcast about an old Baltimore murder case. In 1999, a teenage girl, Hae Min Lee was murdered, strangled to death, and her body dumped in Leakin Park. Her ex-boyfriend, Adnan Syed, was convicted of her murder, primarily on the testimony of his friend Jay. The podcast is reported by Sarah Koenig, who takes the listeners, week by week, through the investigation of the crime, the main characters, the evidence, and her own doubts about her work in an attempt to answer this question: was Adnan Syed really the person who murdered Hae Min Lee?
The show is captivating, and online, it’s been discussed the way shows like the Walking Dead or Mad Men are: broken down each week, dissected, questioned, and theories abound regarding what happened and what angle each character is playing. Sometimes, it seems like people forget this is real, rather than a fictive world.
In the 21st century, we don’t just sit back and enjoy: we engage. Sports fans seems as interested in how a team is built (trades, drafts, free agency, etc.) as they are interested in whether or not the team wins. Same is true of our narrative art. Fan fiction, spinoffs, and endless “think pieces” galore. A super fast zip through the we has all sorts of questions about Sarah Koenig, the two biggest wondering if she believes Syed is actually innocent and, either way, what exactly is her relationship with him. The second of this questions is addressed by Lincoln Michel by reminding us that the ethics of journalism into murder cases has been written about, wonderfully, years ago. Given that these are real events, should you be enjoying this podcast as much as you are? Or, have you thought about what it means when “a white journalist stomps around in a cold case involving people from two distinctly separate immigrant communities?”
These are just a few of the many pieces about Serial; there are others, perhaps better ones, but hey, how many links can I throw up here in just one paragraph? I have my own to write!
Whatever concerns or worries one has with Serial, it has been a tremendously successful and captivating podcast. A captivating narrative. It hooks you in, gets you eager to listen to the next episode, and keeps you thinking about what you’ve just heard long after the episode is over. Isn’t this exactly what we try to do with novels?
Since my novel (attempt number four!) is working its way through agents’ Inboxes as I write this, the question of what makes a narrative effective is on my mind. And, since my novel is in first person and involves a murder, Serial has naturally got me thinking about how it compares to novels. Perhaps incomplete, but here are a few Serial-novel comparisons that I’ve been thinking about.
Who is the narrator? The answer in Serial is pretty clear: Sarah Koenig. What is less clear is what she is about, what she is interested in, her thoughts on guilty or innocence that sometimes spring to the surface. She’s familiar to any listener of This American Life, and has the educated, pleasantly skeptical, warm personae of public radio.
Novels do the same thing: a voice pulls you in, whether it is in first person or third person. Trust is established. But it can also be undermined. Any writer will tell you that every first person narrator is unreliable, by definition. You can’t always trust third person, can you, Atonement?
Novels have two storylines. Serial has two clear ones: who is the narrator, and did Adnan kill Hay? These are the two most obvious ones, but there are others that would certainly enter your mind as a Serial listener: why would Jay lie, what did the police screw up (if they did), how did the jury convict so fast (two hours), and numerous others … all of which get back to those first two storylines.
In novels, it might not be nearly as neat. But there always seems to be two storylines at work in great novels. In first person, who is the narrator? will always be one (me thinkth), but a great novel might also just run with two narratives on the page, the action, the plot, that keeps the reader going. One should be enough, you might think … but it really isn’t. Any good novel has two strong threads – at a minimum – running through it.
Be a pageturner. The structure of Serial is genius: thirteen podcasts, the first one an hour, the rest a little over thirty minutes. Even if the show doesn’t hang on a complete cliffhanger, there is always a tease to what is coming next, or might be coming next, in just seven days.
Even though your brain loves chapters, it isn’t enough to just slap a new chapter into a novel. There is a logic and reason to it. Serial has structural and temporal constraints, but it’s still excellent at 1. Wrapping up what it said this week’s episode is about and 2. Emotionally leading you into the next episode.
It’s out of your hands. What’s the difference between Hunger Games and all the other YA novels? What’s the difference between Jodi Picoult and other books in the very broad category of “chick lit”? Why was Emma Donoghue’s big hit her seventh book?
I’m sure you could come up with a few reasons, and I’d like nod along and think “Sure, yeah, that might explain it.” But for the most part, there is a shrug and palms turned upwards. Who knows? William Goldman once said “No one knows anything” and he knows quite a bit about writing. Good work flops, bad work hits. Why? Dunno.
There is plenty of criticism of Donna Tartt’s “The Goldfinch,” which was very popular around this office, for a wide-range of flaws: tortured metaphors, endlessly long, a pedantic ending, and so forth. All of which I thought, yes, that’s true. But I still loved the book. If art was a series of easy formulas and algorithms, anyone can do it. Sometimes the mess is what makes it great.
There Will Be Criticism. A bit of a compendium to the above, but no book or podcast or whatnot is going to be above criticism. Someone will hate it. Someone hates To Kill a Mockingbird. Someone hates Zadie Smith. Someone hates Jimmy Stewart, Kermit the Frog, ice cream, and sunsets (hopefully not the same person: that would be one miserable dude to be around). Nothing is perfect.
There is always valid criticism that might bring a writer back to square one (or, I dunno, draft four). Understanding the difference between genuine, useful responses and vitriol develops over time. We all learn to say “Oh, I hadn’t thought of that” or “That’s just, like, your opinion, man …” when it comes to our writing.
All good artists love other art. At a simple writing level, good novelists read poetry, and vice versa. But writers also love film, music, sculpture, all forms of creativity and thought and questioning. And as a writer, I gravitate toward the journalism and storytelling that gets wrapped together in radio and podcasts. Whatever flaws there might be in the form, I’ll keep listening, and keep borrowing what I learn into my writing. That’s just what we do.
Follow Michael on Twitter: @mpnye