Wednesday, January 21, 2015

What Can Writers Learn From the Serial Podcast?

by Holly West


This post contains spoilers about the Serial podcast so quit reading now if you don't want to see them.

Now then:

Can we, as crime fiction writers, learn anything from the tremendously popular Serial podcast about the murder of Hae Min Lee? I think that yes, we can.

Before I go into that, however, I want to discuss my overall feelings about the podcast. My husband and I listened to most of it as we made our drive from Los Angeles to our new home in Northern California. We'd had an exhausting day finishing up packing and directing the movers, and we left LA that final time knowing we wouldn't arrive at our destination until after 11pm, our only welcome being a cold, empty house. As it turned out, our realtor and his wife not only met us at the house that night to give us our keys, but they'd kindly turned on the heat and left us with a gift basket that included two bottles of Veuve Clicquot Champagne. Realtors, take note--it was a nice touch.

Grim as some of its details were, the Serial podcast was the perfect travel companion. It was compelling and interesting, but didn't require more intellectual capacity than our fatigued brains could handle. We swallowed it up hungrily like the Doritos and Red Bulls I'd purchased to get us through the trip, and like its producers (and probably every other listener), we went back and forth on Adnan Syed's guilt. Was Jay a reliable witness? Was Adnan's attorney incompetent? Did the prosecutors fudge the timeline? Yes, no, maybe. Yes, no, maybe.

We weren't able to finish the podcast until a week later, when we drove up to Oregon after Christmas. By then I was hooked--it didn't matter that by episode eight I couldn't see how Sarah Koenig could possibly reveal anything new that would prove Syed's innocence. All that mattered is that it made the driving time fly by and if I dozed a little bit here and there, well, maybe I wasn't missing much.

In the months preceding our trips up north, many friends had posted links to articles about the podcast, all of which I'd painstakingly avoided because I knew I wouldn't get a chance to listen to it until the move. But there was one post title that stayed in my mind (even though I didn't read the entire post at the time):

Serial Sucked and Wasted Everyone's Time

As we sped up I-5 to our new life, listening to the troubling account Hae Min Lee's murder and Adnan Syed's trial, I thought about this post title and wondered all the while if, in the end, I'd deem Serial to be a waste of time.

Let's face it. Serial ended where it began and took 12 episodes to get there. The problem for everyone, even the shows producers, was that nobody knew that nothing new would be revealed or proven until maybe the last few episodes, and by then we'd all invested too much time in it to quit. We had to see it through.

So, was it a waste of time? No, not at all. It made twelve hours of driving seem like a whole lot less. I've got no complaints. After all of it, however, I feel fairly confident that Adnan Syed did indeed murder Hae Min Lee. There are some good questions raised about the prosecutor's case and whether Syed received a fair trial, but those (oddly enough) are separate from the issue of Syed's actual guilt. Despite his repeated claims of innocence and no crystal clear motive, I think he strangled Hae Min Lee and, with the help of his friend, Jay, buried her in Baltimore's Leakin Park.

We got to know Syed through the Serial podcast and he seems like he's more or less a nice guy. He's intelligent and insightful. He's a productive and well-liked member of prison society. I don't want it to be true that he killed Hae Min Lee, but the fact is, someone did, and it was most likely him. Serial challenges us to see him as a person, not simply a murderer. It makes us question, at least to an extent, the true nature of evil and whether a good person can do something terrible and still remain good.

And now, finally, is when I reveal what writers can learn from the Serial podcast. For our purposes, we'll call the tale fiction and assume that Syed is our murderer. Our job is to make readers see him, as much as possible, as a whole person, and not just the villain. We do this by giving him real emotions, by making him scramble, struggle, and come to terms with what he's done. He might still lie, steal, and cheat to make sure he's not apprehended; he might kill again and again for reasons we can't possibly understand. But let him come fully to life--nearly as fully as we allow our protagonists to come to life. Real life is rarely black and white, it's mostly colored in shades of gray. Let us do that with our fiction, as well.


John McFetridge said...

How much of a factor, do you think, was the fact that this was a podcast?

I haven't listened to it yet but from everything I've heard it sounds like a fairly standard episode of 20/20 or Dateline. But for hipsters.

So, I wonder, how much of the interest in it was the style and is there a lesson for novelists in that?

Eileen said...

I am one of the people who got thoroughly hooked on the podcast. Part of the fun was that it was such a buzzy thing and it was fun to discuss the case and the podcast as it played out.

I think one of the reasons it was more than an episode of Dateline (and I don't see that as an insult, btw) was the depth to which Koenig was able to dig. She stripped away layer after layer of the case. She accepted as little as she could on face value and she showed us how she did it. I mean, the timeline episode? She could have just told us if the timeline worked or not, instead we had her and her producer clearly getting absolutely punchy as they drove around. I felt like I was riding along in the backseat.

I think the other lesson for writers could be how much more satisfying fiction can be than real life. The story of Hae's murder was compelling. A young girl with a promising future senselessly murdered. A young man also with a promising future convicted on fairly flimsy evidence. But as fiction writers, we could come to a conclusion. We can make it all make sense. Koenig didn't have that luxury.

Holly West said...

John, the podcast aspect of it could've been part of it. But the This American Life folks have a lot of experience with story-telling and tend to do it well, no matter the format. In this case, the first few episodes were great, the middle episodes were okay, and the final episodes were lacking (as I said, I think everyone began to suspect that they really didn't have a story once they'd spent a year dissecting the case).

Eileen has a great point about writers recognizing that fiction can be (and perhaps should be) more satisfying than real life because we can tie up the loose ends. We can manipulate the story so that it actually has an ending.