Short Fiction Best Practices with Jonathan Mitchell
The creator of The Truth says the key to connecting with audiences is forging a clear path between the story and the listener.
Years before the current wave of serialized fiction podcasts, Jonathan Mitchell was delivering captivating, profound stories on his show The Truth. Each roughly 20-minute episode in the anthology-style podcast features a story by a different writer, who workshops their script with Mitchell and his team, and a different cast. After a cold open from the script, Mitchell narrates an introductory hook to reel the audience in even more before the story plays out in full. The show's genres bounce from realistic drama to Black Mirror style sci-fi to hilarious true-crime parodies.
Mitchell talked with us about his history in podcasts and broadcast, the importance of structure in storytelling, and how to deliver poignant stories in a short amount of time.
Spotify for Podcasters: What initially interested you in short fiction? How did you get your start there?
Jonathan Mitchell: At the time I started the show, I'd been making radio for about 15 years. And most of the pieces that I'd been doing were short pieces. Public radio is divided into 20-minute segments. I became conditioned to think about pacing a lot in those terms. I like stories that have a beginning, and a middle, and end that I can just think of as a complete idea.
I wanted to create a platform where we could try lots of different things to see what I could do with the medium in general. I didn't want to be locked into any genre or any one set of characters or a place. I wanted the freedom to just experiment however it went, in any way that would occur to me or the people I was working with.
Were there any difficulties going from largely nonfiction stories to fiction stories when you started up The Truth?
It was a real challenge. For years, even now, I still like to read about writing. Especially when I started [The Truth], I just read everything I could about writing and story structure. I found myself much more drawn to dialogue in general. The more I did it, the more I wanted to do things that you could only do when you write it out and really plan a lot. I felt like you could do much more sophisticated things with the medium if I got away from [improvisation] and started developing scripts with writers. It gradually became much more scripted.
Let's talk about craft a little bit. What are things that writers, directors, and producers should keep in mind when they're working with a 20-minute episode?
Understanding structure's really important. I think about structure a lot, and that's the thing I had to learn the most about. Format is a really important thing to think about when you're doing an anthology series, especially because people really respond to format. That's something I had to learn. My show is about as loose a format as I could come up with. Broadcast radio is: Every station, you know what you're going to get on that station. It's labeled "light rock" or "talk," or whatever. Podcasts are kind of the same way. You want to know, when you go to that podcast, what you're going to be getting.
How do you go about making an episode emotionally profound in such a short period of time?
Understand the importance of character and how character relates to story. Love the medium. Think a lot about how you listen to things and what you hear. Follow the stuff that makes you really inspired to play. I try to make every decision, every choice, about how to tell the story consistent with what the intent of the story is so that I'm not getting in the way of it. Every [sound effect], I'm thinking aesthetically—what do I want people to picture? But I'm creating a clear path between the story and the listener.
Play to an individual and not a room full of people. Just play to one person. Think about who your audience is and make it an intimate relationship between that. A lot of times, I tell actors that the whole thing is like a film shot in closeup. They don't have to do a lot in order to convey information. They can do very subtle things with their voice.
I would say my personal feeling is, people should value originality and personal view over, say, writing to the marketplace. Find the thing that you wish there was a market for and create a market for that. What I mean is, be true to yourself and let that be your creative guide. And try to offer the world something that wasn't there already.