Episode One: DUSTWUN. We join Sarah Koenig, the host and executive producer of Serial, in the dusty dunes of Afghanistan. A United States soldier named Bowe Bergdahl is draped in a large shawl and sits in a silver pick-up truck surrounded by the Taliban. He is about to be rescued in a Black Hawk. The Black Hawk lands, and the United States military collects who they believed was a Taliban hostage, walking backwards with the hostage so as to not turn their backs on the enemy. This was a rescue operation. But here, Koenig leaves us with the central question of the season: Was Bowe Beghdahl a hero, or was he a traitor?
Here are the three storytelling lessons I learned from this episode:
1. Keep Big Questions Simple
So far, this investigation is about big events – the war in Afghanistan, the United States military, and hostages. Yet, Koenig frames the story to us in human, relatable ways.
For example, we have all had bad bosses at work. Bergdahl abandoned his U.S. Army outpost in eastern Afghanistan into the desert because he believed that there was leadership failure in his unit. He felt that leaving the unit was the only way anyone would listen to him about it. We don’t have to be in the army in eastern Afghanistan to understand his claim, whether we believe him or not. Though our lives may not be at risk because of poor leadership, we can understand how miserable our jobs can be with the person at the helm is inept. Koenig reduces big questions to understandable human quandaries, a quality that is also the mark of a great short story or novel. I don’t have to be Isabel Archer in Henry James’ Portrait of a Lady and live in a London estate to understand how passion can lead to bad decisions. We’ve all been there in spirit, if not in fact.
2. Zoom In and Out
Just as Koenig makes the questions in the show simple, she also makes the images in the story big and small. Koenig likens her investigation to the children’s book Zoom.
She says of the book:
There are no words. It's just pictures. And it starts with these pointy red shapes.
And then, next page, you realize those shapes are a rooster's comb. Next page, you zoom out, you see the rooster is standing on a fence with two little kids watching him. Next page, zoom out again, they're in a farmhouse. And then, zoom further, you realize that all of it—the rooster, the kids, the farmhouse—are toys being played with by another child, and that that whole scene is actually an ad in a magazine, and the magazine is in the lap of someone napping on a deck chair, and so on.
Out and out it zooms, the aperture of the thing getting wider and wider until the original image is so far away it's unseeable. That's what the story of Bowe Bergdahl is like. This one idiosyncratic guy makes a radical decision at the age of 23 to walk away into Afghanistan. And the consequences of that decision—they spin out wider and wider. And at every turn, you're surprised. The picture changes. To get the full picture, you need to go very, very small, into one person's life. And also very, very big, into the war in Afghanistan.
Decisions like these make me love this narrator and want to listen to her for hours. She tells us micro details, like how filmmaker Mark Boal makes snacks while he interviews Berghdahl on the phone or how she reads her children books and relates them to her work. And then she steps back – way back – and tells us what Donald Trump thinks of traitors and how President Obama received Berghdahl and his parents at the White House. Koenig tells us the story of one man but also the story of a political tableau. Great stories too give us characters that we can relate to and a broader climate in which they live, make decisions, and are acted upon. Franz Kafka’s The Trial is both about Josef K. personally and about the bizarre and frightening legal environment that ensnares him. Koenig’s effective use of the zoom metaphor reminds us that great writing teaches us how we both possess and lack agency in every decision we make.
3. Stick the Landings
Koenig ends Episode One with a one second clickety-clack of a keyboard, followed by the sound of a phone ringing. “Hello?” a man with an accent says. “Hello,” Koenig responds, her voice sweeping up as she says it. “This is Sarah.” A pause. “That’s me, calling the Taliban.” With an ending like that, I know I’m tuning into Episode Two.
Chapter endings should be like this. Each chapter should leave us with a few questions answered and many more posed, so much so that we have to read on. Harper Lee ends a chapter of To Kill a Mockingbird with this sentence: “Calpurnia was making her way up the middle aisle, walking straight toward Atticus.” We are all turning to Chapter 21 to see what she’s going to do. Koenig chose 10-15 second endings both in this episode and throughout Season One that created a binge listening phenomenon. Those last few sentences at the end of every chapter are what compel a reader to turn a page, or in Serial’s case, to download the next episode.
Please leave us your thoughts on Episode One of Serial’s Season Two. Did you find these storytelling techniques as effective as I did, and were there others that stood out to you?
This is the second post in our Serial podcast posts. Read all the posts about Serial on our blog.