The Radio Sentence

by Charlie Mintz on 4/26/2014

  

I love concision. I love elegance. And I love radio narration that demonstrates both those qualities. Today’s blog post is dedicated to one nugget of narration that knocked my my socks off. It will examine what 16 words can teach us about simplicity, stakes-setting, and where to put the most important word (hint: it’s last).

 

Here’s the sentence, from a story called The Hounds of Blairsville, which appeared in the April 11th episode of This American Life, “Tarred and Feathered”:

 

“Things are being said about you. Bad things, all over the internet. On something called Topix.”

 

This sentence comes about two minutes into an 18 minute story. At this point, we’ve been introduced to a man named Gene, who’s just learned of the murder of his wife by her ex-husband. Gene’s just gone to stay with the family of his deceased wife, when her father begins acting strangely. Here’s the narration, spoken by This American Life producer, Stephanie Foo.

 

“He called his sister in Blairsville to tell her Paulette's parents were acting really weird. And she said, something crazy is happening over here.”

 

This is when the important sentences hit us: four bursts of information, each building on the last:

 

(1) Things are being said about you.

(2) Bad things,

(3) all over the internet.

(4) On Something called Topix.

 

It culminates in a word that introduces the story’s primary theme -- a message board called Topix. It’s easy to overlook the craft involved here. So, to see just what’s so marvelous about it, let’s consider another way this could have been written.

“All over the internet, on something called Topix, bad things are being said about you.”

 

Awkward, huh? Ok, so let’s look at why Foo’s version works.

 

“Things are being said about you.”

 

There’s a principle at work here: starts with what’s simple. Topix is a foreign subject, so Foo leaves it aside for now. She keeps the noun (things), and the verb (said) about as basic as possible. That anything is being said about Gene is somewhat disturbing, and works as a strong start.  (Also worth noting: the passive construction -- “being said” --  is actually a plot point; Gene doesn’t know who is saying the things.)

 

“...Bad things…”

 

Also, note that “Things” and “Bad things” are presented separately. Foo could have begun, “Bad things are being said about you…” but she doesn’t. Why? I think it has to do with creating escalating stakes. That they’re “bad things”, is even worse. And the narration helps to emphasize this point. Two words, but this completely changes the plot of the story. People saying things about you is an annoyance. “Bad things”, with ominous understatement, is a different story.

 

(This kind of chunking is especially effective in audio. In text, a reader can look over a sentence multiple times, absorbing meaning. In audio, you only get one shot.)

 

“...All over the internet…”

 

The internet’s dark temptation towards slander is a major theme of this story. If Foo had folded this information into a single idea (“Bad things are being said about you all over the internet”), the narrator’s point would have been obscured.There are two important things going on here. One is that the things being said are bad things; the other is that these things are being said “all over the internet”. By giving each idea its own space, the narrator conveys this point.

 

“...On something called Topix.”

 

Good narration is a launching pad. And here “Topix” is packed with enough jet fuel to propel the story for another 16 minutes. Ending on this word maximally utilizes the potent narrative energy contained within it. Ending with the most important word is an old stylistic device, a favorite of Strunk and White, and this bit of narration is a perfect showcase for its value in any storyteller’s toolbox.

 

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