Editing and Forwards

Episode 16 of Gimlet Media’s Startup podcast, titled “The Secret Formula” has a really interesting discussion about how Gimlet (and presumably This American Life and other highly-produced podcasts and radio shows) put together their shows.

The process is a lot like film editing, without the visual element of course. The episode basically turns out to be a how-to on how to edit a radio story and it’s comforting to know that it’s not an easy process. They start with a very rough cut, go through it and figure out where it “drifts,” and then making subsequent re-edits to improve the story until it’s working and interesting throughout.

It’s also comforting to know that this is more or less the approach I take when I edit video — whenever I get feedback (or give myself feedback), I look for the places in a script or the video where the action stalls. I really like the term drift though, because it’s more descriptive of the audience’s experience. Stalling is about the work, drifting is about the audience.

And they go into one technique that they use to keep people interested and moving forward, especially before a commercial break. They call it a “promote forward.”

The use of the term “forward” struck me because I just read a book called “Backward and Forwards: A Technical Manual for Reading Plays” by David Ball. The book is fascinating on a lot of levels. As a reader, I learned that my understanding of Hamlet as a brooding man of inaction is entirely wrong and that he doesn’t actually contemplate suicide, he only feigns to be depressed and crazy in order to convince Polonius et al. that he is.

I don’t know if there’s a “right” interpretation, but I had never thought of that one.

The book is intended for theater creators, mainly directors, but it also serves as a technical guidebook for play-writing or screenwriting without falling prey to the “paint by numbers” approach of most of the dreck written about screenwriting.

One of the theses of the book is that a good play (or dramatic writing of any form) uses forwards throughout to keep the reader moving. Ball summarizes it:

A forward is any of a myriad of devices, techniques, tricks, maneuvers, manipulations, appetizers, tantalizers, teasers, that make an audience eager for what’s coming up. If you miss a script’s forwards, you miss the playwright’s most distinctive, gripping tool. What stripper does not know that the promise of nudity more excites an audience than does nudity itself?

Effective dramatic writing hinges on the ability to keep the audience wanting to know what happens next. Forwards eliminate drift. Suspense isn’t relegated to certain genres; it’s everywhere.