For the past several weeks, Thursday mornings have taken on a special meaning for hundreds of thousands of curious souls around the world. That's when the makers of the podcast Serial release the latest installment of the weekly show. You'll know the new one has arrived when your Twitter timeline begins to look like a Serial word cloud. The true crime narrative show debuted earlier this fall to instant acclaim, and it has only gained in popularity each week—taking the top spot on iTunes, inspiring memes and Reddit sleuthing, and spawning bookshop listening parties and the like. While the subject of Serial is indeed a juicy whodunit, there's no mystery about just why people are mainlining episodes with such rabid intensity: this is seriously compelling storytelling.
The podcast is the brainchild of This American Life producers Sarah Koenig and Julie Snyder, who have been working together for 12 years. The two recently decided to experiment with the long-haul format of unspooling one story over the course of an entire season. It just so happens that the story they selected is especially conducive to incremental progression. The inaugural season of Serial centers on the case of Adnan Syed, convicted in 1999 at age 17 of killing his ex-girlfriend, Hae Min Lee, despite the lack of physical evidence linking him to the crime. Syed has always maintained his innocence, and over the past year, Koenig has investigated whether perhaps he's been telling the truth.
In a world full of impatient entertainment junkies used to binging through entire TV series during hazardously sedentary weekends, Serial is a wistful throwback to an age of cultivated anticipation. The show leaves its audience wanting more each week, not with cliffhangers, but by stoking the hunger for closure with every new wrinkle in the case. Hijacking a global audience's rapt interest each week is an enviable skill, no matter how inherently absorbing the subject. Co.Create recently spoke with Serial's Julie Snyder to get to the bottom of hers and Koenig's approach to telling a story.
In beginning to unpack all the details of Syed's case, Snyder and Koenig had to find a way to bring listeners up to speed without overburdening them.
"We started with sort of a typical outline: 'Here’s the story. Here’s what’s interesting about the story. Here are the things that look fishy,'" Snyder says. "That's about the point when you add, 'But on the other hand...' So it’s sort of the natural progression of how you would tell any story. If you’re going to say, 'Here’s what’s interesting about the story,' you have to explain the case, you have to explain who the characters are, at least somewhat explain motivations, and then obviously you have to address the question that was brought to Sarah, and the reason she started looking into it: whether what they said happened in the trial is what really happened."
It’s difficult to tell a story when there are so many details, and for Snyder and Koenig, a big part of that challenge lay in just conveying enough of the case's key facts without losing listener interest. "We have an insider’s knowledge of what pieces of evidence we have and where they're going, and that part of the story takes place inside the details. In order to bring anybody in on what we found so interesting, there's a lot you have to understand first. It’s sort of a challenge. I’d say for at least the first five episodes, there had to be some housekeeping being done, and it was essentially trying to figure out how much was too much before someone was just going to cry uncle and say 'I don’t care any more, this just feels like somebody’s telling me the most minute details about their dream.'
One of the ways Serial hooks listeners in is by mentioning some facts of the case in passing, while assuring that they will become important later on.
"On 'The Case Against Adnan' episode, I don’t think we held back any of those details. A lot of them were ones that we’d mentioned before, but we hadn’t had the chance to fully explain and get into," Snyder recalls. "There wasn’t a sense from us of holding back details, but rather making sure they fit into the natural progression of the way you tell a story. You think the case looks fishy, so you say, 'Why does it look fishy?' and then you show why. That episode was basically our ‘But on the other hand" episode. There were details in there that, in order for you to understand their significance, we have to tell you about the cell phone records and the call log, various different trial testimonies and police statements. So it takes a while to get through everything—it’s not a matter of holding information back. You just have to choose at a point which item you’re going to reveal first, based on a matter of comprehension."
Another way the show burrows its way into listeners brains long after each week's 40 minutes, give or take, have concluded is through regular reversals. To help amplify this feeling of uncertainty, Snyder and Koenig looked to a documentary by Academy Award winning filmmaker Jean-Xavier de Lestrade for inspiration.
"For this story in particular we had talked about a documentary series by French filmmakers that aired here on The Sundance Channel called The Staircase. It's about a murder trial in North Carolina where a man was convicted of killing his wife. And the reason we talked about that is because I recognized there was a similar kind of constant shifting in what you think really happened, and so many doubts. There was a feeling I got over the last year of following Sarah's investigation and just thinking you understand everything and then you find out something else and it colors everything, and then you flip again."
Every great story needs a great ending. The only problem for Koenig and Snyder is that they didn't know what their ending would be at the outset.
"Basically, it’s the same thing you do in any kind of story we’ve done on This American Life. You have a question, and you set out to answer it. And then you have another question and you set out to answer it," Snyder says. "Basically, you’re kind of giving a road map to the listener about what it is that you’re doing and where you’re hoping to get to, and I think that’s the basic format for a lot of narrative nonfiction. The different episodes are not dissimilar from chapters in a book.
I think we’ll know what the ending is when we get there. We’re leaving open the possibility that anything can happen. A lot of times we already kind of know the end of a story before we go out to report it and we’re just getting all the information in between. It’s been really fascinating for me for a year and held my attention the whole time, so I’m not really worried about whether the ending will affect how much people enjoy this story."