How to Write a True Crime Podcast, Part 2
I used to be super into sand sculptures. As a kid, I lived about nine thousand miles away from the nearest beach, and on those rare occasions when I got to visit one, I'd spend the entire day piling up giant mounds of sand and then whittling them down into mermaids, princes, castles, horses. By the time we left, the beach would tell a story.
I'm reminded of those days when I think about how to approach writing a true crime podcast.
In my first post on the subject (technically my first post ever but who's counting), I talked about how much you have to research. So let's imagine you've done all that research, and now you have as many facts as there are grains of sand on a beach. You're then on to...
Step Four: Outline.
Think of the outlining process the same way I used to approach making sand sculptures. You don't just want a never-ending expanse of facts. You need to push them into piles of rising dramatic action.
Here's an example. I recently wrote this podcast about German impostor Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter -- a con artist whose career spanned more than 25 years. I ended up with like 5 handwritten, single-spaced legal pad pages just for the timeline of his life.
To turn that mess of loose facts into an outline, I went through and circled a few of the most vivid events. Born on this date. First known con, that date. Killed a guy, this other date. Etc. I picked a couple of those events for each act of the script, and then built all the relevant facts into little piles of rising action leading up to them. Anything that didn't lead up to a major event got cut.
Now, the structure of your outline depends somewhat on personal preference, how long you want your episodes, how many ad breaks you want, and whether your podcast is episodic (topics begin and end within a single episode or two) or serialized (a single topic for an entire season). But only somewhat. Most podcasts I've listened to tend to follow a good old-fashioned three-act structure. So your outline will probably look something like this:
ACT ONE - Setup
Bigger major event with cliffhanger ending
ACT TWO - Development
(same as Act One)
ACT THREE - Crisis
(same as previous acts)
Annnnd once you've got your beautiful outline written, it will be time for:
Step Five: Write the sucker!
Now at last you get to be the amazing brilliant wordsmith you were born to be! I trust you to handle this section without any interference from me.
However, I will add a couple of handy tips I've found that are specific to podcast writing as opposed to TV writing, screenwriting, or other types of word smithery.
1. Use sound words. Instead of writing, "The goon broke Jackie's arm," consider something more evocative like, "The goon snapped Jackie's arm!"
2. Use character IDs. Listeners can't see the people in your story and often have trouble remembering names. So instead of "Jackie went to work," you might go with, "The beautiful, uber-educated Jackie went to work."
3. Use short sentences. Although I can write a sentence like this one on the page, and if I'm lucky, you will read it all the way to the end and understand everything I'm saying, in podcasting it's unlikely that someone would be able to follow a sentence this long entirely, if you know what I mean.
Step Six: Revise.
Again, trusting you're a pro and know what it means to revise. But I do have another tip here. Use "Read Aloud" software during the revision process so that you can hear your budding podcast out loud. This will help you experience it in the same way that your audience will, enabling you to head any gaffs off at the pass.
And voila! You now have a script for your very own true crime podcast. Questions? Comments? Tell me what you want to know... and once your podcast is up and running, drop me a link so I can give it a listen!
Meagan Daine is a television writer and podcast writer interested in cons, cults, and other ways people try to take over the world. Catch her latest podcasts at Parcast on Spotify, or follow her on Twitter/IG: @writeordienow