What is The 33? (Part One) / by J.C. Hutchins

I'm not ready to tell you about The 33's storyline yet, but I'll absolutely tell you the creative philosophy fueling it. I'm a geezer in the podcast fiction game. I've been a podfic creator for four years, and a podcast listener since February 2005. I was there for the debut episodes of Scott Sigler's Earthcore, Stephen Eley's Escape Pod and other fiction projects -- and I was dazzled by those scrappy creators' ingenuity and the quality of their work. Podcast fiction was a curious storytelling anomaly back then, but soon became legitimized as dozens -- and then hundreds -- of authors embraced the distribution model. These days, I receive an email a week from a determined creator who's hungry to launch her or his own podcast novel. That's pretty cool.

I've watched the space grow, and -- as I did in 2005, when I considered releasing 7th Son as a podcast novel -- still study the most successful storytellers to understand why they are successful, and what they do that impresses their audiences. They lead by example, and I feverishly take notes on what seems to work best. (Speaking selfishly for a moment, I'm honored that these storytellers and others now study what I'm doing in the space. Some of us even collude, scheme together, and shamelessly steal from each other. It's a hoot.)

I'm stating the obvious here, but the very best podcast fiction shows fall into two categories: Short Form and Long Form. Both are amazing ways to tell stories. Both have strengths...

  • Short Form: Most short form fiction appears in "magazine-style" programs such as Escape Pod and Variant Frequencies. Nearly all of these stories are one-shots -- they economically build universes, narratives and characters. They are easily digestible, short and resonant. They stand on their own; there are no "previously ons," no need to hear prior stories in the podcast feed. Low barrier of entry for newcomers.
  • Long Form: Novel-length stories dedicate far more time to building rich characters, plots and subplots. In addition to the richness creators can add to the universes and narratives, listening to a serialized audio novel week-to-week is an experience like no other. Cliffhangers abound, and opportunities exist for fans to converge and discuss where the story's going. If you've listened to my stuff, you've been there. I've been there too.

And both also have weaknesses...

  • Short Form: Audiences craving an in-depth look into a short story's universe and characters may come away wanting more.
  • Long Form: Latecomers to serialized Long Form fiction have to start wayyyyy back at Episode One. (Or in some cases, Book One.) That's a huge time investment, and a high barrier of entry for newcomers.

I've thought long and hard about that high barrier of entry. I suspect I've lost listener-to-be's simply because they realized they'd have to listen to hundreds of hours of content to catch up with my unfolding stories. Since 2006, I've quested to make my content easy to obtain from a technical perspective and a narrative one. My recent Personal Effects: Sword of Blood and 7th Son: 7 Days prequels were specifically designed for newcomers -- they're both low-impact ways to introduce new fans to the Personal Effects and 7th Son universes.

As I schemed on a new podcast fiction project in late 2008, I realized I wanted a model that both celebrated the low barrier of entry of Short Form fiction, and the rich creative opportunities Long Form presents. I pondered this long before I considered the project's storyline or characters. I looked at other media for inspiration. The answer came pretty quickly, once I stopped thinking like a podcaster.

The 33 is episodic TV for your ears.

Like the best episodic TV, episodes of The 33 will have consistent lengths (45 minutes). Most episodes will be one-shots -- "monster of the week" stories (ala Buffy, Supernatural, etc.) so newcomers can hop aboard with any episode, quickly grok the characters and setting, and have a blast. Also like the best episodic TV, there will be season-length story arcs -- think of the Cancer Man eps in The X-Files -- that will unfold in some episodes. It's the best of both worlds.

Like the best episodic TV, there will be core cast members. Three of them, to be exact: Napoleon Black John Swords, Bliss and Knack. They'll be accompanied by lots of guest characters called Shifters -- folks recruited for specific missions because of their unique skills. (Some Shifters slated to appear include Mad Anna, Arachnarcana, Bada Boom and Kill Screen. Expect nothing less from a dude who grew up watching The A-Team and playing with G.I. Joe dolls. Codenames rock.)

And like episodic TV, there will likely be commercials. And like episodic TV, it might even be recorded in front of a live audience. And there may be spinoffs.

The format is very familiar but, to my knowledge, has not yet been executed in podcast fiction form. I'm having a blast concocting The 33 universe, episode plots and characters ... and I can't wait to unleash it later this year. (That's as specific as I'm going to be about its release. Check this recent post to learn why.)

So that's the creative philosophy fueling The 33. I'll share more in a few weeks. In the meantime, I'm heading back to my brainstorming.

Because the world needs The 33.