Writing for Audio | How to Make a Fiction Podcast #3
In the last two chapters we looked at fiction podcast formats and story structures. If you've settled on both of these then you're ready to begin writing your script. There's a few things to consider when writing scripts for audio as opposed to a visual medium, and that's what we're going to talk about in this chapter.
Many in audio drama writing circles refer to narration as a "crutch". Personally, I think there's a place for narration. I do prefer a subtle, diegetic (part of the story world) approach, rather than the disembodied all-seeing 'voice-of-God' narration however, but it's all down to personal preference.
If you want to include an in-story narrator you just need to find a method that fits with your story. In We're Alive for example, characters document events in their personal journals. This allows for certain scenes to be lightly narrated at times, a character will fill in vital details that would be difficult to convey in audio, as the drama continues to play out.
You can have your protagonist drop in to narrate chunks of the story in retrospect. Choosing a sole narrator for your story renders that character invincible however. You can't kill them off if it's them telling the story - unless of course it's a tale of the supernatural, and they're speaking from beyond the grave.
Just because you don't have visuals doesn't mean you should use dialogue in an overly-expositional manner. Treating your listeners (and characters) like idiots with lengthy paragraphs of description is a sure fire way for people to roll their eyes and switch off.
Pay attention to the way people talk in real life, and use that as a basis for writing your dialogue. Yes you'll sometimes need to make a character say something they probably wouldn't say in real life, but try to do it in as subtle a manner as possible.
If you ever get the chance to look at a script from a film you'll be surprised at just how short each line of dialogue is too. Don't be tempted to cram loads of info into a huge block of text for your character to spout, then await their fellow character's reply of an equally big chunk of dialogue.
Short sentences, often unfinished, and cut off by other characters can create fast flowing, natural sounding dialogue. This can really help bring your characters to life, and you're going to need those characters to be engaging and realistic in order to do your story justice.
In audio the dialogue and soundscape is processed in the mind of the listener to create visuals for them. As characters talk, your audience begins to picture them in their head. Have you ever heard a radio DJ or podcaster talk, then saw a picture of them and think "you don't look how you sound"?
Well keep that thought in mind, because imagine you'd been visualising exactly how you believe a character looks over several episodes of your favourite audio drama, only for another character to casually mention one day that they've always had a pink mullet.
Okay so the pink mullet isn't a common hairdoo in audio drama (as far as I know), but if any details on character appearance are important enough to be mentioned in the story, then make sure you establish them early on. If you leave it too late it can really jolt the listener as they have to re-process details they'd already settled on in their mind.
Initially you'll be so focused on writing good dialogue that you might find yourself writing every scene where two characters are just standing in a room talking to each other. Whilst there's certainly no harm in this, don't fall into the trap of it being this way all the time.
Unless it's specifically part of the story (maybe you're telling the tale of two cellmates in a prison) then try to write variety into your scene locations, and have your characters actually do things as they talk.
Depending on your story, there's always going to be things for the characters to do, whether that's driving somewhere, watching a football match, or going out in a boat to do some fishing, I'm sure you'll find something relevant and useful to keep them occupied.
In these scenes you can seed your plot-relevant dialogue with the odd comment about the task they're doing - "Can you pass me that spanner?" etc. This breathes life into your story world and prevents your characters from becoming sterile talking heads.
You'll want to add some detail into the script about the settings the characters find themselves in. If you have a scene where two characters are about to board a helicopter and it'll be very loud in the background, then you'll need your actors to know to talk louder, so their performances match the final mix.
The important thing is to offer as much details as you can to your voice actors, if it's relevant to their performance - especially if you're not going to be there when they record. If you've got someone else to do the production this will be vital. You might want to add a short description of the environment around the characters under each scene heading.
Just be clear (in as succinct a way as possible) about what's going on to avoid confusion for the rest of your talent pool - and try to keep simple, without dumbing down your story. Especially in the early stages.
Embrace The Medium
Some might say that audio is a limiting medium to work in because there's no visuals. I believe the opposite is true. You can create scenes and stories that would cost millions to achieve well on the big screen. I'll leave you with a quote from legendary audio dramatist Dirk Maggs from his interview on the Audio Drama Production Podcast, he sums this up better than I ever could...
“You can do so much more in audio, you can go anywhere. Use your imagination; go from the top of Everest to the depths of the Mariana Trench in the Pacific. Travel to new worlds. Go inside someone’s head… go inside and live in their head…you can go microscopic…you can go cosmic.
Good radio drama, good audio drama, is ‘go and make a world’, go and paint a picture in sound, which makes the imagination create huge fascinating pictures…even huge fascinating pictures of tiny things. If it’s a man locked in a cell for twenty years, and you are just with him in that cell, you can still explore everything about the human condition, and you can do it with colour, and texture, and light.
And you’re just working in sound.”
On the next chapter we're going to start thinking about the actors who'll help us bring our stories to life. Where do you find them? How do you pay them if you have no money? We'll cover all this and more, so keep watching this space.
In the meantime, how's your story coming along? Let me know in the comments section below.