Twenty-four hours at a diner. That could’ve gone wrong — been consigned to the bin of ideas labeled “Good Ideas in Theory.” But This American Life pulled it off. Here’s how.
Establish the World
Ira Glass closes his description of the diner with the octagonal pie case, transitioning into an actuality from co-owner Nick about how dessert sales are down. This brings the listener into the world of the diner, a place with its own nuances of supply and demand (“People just like desserts more when they’re moving”). Even if you’ve never worked in food service, it’s relatable. You start to think about all the little things that made up your world in various jobs. For me: the difficult-to-reach parts of the railings I painted during a job at an apartment complex one summer, or the recipe for antipasta at the deli I staffed in college.
Follow the Character’s Lead
You could say the reporter got lucky with John the butcher’s remembrance of his butchering baptism, but’s BS. Jon is clearly a raconteur. The reporter recognized that and thought on her feet. OF COURSE he remembered the first piece of meat he cleaved.
Make the Listener Want to Know the Characters
The reporter set up Donna as movie star. She calls her one of the most beautiful people she’s ever seen in person. That immediately makes me think: “What’s she doing working there?” I want to know her story, and she gives it to me.
Recognize Significant Moments and Write to Them
When the owner starts to describe the regulars, he lowers his voice. You get the sense that it’s out of respect — it’s rude to talk about people in the third person in front of them right? But there’s more there. The owner sort of feels bad for them.
Right after this, the reporter introduces us to Robert. Robert hangs out at the Golden Apple drinking coffee because he can’t afford much else — and because he’s lonely. But he’s so bashful, he can’t talk to the waitress. I find myself hoping the waitresses will hear this story, and they’ll try extra hard to talk to Robert.
Let Them Talk, or What We Talk About When We Talk in Diners
The reporter let’s Mike and Liz go on about their relationship, and by staying out of it, letting them fill the silence, she allows them to say something without ever really saying it: these two probably still love each other. Or at least Mike still loves Liz. Liz maybe wishes that she still loved Mike. Or that she could’ve. I dunno. But there’s something there, and it’s potent.
Ditto on Danielle and Allison. The silence allows the deeper relationship to break through. There’s jealousy, resentment, the heartbreaking certainty that this is a relationship not long for this world. And who doesn’t remember that?
Expand the Universe
If the diner is the world, the neighborhood is the universe. We get the history of this place through the elderly woman gives some history: keeps you interested in the place. Mike and Liz got pretty intimate — this segment re-establishes a sense of place, and in keeping with the theme, the reporter accomplishes this through character. I believe this woman because she’s honest with the audience. She’s imperfect. She admits her own bigotry in discussing the changes the neighborhood has gone through. I trust her and believe she’s not BSing me.
Leave the World
Back to Danielle and Allison. By getting Allison alone, we get to see that relationship through another lens — and it reflects back in an unexpected way. The reporter gets Allison talking about Danielle, how she isn’t living it up. I felt bad for Danielle at first, but then I started to feel bad for Allison. By putting her in a place where she can speak so candidly, she reveals something about their relationship and herself. Danielle might be a little awkward, but I see her going off to college, moving beyond the relationship. I just see Allison sitting at the Golden Apple.