How to plot and pitch your own narrative series
We love a juicy narrative podcast. Apart from helping brands to create their own podcasterpieces, nothing else brings us more joy than listening away the hours as we let intriguing characters throw twists and revelations at us episode after episode.
But a lot goes into a good series before you’re able to stream it into your ears (we even covered some of the things to consider in our article on how to produce a podcast).
Hours of material has to be sorted and structured into a cohesive story. Key events need to be plotted to keep the audience engaged. And before it can be made, you need to prove to a producer that the project is worth their time and money in a pitch.
So how do you make a narrative podcast? How do you plot and structure them? And once you’ve got one, how do you pitch it to producers to get it out into the world?
In this article, we’ll take you through some of the lessons we learned from Kellie Riordan (award winning Podcast strategist at Deadset Studios) and Anna Priestland (independent writer, producer and expert storyteller) in their talk: Getting Granular: How to pitch, structure and plot a hit narrative series
Over their years of experience, they’ve gained a wealth of knowledge on creating narrative podcast series’. Their talk explained the methods they use to create narrative structure, how they hold audience attention and what they do to make sure their pitches hit the mark.
If you’ve got a pass to the event, go and check out the talk on Podcast Movement Virtual here.
But if you can’t watch the talk, fear not! We’ll walk you through how to pitch ideas to producers, how to organise hours of tape, and how to plot an entire series to keep listeners engaged.
So whether you’re a beginner looking to turn your recordings into a series or a pro looking to get your next show commissioned - read on to find out how to get your narrative podcast structured and ready to pitch
Part 1: What is your story?
The first step is taking a good hard look at what it is that you have on your hard drive, tapes, wax cylinders etc.
Before you can start to piece it all together you need to know some key things that’ll act as a starting point from which you can form your aural creation.
In particular, you need to ask yourself:
- What is the underlying theme?
- Why is this story important?
- Will it make enough episodes?
- What point of view is it coming from?
These are all excellent questions, and ones that probably get asked too late in the process. But having a solid handle on these before you start on your project will help you create something much more polished.
Figuring out your theme will give you that single something to relate your story back to as you go along, acting as a sort of lighthouse in the narrative fog, ensuring you don’t stray off topic. Anna Priestland talked about one of her series, Letters of Love, following the theme that ‘love transcends all time’ which she was able to relate her story back to.
Next, you need to answer why you think this story is important. This will help you think about what it is you want to achieve with your narrative, whether that’s making a change in the world, entertaining people, educating others or something else.
This will give you something to keep in mind as you shape your story, but it’s also going to prepare you for when others (commissioning editors for example) ask you why it’s important and worthy of their hosts’ valuable server space.
Then you need to work out whether your content has the legs for an entire series. Just because you have hours and hours of audio doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve got enough material for an eight-part series. You need to consider whether the story you’re telling is big enough to support a series.
For example, I’ve got a great story about my dog slipping his collar and me chasing him through the woods. There’s comedy, drama, jeopardy. Unquestioningly a great story. But is it worthy of an eight-parter? I’d argue yes; however, the rest of the world would disagree.
And then you need to consider your voice. That doesn’t mean whether the narrator has a booming Brian Blessed voice or silky Joanna Lumley vocals. Instead, we’re talking about the point of view of the narrative.
What angle are you coming at this story from and how do you want your audience to feel about it? Are you being critical of the subject? Or sympathetic to it?
Deciding on your point of view isn’t just about taking sides, but it’s about providing continuity for your audience and gives them something to hold on to, much as the theme does.
Part 2: Structuring your narrative
So you have an idea of what your narrative podcast is, why it deserves to be in this world and what you want it to achieve. Now it’s time to flesh it out a bit and set it down on paper.
But don’t be disheartened, this isn’t an essay explaining and defending your piece. This is something much more informal and helpful. And the best part - it’s only one page. A one-pager! And you don’t even have to fill it all the way up with words.
There are a few key bits of information you want to include in your one-pager. And it’s important because it’s something you can refer back to to keep your vision clear.
It also gives any prospective commissioning editors something nice and informative to look at when you start putting it out into the world for interest.
To make your own one-pager, you’ll need:
- A logline – This is a one or two sentence summary of your series that states the central conflict in order to hook interest.
- A synopsis – Expand a bit on your logline (two to three sentences) and open up the description to include more about what kind of content can be expected from the series.
- Some bullet points to describe the format including:
- How many episodes
- Proposed release schedule
- Will you include interviews, voice actors, archival audio etc.
- The series arc – how will the overall story of the series develop over the episodes? Don’t go episode by episode though, just outline the key parts from the beginning, middle and end of the series.
- The audience – very simply, who is going to listen to this? Where do you want it hosted? Which demographics are you targeting? Again, just use a bullet point for each.
