Breaking Down Serial: Telling a Great Story

Over the past few days, we’ve talked a lot about the science of storytelling, culminating in the basic guidelines for telling your story. You can all three of those articles here, here, and here.

However, now let’s look at the best example storytelling and break it down.


Obviously, Serial was not a story told by a brand (although it was valuable for Mailchimp and Audible). It was a story told by a very talented group of reporters and storytellers. These men and women are reporters for NPR and, more specifically, This American Life.

If you don’t know about Serial, let’s take a second to talk about it.

Serial is a podcast that tells a story over a series of 12 episodes. This story is about the murder of a teenage girl in Baltimore, circa 1999, and the subsequent arrest and conviction of her ex-boyfriend, Adnan Syed. The trial and events of that day are murky at best, and this is the focus of the story. The podcast reviews the evidence, sworn testimony, friends, family, and even does some good investigation.

The ultimate goal of the Serial team is to find the truth of what happened.

Now you’re probably wondering what this podcast has to do with brand storytelling, and rightly so. So let’s look at the 3 methods they used to make a truly amazing storytelling experience.

Spoiler Alert: if you haven’t listened to Serial then there is a good chance I might spoil something for you. Fair warning.

The Idea

The big idea of the series is actually pretty simple, and it’s related to you almost immediately in the first episode. The question: is Adnan guilty?

The idea is simple. It’s simply stated to the listener early on. It’s an extremely important element of the story, and it’s something the audience can latch on to.

The Structure

The structure of Serial has been written about a lot. It’s narrative is told in a serial format, much like Uncle Tom’s Cabin or The Pickwick Papers.

Each episode sheds new light on the case.

The narrative is not linear. It’s like a maze, there are twists and turns throughout, and information is revealed as it is related to the week’s episode. As the series continues, new information is revealed and your assumptions about Adnan, Jay, and all the other characters are tested.

The extensive, detailed inspection lasting months is one reason so many listeners are hooked. It’s a suspense, the likes of which are relatively unheard of in radio and podcasts. Few television shows even do it well, but when they do it’s very impressive.


The hallmark of a great story are the characters. They are real, tangible, and just like us. They might be our neighbors, friends, the people you hang out with, or even you. They stand out to you, they are Frodo, Harry Potter, Luke Skywalker, or even Olivia Pope (if that’s your bag).

There are several characters who play a significant role in Serial’s narrative. They even propel the story forward at times, without the help of creator Sarah Koenig. However, she goes to great lengths to help us understand who they are.

She actually describes Hae Min Lee, the victim and catalyst of the story.

She was Korean. She was smart, and beautiful, and cheerful, and a great athlete. She played field hockey and lacrosse. And she was responsible..
Sarah Koenig

With Adnan, she starts off by allowing others to define him, such as his close friends Rabia Chaudry and Saad Chaudry. They tell you a lot about him, but in one dimensional terms.

He was an honor roll student, volunteer EMT. He was on the football team. He was a star runner on the track team. He was the homecoming king. He led prayers at the mosque.
Rabia Chaudry

Sarah Koenig provides listeners with a little more depth.

He was way bigger than I expected – barrel chested and tall. In the photos I’d seen, he was still a lanky teenager . . . By now, he was 32 . . .

And the second thing, which you can’t miss about Adnan, is that he has giant brown eyes like a dairy cow. That’s what prompts my most idiotic lines of inquiry. Could someone who looks like that really strangle his girlfriend? Idiotic, I know.

Sarah Koenig

The point is, they create characters. Admittedly, these are real people, but they create them and build them up for the listener. If their listeners haven’t met them and talked to them, they’re just characters. They’re only as real as Sarah Koenig makes them.

The Takeaway: Serial’s Storytelling

Modern marketing is more than just a soundbite. It’s more than just a billboard, a blog post, or a television spot. You have to be capable of creating and telling a story.

If you want your audience to stay with you, you need to craft stories that do more than engage. You need stories that entice your audience to become emotionally invested in the story. And that takes time and a lot of effort.

This is what Serial has done so well.

Tomorrow is our last day following this theme of storytelling. I know, we’re as sad as you are. However, we’re going to go out with a bang. Tomorrow, we’ll finally look at some of the best examples of storytelling in advertising.

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