S-Town: how it uses narrative techniques
S-Town is a podcast from the makers of This American Life. It’s a great piece of storytelling — so it’s a perfect subject for applying some narrative concepts in order to understand how those can help professional storytellers and media workers to engage their audiences.
Mode, audience and genre
Let’s start with the basics. S-Town is multimodal: although it’s a podcast (audio), there’s also a website with both visual and textual components including transcripts (text), an About page (text) and a Music section (text with embedded music player). And there are social media accounts too, on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. Those are all part of the storytelling experience (I could talk about transmedia storytelling here, but that’s for another time).
Broadly, S-Town is in the podcast genre — it’s not radio, for example. But within that broad genre it sits specifically in factual storytelling, or documentary (it’s not a chat podcast or news roundup, for example, which would be different podcast genres). If you listen to a few episodes you might realise that it’s a sort-of true crime story, too. All of these genres create expectations in the listener, and rules that the programme makers must consider (and either follow, or break with a purpose).
What about the audience? Well, remembering that an audience is constructed, I’d say the makers make assumptions that their audience is American, like them. As a British listener it’s clear that there are probably elements of the story that I miss because I’m not as familiar with some of the cultural signals that are relied on (how people speak, cultural references etc). If I was American I might be able to see other assumptions (metropolitan audience, for example, rather than rural?)
What alternative editorial choices could be made even at this stage? Well of course they could decide to tell this story as a radio show, or a video, or to not have a website at all. They could decide to tell it in a chat show genre. They could assume an international audience, which would mean explaining things about Alabama and the US that an international audience may not know.
Narrator and actors
Mieke Bal says every narrative must have a narrator, an actor, and that it should be “a series of connected events caused or experienced by actors.”
In this case the narrator is the presenter, Brian Reed. An editorial choice has been made for that narrator to have an active role in the story — in other words, he’s not just the narrator, but an actor in the story too. An alternative editorial choice could have been to let the characters (actors) tell the story without any narration. In that case the narrator would still be there, editing and constructing the story, but he/she would be effaced (invisible).
Why do they make this decision? Perhaps because it’s the only way to communicate certain information. Making a story entirely from recorded audio of other people is hard.
(By the way, there’s actually another narrator: producer Sarah Koenig, who says “Chapter 1” right at the start, and will have had a key role in constructing the narrative in addition to Brian)
What about the ‘actors’ in this story? John B. McLemore is the first one to be introduced after the narrator himself. We hear his voice, which immediately gives us a sense of his character. And he is introduced with a line that immediately sets up some movement between characters:
“I only learned about all this because years ago an antique clock restorer contacted me, John B. McLemore, and asked me to help him solve a murder.”
The movement is from John to Brian: an appeal for help. In return, we anticipate movement the other way: Brian moving to help John (or at least find out more).
There are other characters. We don’t hear the voices of “a sergeant with the Bibb County Sheriff’s Department” but he is introduced by Brian soon after, along with “Another guy [who] allegedly helped” him and, in quick succession, “a guy in his early 20s named Dylan Nichols” and his murderer, “a son of a prominent local family”.
Why make the editorial decision to introduce the characters in this way? Perhaps the intention is to build a relationship with the presenter-character first (providing enough time and information to do so), then to introduce John as a ‘mystery’ that we will want to know more about. Finally the other characters are given much less time and audio (we don’t hear them) to introduce some more mysteries and also movement: we already have a sense of conflict (murder) and chemistry (conspiracy).
Setting and movement
Setting is central to the story: the podcast itself is named after the central setting of the story — in a way, Shittown, Alabama is a character itself.
But there are two other settings before Shittown is mentioned: first, the setting of the clock-fixing; and second, the setting of the answerphone message.
The first setting is one that we imagine when the process of clock-fixing is described by the narrator —I’m imagining an extreme close-up of a table where those items are being fixed when I hear that section, for example.
The second setting is again imagined rather that described: a close-up of a phone as the message plays is what plays in my mind.
And because the presenter himself is not in S-Town, there’s already an anticipation of movement from that office setting to the site of the main events of the story.
…and sequences of events
We soon move into action, with a recording of a phonecall between Brian and John. He must have made the editorial decision to record this phonecall (and obtained permission to do so) just as, perhaps, an editorial decision might have been made to leave the answerphone on in order to capture recordings of people with stories.
Early in the phone we ‘cut’ to the presenter providing context to it. This injects more movement — both in space (we assume the call and the voiceover were not recorded in the same place) and time.
The time dimension is a good example of the use of temporality: time doesn’t run in a straight and consistent line in the story: we can skip ahead a year, or from the past to the present when we need to add explanation.
The context could have been provided before the phonecall, but it’s an editorial decision to instead do it during the call — and I think it’s more effective.
The cut to the call grabs us, and the cut to the narrator keeps us listening, while answering some of the questions that the call raises, before a much longer clip is then played.
This is an approach I’d like to use in my own audio production.
Another useful approach is when the narrator interjects to explain something that’s been said in the call: “Ervin Lee Heard is the name of the Bibb County police officer who had been sexually abusing women he pulled over.”
Not leaving the audio of the call run too long uninterrupted (and cutting away to other audio) is a useful technique for maintaining interest.
Other narrative techniques
Aside from the techniques already identified, the show uses metaphor quite well: the image of the clock-fixing acts as a metaphor for the story as a whole — intricate, with many interlocking parts.
The website uses iconography, too, carrying through that clock imagery throughout.
There is both mimesis (showing) and diegesis (telling). Initially the narrator tells us what happened, but then we hear what happened in the audio of the original phone message.
This is a bit more complicated, because although we hear John speak directly (rather than being told what he said), John himself is also telling us about events (“Something’s happened.”) so although we’re closer to events, we could be closer still if, for example, we could hear (or see) those events directly.
That’s a big challenge of audio storytelling — rarely does audio exist of the events of the narrative, so the producers have to find creative ways of ‘showing’ us what happened, with a lot of ‘telling’ to fill the gaps.
What’s the point?
Finally, does the story have a point? Well, without any spoiler alerts, important things do happen, so probably yes.
But for me as a professional communicator, there’s lots here to learn from: the use of cutting between past and present to create movement; the introduction of characters and the relationship between them. How a narrator is used to enable that cutting to take place. How metaphor is used to intrigue the audience (and then answer ‘why’ the metaphor is being used)