- Promises to the listener – quite self-explanatory. What do you want to deliver to your listener? What do you want them to understand? What do you want them to learn? How do you want them to feel?
- Why this story? – What makes this story relevant, interesting or important? What special elements will the series have? Will it answer (or ask) a new question?
- What is unique? – Why is this story unlike others? What new light or perspective will this cast on a subject? Will it incorporate new resources previously unexplored? Is there something novel about how it was produced?
- What messages do I want to send? – Think of two or three points about the theme you are following and your promises to the listener. What are the key points you want them to take away?
- With that information all in one handy document you can now use it as a prompt to keep your project on the right track. This will be particularly useful because next we’re going to talk about structuring the episodes themselves.
Part 3: Visualizing your episodes
Now that you know what you want your narrative podcast to look, sound, feel and smell like, it’s time to start piecing it all together. But before you jump into the studio and start editing your audio (perhaps using our guide on how to edit a podcast), you need to structure it off the timeline first, lest you end up with some hideous project folder with unsorted assets carelessly strewn across your tracks.
There are three methods that you can use to structure the episodes, each with their own strengths. Which one you choose depends on how you like to visualize your projects, how much time you have to plan or how many assets you have to manage.
The first method uses a basic list and, according to Priestland, is best suited to those who are ‘winging it’ or have a series they ‘just can’t plan for’. It’s as simple as noting down each of your episodes and making a list of questions that you need to answer in each one.
Such questions include:
- What is my goal for the listener in this episode?
- Am I opening with a bang?
- What is the ending to this episode?
- Do you have enough surprises?
- Am I clear in the story?
- Am I overloading the listener?
- Are there too many names?
- Is every scene or plot point good enough to make the cut?
- Have I delivered in this episode what I promised or hinted at?
If you’re after something a bit more visual and you have lots of different material (various characters, VO, voice actors and so on) then you might be interested in method two. For this, you need to draw a very basic timeline that you separate into three segments: beginning, middle and end.
You can now colour code your assets (such as red for interviews, blue for voice over, green for narration) and begin populating your episode timelines with the coloured markers to get a good spread of different elements throughout each episode and indeed the entire series.
One great benefit of this is that it shows where and how often your assets occur. You’re able to see whether you’re starving or overloading your audience with interviews, voice overs or narration at different points in the timeline and create more balanced episodes.
Finally, the third method is for the visually minded and plot-driven producer. And much like method two, you’ll need to draw a simple timeline for each episode. But, as you plot where you’d like different assets to appear, you also indicate how each will affect the story.
For example, you could place an interview at the 29-minute mark of a 30 minute episode telling the audience the mysterious phone call was made from inside the house! Here you’d place a red dot to note the inclusion of an interview and note down that this is where you’d like a twist to occur.
A clear benefit for method three is that you can decide the emotional or narrative direction of each and then work in your assets to fit this.
Part 4: Plotting your series’ narrative
Note: The next stage only really works if you use method two or three as they provide you with a visual representation of what your series will look like. However, method one, as mentioned, is more useful for series created either at the last minute or on the fly with little planning time available.
With your assets and your plot points mapped out across your episodes, you can now bring them all together to see how your arc develops as a whole. You can represent this by drawing a curve over each episode, to demonstrate where the builds, climaxes and falls occur.
This representation will give you a bird’s eye view of the series and what you should end up with when you place each episode in a continuous sequence is something resembling a rollercoaster.
If you don’t, and you have entire episodes that are too flat or a rapid series of peaks and troughs, then you’re going to have episodes that are either too dry, or white-knuckle episodes that are too emotionally taxing. Either way, they’re likely to turn your listener off and make them look for their narrative fix elsewhere.
So spread out those highs and lows over each episode and balance out the drama and give them just enough so they’re satisfied but still wanting more.
And that’s your series plotted! All neat and tidy(ish) telling you exactly what you want to achieve and how you’ll achieve it.
But now you need someone to help you take on the task. A professional with the experience and resources to deliver your vision.
But it’s not as simple as picking up the phone and asking. There’s one more thing you need to do next. You need to pitch your narrative podcast.
Part 5: Pitch documents
By this point, you’ll have already done a lot of the hard work. But now you need to convince others that yours is a vision worth investing in.
Thankfully, you’ve put in a lot of hours with your narrative. You know what it is, what it looks like and no one is more prepared to present your idea now than you. So now you need to show that. And here’s how.
Tease your reader
First, you’re going to need to prepare your pitch document. This, according to Kellie Riordan, should be:
‘…a one or two-page document… you might not outline everything that happens… but you should absolutely tease me and get me thinking that there’s twists and turns.’
So go through your arc and pick out some of the red herrings and twists. This will demonstrate some of the intrigue and revelations of your series.
