This American Life: familiar structure, new media

This American Life has a very prescribed narrative structure. Introduction. Set up. Climax. Sometimes there is a dénouement, but not always. Every single episode of This American Life is set up in the same way. Ira Glass request starts the show off with the theme. He tries to make it personal to the listener by relating it to everyday experiences that we all face. He then introduces the act and gives us a little bit of the set up behind the story. Introduces the speaker/writer. The rider then follows the same set up. Introduction, set up, climax.

This is the most basic narrative structure there is in the English language. It’s basic essay structure. This structure, even though presented in audio format, helps the listener to understand very quickly what’s happening in the story, what kind of things they can expect, and that there will be some kind of payoff at the end. The fact that the climax is usually a surprise to the listener is an added bonus.

This American Life took a departure from the normal three act structure introduced 20 acts in 60 minutes. This was their theme, 20 acts in 60 minutes. Ira Glass introduced the theme the same way that he always does, by telling us about the back story. So even though this theme was new, it was still presented in a format familiar to the listener. Ira tried to put these short stories in an order that made some kind of sense. So there was a story about a dog followed by another story that had to do with the dog. The relationships between the stories were not always thematical, but they served their purpose.

Even though the spoken word, or radio essay, is not familiar to everyone because it’s presented in a familiar format that almost every English-speaking person is familiar with, it’s easy to understand and digest.


-Clayton Mathis


~ by Clayton Mathis on January 31, 2011.

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