Story Format | How to Make a Fiction Podcast #1
If you've got a great idea for a story then, arguably, the best thing you can do with it nowadays is to turn it into a fiction podcast.
Why? Well, you could write a novel and try to get it published. Maybe some time in the far future it'll see the light of day.
You can write a novel and self-publish it. And then compete with hundreds of thousands of other published and self-published authors for people's limited reading time. Or you could try and find a few million pounds to shoot and produce a film.
Podcasting offers you a platform to do something a little different. If you tell a good story in an effective and consistent manner, you'll soon build an audience who are desperate to hear your next episode.
I recently wrote about why 2016 is the year of the fiction podcast. Now I want to help you make one of your own. Today, we're going to start with choosing your story format. So, what do we have to choose from?
The Podcast Novel
Also known as 'Podiobooks'. This is the art of writing a novel or series of short stories, and then recording and splitting them up into podcast episodes. Perhaps the most famous example of an author podcasting their book is Scott Sigler, who built a massive audience in this manner.
Writing prose (and essentially writing a novel) can be a difficult thing to do, and few people have actually managed to complete one. If you've already written a book or two then you're well past the halfway mark to creating a podcast novel. If not, then it might be a good idea to start out with some short stories to help you get more accustomed to the whole writing process.
The good news is that the production barrier is very low here. If you can plug in a microphone and hit record then you're well on your way. Don't underestimate how challenging it is to narrate a book, though. Many authors do read their own works, but it's certainly wise to consider hiring an experienced narrator to help bring your story to life.
The Dramatised Audiobook
Here we're still in the realms of writing and recording a novel, but this time we're looking to bring in the use of voice actors to play different characters. We'll also use music and sound effects to help paint a vivid picture of the story. For a great example of a podcast in this mold, check out The Guild of the Cowry Catchers.
Again, this still requires a lot of writing. If you've already written your story it won't necessarily adapt well into a dramatised piece either. If you're going to write a series with this in mind then great character dialogue is key to getting the best out of your cast.
This is going to be a little more challenging than working with a single voice track. You'll need to cut in the dialogue segments of your characters and layer with music and sound effects. Less is more at this stage though, so try to use 'beds' (a general wind or rain soundscape in the background of a scene) rather than demonstrate every single sound. There's no point duplicating what the narrator is already telling your listener.
The Audio Drama
First, do we call it an audio drama, a radio drama, or a radio play? Well, regardless of the name, this is where you're going to rely more heavily on dialogue, sound effects and soundscapes to tell a story. For my all-time favourite two, see Edict Zero FIS and We're Alive.
Whilst writing any good story takes a little spark of imagination and a fair bit of work, your audio drama scripts aren't going to be half as text heavy as the previous two formats. That doesn't mean it's easy though. Writing for audio drama is a skill, and like anything else, it's one you'll hone through practice, as well as listening and learning from others. Start by writing one or two short stories just to find your groove.
You can still use a narrator, but at least try to make them part of the story (and have a reason for telling the tale). Beware of expositional dialogue too. Can "I see the gun in your left hand that you are pointing straight at me Joe" become "Put the gun away, Joe"?
Badly written audio drama usually happens when the author uses 100 words when 5 will do. Listen to how people talk in real life and try to base your dialogue around that.
The amount of text might be far lighter, but the production is becoming heavier. However, you don't need to account for every single sound that happens if you don't want to. Many audio dramatists create excellent work in the medium by taking a minimalist approach.
For me personally, though, I enjoy deep, rich soundscapes that sound like living, breathing worlds. These are great to listen to, but take a painstaking amount of time to build. Find a balance between how far you want to go with this, and how often you actually want to get episodes finished and released!
The Fictional Documentary
Whether you want to call this style of show a 'docudrama' or 'mockumentary', this is where you create a story around an event which is investigated 'as real'. This usually involves coming up with a small team of fictional journalists or reporters who run the show. The pretence is that they're creating the podcast themselves. Think Limetown or The Black Tapes.
There are a few things to consider here. You need to investigate something that'll hook your audience early, and you need to initiate that intrigue as early as possible to keep them listening. You also need enough layers to unravel in each episode (through interviews, found footage, etc) without it becoming predictable, boring, or repetitive. This format can look deceptively simple to write, but don't be fooled.
Though still production heavy, we're scaling back a bit from full-blown audio drama. Lots of your scenes can be captured in a simple interview format, sat around a zoom recorder on the table. You might bring in interviewees recorded on phone or Skype calls too.
As you build it all together, layer with some incidental music that fits the tone of the production and the story. There's undoubtedly a lot of influence taken from Serial/NPR in this style of fiction podcast, and if you want to take a deeper dive into the inner workings of audio documentary making I recommend a book called Out on the Wire.
These are the four main options for creating a fiction podcast, but you're free to blur the lines and come up with a hybrid approach. The most important thing at this stage is that you choose the format that excites you the most, and best suits your story. If you manage this, you've much more chance of actually writing and producing the show well enough, and on a consistent enough basis, that you'll begin to build an audience around it.
In the next chapter we're going to take a look at story structures.
In the meantime, let me know in the comments below:
What kind of story format appeals to you most?