The Way I Heard It: A Podcast by Mike Rowe: How to Listen Like a Writer
One of my favorite podcasts, The Way I Heard It by Mike Rowe is an excellent example of storytelling that lingers with listeners. Because the episodes are so short and rely on keeping certain facts secret, I will do my best to explain why authors should listen to The Way I Heard It without spoiling any episodes.
Mystery, Curiosity, and Suspense
I believe every story should contain a bit of mystery and suspense because these are the qualities that keep readers curious, invested, and reading to the end. Rowe creates mystery in his short podcast episodes by withholding key tidbits of information until the end. Listeners might recognize the story if Rowe revealed his protagonists’ names right away or some other well-known aspect of the plot; however, by keeping such information a secret until the end, he makes the story exciting and new even to listeners already familiar with it.
For example, The Way I Heard It episode 36, “Oh Brother!” depicts a family’s Thanksgiving soured by the politics of a presidential election. Until the end, this episode could represent any set of brothers from any presidential election divided by political party. In fact, it is very poignant to the current division of the United States, but the vital piece of information (which election is depicted) Rowe keeps to himself until the end, which leaves readers wheeling and contemplating their current perspective and opinions.
Authors should look at how and when Rowe chooses to reveal key information about his plots, settings, and characters in order to create mystery, suspense and reader curiosity. Then, they should ask themselves what pieces of their own stories they can withhold from readers to have the same effect. What do readers need to know? What do they want to know? What tidbits of information will make a bigger bang at the end instead of in the beginning?
Power in Brevity
At the beginning of The Way I Heard It, Rowe explains he created the podcast for people with short attention spans, so each episode is only 5-9 minutes long. This is the equivalent of a 3-6 page or 750-1,500 word flash fiction story. In today’s busy, fast-paced society, brevity has value. Rowe understands his listeners. He knows his audience is people who don’t have hours to spend listening to podcasts or simply don’t want to spend an hour per episode. Understanding one’s audience is key to success as an author.
Another benefit to brevity is precise language. When asked to write a 6,000 word piece, most writers can hunker down and create something worth reading. However, when asked to write a 100 word story, most writers cringe. They know creating an impactful, 100 word story is often significantly more difficult than writing a standard length short story or even a novel. Not that long ago, authors were paid by the word, so they learned to be verbose. Now readers demand shorter, tighter pieces. They want each word to matter. Rowe understands this and delivers creative, impactful flash fiction pieces every week on The Way I Heard It. While not all authors desire to publish short pieces, they should still practice writing them to learn how to be brief yet provoking, a tool that can be applied in stories of any length.
Specific Details Matter
The episodes of The Way I Heard It show why specific details matter. That tidbit of information withheld until the end is a specific detail, often in the form of a name. The more specific the details of a story are, the clearer the tale becomes, and the greater the impression left on the reader.
When a field is described as filled with wildflowers, readers picture generic blooms mixed with grass, but, if the field is said to burst with the periwinkle blossoms of cornflowers, readers not only receive a vivid mental image of the field, they also know the setting is somewhere in North America or Europe, where cornflowers grow. Specific details like flower type reveal significantly more about a story than more generic ones. Authors can use specific details to set the scene upfront, or release them slowly like Rowe to alter the scene until it becomes an altogether different story.
In episode 36, “Oh Brother!” the specific detail of which presidential election is being discussed becomes incredibly important. Once listeners realize which election Rowe is talking about, the whole tone and meaning of the story shifts. This one specific detail is key to the emotional impact of the episode.
A Professional Editor’s Recommended Episodes
I recommend writers listen to episodes 9, 10, and 47. A fabulous World War II story, episode 9, “The Longshot,” shows how withholding a single piece of information from a reader can create a powerful ending. Episode 10, “Lord of Light” demonstrates how releasing information slowly, one piece at a time, propels a reader through a tale. “On Thin Branches,” episode 47, puts the spotlight on a person not often recognized for their accomplishments in our society. All of these episodes contain mystery, suspense, brevity, and specific details, making them resonate with readers.
These are the episodes that inspire pride, wonder, and wistfulness in me, even though I’ve listened to each many times. In this way, they stay with me. I’m excited to share The Way I Heard It with others and watch the shock and amazement play across their faces as a five minute story improves their day. The emotional impact of these stories is created by the way Mike Rowe withholds key information until the end, keeps the tales short and sweet, and provides specific details. While not every episode lingers with me like the three I suggested, many do, so I highly recommend writers listen to The Way I Heard It’s ignited words.
What are your favorite episodes? What do you think about The Way I Heard It? Click the image to the left to listen to an episode and let me know in the comments. Subscribe for more podcasts to listen to as a writer and a free list of 13 Writing Craft Books Every Writer Should Explore.
Ignite Your Ink is written by editor and author Caitlin Berve. She holds a MFA in Creative Writing and Poetics, actively participates in multiple writers organizations, and is dedicated to helping writers produce content that leaves an impression on readers.