Since early October, millions of people around the world have been fascinated by the story of a 15-year-old murder. It’s a true-life tale documented not on HBO or Netflix, but in the form of a free podcast called Serial. As it turns out, Serial is the most popular podcast ever in the history of the medium, garnering over 1.5 million downloads for each episode. So why did this particular story spread like wildfire, and what can we learn about storytelling from Serial’s tremendous popularity?
First, for those not familiar with the series, Serial delves into the story of the 1999 murder of high-school senior, Hae Min Lee, a promising student and athlete. Fellow student and ex-boyfriend Adnan Syed was tried and convicted of her murder in 2000, and is serving a life-plus-30 year sentence for the crime. He has claimed his innocence for over 15 years.
A Winding Path of Intrigue
Starting with the very first episode of the podcast, host and executive producer Sarah Koenig leads us down a winding path littered with false evidence, possible red herrings, unreliable witnesses and potential legal malfeasance. The story is intriguing, as intriguing as anything on television or the big screen, maybe more so.
Koenig points out that there are many inconsistencies with the case. An eyewitness, the prosecution’s star witness, is a friend of both Syed and Lee whom Koenig refers to only as “Jay.” Jay could be exaggerating, lying or telling the truth. Each possibility is plausible, depending on the episode and the evidence at the time.
As intriguing as Serial is, it’s not perfect. The pace of the story seems both too fast and too plodding at the same time. Plunky piano music marks the beginning and end of each episode, symbolizing both anticipation and disappointment: Anticipation for answers and disappointment when the answers don’t come or are vague. Despite these glitches, we return week after week, riveted to our devices, listening for that “a-ha” moment and feeling crestfallen when it doesn’t come.
Extensive Media Coverage
Many supplementary podcasts discuss the ins and outs of the case, and there is a SubReddit dedicated to not only discussions of the case, but also to the creation of a scholarship fund for students of the high school in the name of the victim. Traditional journalistic outlets such The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal are among the hundreds of news outlets and blogs that discuss the story, dissect the trials and include photographs of key locations in the suburb of Baltimore, Maryland, where the crime took place.
For storytellers, Serial is a great case study on storytelling done right. So what can we take away from Serial? Following are three essential storytelling “truths” that this series has masterfully put into practice.
Truth #1: Don’t Sacrifice Quality Storytelling for Style
First, Koenig doesn’t try to make a stylistic statement by jumping ahead in the story, nor does she force our hand by leading us to conclusions. She never make clear what her position is until the final episode, episode 12. Even then, she leaves us to come to our own conclusions. We all learn the facts with her. Koenig is the protagonist in this drama, our grown-up Nancy Drew investigating leads, questioning witnesses bringing us into the case clue-by-clue.
Truth #2: Keep Your Audience Coming Back
Week after week, we return, ravenous for new clues or new insights into this increasingly troubling case. Much like peeling the skin of an onion, Koenig pulls back each layer of the story to reveal more questions—some about Syed’s innocence, some about Jay’s guilt, questions about who is lying and to whom. Each episode is punctuated with a subtle cliffhanger, a small revelation or question to ponder for the seven days between each podcast.
This technique is not new; it dates back to the old penny dreadful pulp novels of the 1900s and the movie serials and radio dramas of the early 20th century. All serials have a continuing plot that unfolds gradually, episode by episode. This adds to the anticipation and sometimes the major disappointment of the finale.
Truth #3: Leave Your Audience Wanting More
Some books and modern television programs have done masterful jobs of concluding serial dramas. But it seems that the serial dramas that do an unsatisfactory job of tying up the story seem to make the most headlines. Usually, the mistake is tying up loose ends too well; that is, not allowing those of us in the audience, who essentially have our own relationship with the characters, to naturally come to our own conclusions. Conversely, if the ending is ambiguous or hard to understand, such as the finale of Lost or The Sopranos, that can also cause an uproar in the serial world.
When we conclude with one highly engaging series, we naturally want to grab on to something similar that will bring us that same feeling. Like junkies looking for a fix, many of us who absorbed the Harry Potter series then gravitate to the Twilight books and other adolescent fare such the Hunger Games. Will we then see more serial podcasts? More true crime dramas drawn out over weeks to inspire speculation and build mounting suspense? Many people believe that Serial will bring podcasting into the mainstream and encourage the medium. Maybe so, but ultimately what we as humans crave is good storytelling. And when we’re given what we crave, the medium–books, television, theater, or podcast— is perhaps irrelevant.