It’s not about shocking the pitch-ee with your most world shattering reveals though. It’s about demonstrating that your story has the narrative dynamism to hold an audience for an entire series.
And try to demonstrate that you have a clear question for your audience that they’ll want answered to keep them coming back, episode after episode.
Carry the tone of your podcast in your pitch document
Next, ‘the pitch should always have the same flavour as the podcast’ Riordan says. This is because:
‘The best pitches are the ones where I can immediately hear the show and it’s because the person has written in the same tone as the podcast.’
This is because if you’re trying to pitch a show that’s incredibly funny or incredibly sombre, you need to show that it’s a tone you’re able to produce.
If your series is a humorous take on the lives of the people working on a farm, but you’ve written your pitch document with the solemnity of a ring-road planning application, then you’re not demonstrating that you have the tools needed to create your vision.
Also, the document needs to draw your reader in. The more they can visualize the series themselves, the more emotionally (and hopefully financially) invested they’ll be in it.
Contextualise your subject
This sets the scene for the person you’re pitching to and highlights the space in the market that you’re looking to fill.This is especially necessary if it’s a niche area of a wider topic that’s previously gone unexplored.
Speak to your credentials
That might sound worrying if this is your first podcast of this nature, or even your first ever podcast, but don’t worry, there’s a way to work around this, which we’ll explain shortly.
Obviously, if you have made this type of content before, tell them! Show them that you have a track record of producing successful narrative series. This will go a long way in convincing them that you’re capable of the task and aren’t going to abandon ship when things get tough.
But if this is your first podcast or narrative podcast, take a different approach. Tell the producer why it is that you’re uniquely suited to this task.
Perhaps you have exclusive access to the story you’re exploring? Or maybe you’ve had first-hand experience of the subject matter and know the topic inside out?
These are all reasons that would bar anyone else from even getting close to your story. So explain to them why you and only you can tackle this subject.
Part 6: Pitching in person
The pitch document was a hit! And now you’ve got some meetings lined up. But how do you keep the momentum going and ensure that you get that production company on-board?
One piece of information they’ll want to hear will already be in the pitch document, and that is why you’re the right person for the task. So make sure you’re ready to articulate (once again) why that is you.
If you’re new to this style of content, then demonstrating your value and skillset is going to help them understand your strengths. It’ll also help them decide what support you’ll need and potential staffers to pair you with.
Do your research
The next great bit of advice, courtesy of Priestland, is be aware of who you’re pitching to. Having a demonstrable understanding of the organization and person you’re pitching to is important because it’ll tell you about their current output.
This is key as it’ll show whether your series is in-line with their work and it will allow you to play to that fact either by saying:
‘You make financial tech stories with a romantic twist. So do I. Let’s do business’.
Or, if their content isn’t quite in line with yours,
‘You make financial tech stories. But you’ve got a gap in your portfolio for ones with a romantic twist. I can help. Let’s do business.’
This is an extreme example, but it gives you an idea of how you can take advantage of the situation either way. It’s not so much about buttering them up (though that helps) as it is about giving you an understanding of whether your narrative and their style match up.
So do your research, understand their portfolio and work out whether you’re a good fit before you step into the meeting.
You also need to demonstrate your passion for the subject because, as Riordan explains,
‘making a podcast is really hard, it takes a lot and there’s always a dark moment where everyone wants to give up… So I always look for a person who absolutely believes in their story and their ability to tell it.’
Pretty fantastic advice. And, as Riordan says, it’s not just about being passionate for the sake of looking good in the pitch, it’s about demonstrating your belief in your narrative and how you’ll have the determination to push through when things inevitably get a bit tough.
The Final piece of advice comes from Priestland.
It’s important to know that the person you are pitching to is already interested in you. Ask yourself: ‘what is it about me that has made that call happen’. This will allow you to play to those strengths and, again, that strength might be that you are uniquely suited to the task - so demonstrate it!
But it’s also a great piece of advice because, as she says, something about you has made that call or meeting happen. It’s a reminder that you’ve already got an idea and a convincing pitch document that they think could be a great series.
So what I would also take away from her advice is; try not to stress too much about it. It’s a conversation and it’s as much about persuading them to make your series as it is about seeing how well you’ll work together and what they can do to bring your project to life.
And that’s our how-to guide on ‘How to plot and pitch your own narrative series’.
We’ve looked at ways you can structure your material, how you can build tension and plot climaxes and how you can effectively pitch your stories to producers.
And if you haven’t watched Kellie Riordan and Anna Priestland’s discussion Getting Granular: How to pitch, structure, and plot a hit narrative series then you absolutely should! Go and check it out over on Podcast Movement Virtual as well as the many many other talks.
And if you’ve got a narrative podcast idea in need of a podcast producer, why not get in touch with us here.