It’s difficult to learn how to write — but also how to write to a particular format.
I wrote what you would call a novella when I was about 19, which took me a year to write. I was very proud of it, but of course, it wasn’t good enough to be published, and so it never went anywhere, except into a box of papers.
After that, I began to focus on short stories. They were more manageable, and often I would write two simultaneously, print them out, redraft them five or six times, and then that was it. Into the box!
It wasn’t until my late thirties that I began to feel that I was getting better at writing. I wasn’t just writing a series of events along a loose thread, but stories with multiple characters and that much-talked about three-act structure.
Making audio stories had been a long-term goal of mine since doing a radio show with a friend back in the nineties, and listening to a particular work, Derek Jarman’s Blue, that made me suddenly realize that audio can be just as powerful as film. The hardest thing, though, has been learning how to make them, and I still don’t think that I am quite there.
Audio stories are not the same thing as recorded audio books. A novelist writes for the ear as well as the eye, as he or she reads their work aloud as a way of editing and refining it.
But it is not the same approach as someone who designs a story to also have music, sound effects, scripted dialogue; written with the explicit knowledge that the audience is going to listen to it. And so it sets up a different range of limitations (and also advantages!) for someone writing in this area.
I also don’t think that an audio story is just a throwback to old fashioned radio plays either, the kind that were popular before television came about in the 1950s. Audio technology has evolved so much in the last 70 years, making it impossible for an audio story just to be a rehash of an old format.
So what is an audio story?
I have always liked the term audio story as a simple way of describing a purposefully conceived work of audio, demarcating it from other formats.
But an audio story can be a lot of things in terms of technique, style and narrative approach. It could be a plain/straight read with sound design. It could have a narrator with scripted dialogue, who is either one of the characters, or omnipresent. Or it could be purely scripted dialogue between characters, without a narrator.
So to start with, a sentence like “Mark was walking home alone through Willoughby forest on a dark and windy night”, if it was a straight read, with some of the written description given over to the sound design, it could look something like:
[SFX: Cry of a nightbird, as the wind howls through the trees] NARRATOR: Mark was walking home alone through Willoughby forest.
Another option is to develop it into a mix of omnipresent narrator — a style of narrating from the point of view of an unseen third person — and scripted character dialogue, which might work something like:
[SFX: Cry of a nightbird, as the wind howls through the trees] NARRATOR: Mark was walking home alone through Willoughby forest, when he heard something ahead of him [SFX: snapping branch]. His heart began to race; should he turn and go back - or keep walking? Without thinking too much, he quickened his pace, powering along the track, trying not to look at where he had heard the noise - but then suddenly, something jumped out in front of him - a familiar face. MARK [sucking in a deep breath]: Jesus Christ! Andrew! What the fuck are you doing here? You scared the hell out of me. ANDREW [laughing]: It was worth it! You should've seen the look on your face.
A third option would be to change the point-of-view to Mark, making him the first person narrator. This works perfectly for audio, as it can quickly endear the character to the listener (just think of Humphrey Bogart-style detective stories). So, in this case, it would be as if Mark was doing a VOICE OVER, before shifting into normal conversation when he meets someone.
[SFX: Cry of a nightbird, as the wind howls through the trees] MARK [V/O]: It was late, and rather than go along the main road, which would be full of drunk drivers at this time of night, I decided to cut through Willoughby forest. I was half way along the track, when -- [SFX: snapping branch] -- What the fuck was that? . . . I turned, and looked back along the track, wondering if I should head back to the restaurant. But maybe I'd never have the guts to come along here again, if I did. So maybe if I just kept walking, I'd be okay. [SFX: a branch suddenly snaps as a shape springs forward in front of MARK] ANDREW [shouting]: BAHH!! MARK [sucking in a deep breath]: Andrew! What the fuck are you doing here? You scared the hell out of me. ANDREW [laughing]: It was worth it! You should've seen the look on your face.
Finally, it can be purely scripted dialogue without a narrator — but this is very hard style to achieve: all you have to describe the action is the actual sound design, and the words you put into the characters mouths. This kind of exposition can sometimes sound unnatural, as the listener recognizes that people wouldn’t normally do that in conversation, describe what is going on around them.
So you have to be clever about it. Also, without a narrator, you have no way of identifying who is doing the talking, so the characters have to address each other by name at least once, allowing the listener to make that connection with the character’s voice.
[SFX: Cry of a nightbird, as the wind howls through the trees, sound of MARK walking along a track, whistling to himself for company. His footsteps are the dominant sound as he goes along the track. A branch snaps, and the footsteps and the whistling stop momentarily. Just the wind in the trees. He starts walking again, his own footsteps getting louder, and quicker, as he hurries along the track. Suddenly, there is a loud cracking sound, and a voice yells out, and he shouts out in fright.] MARK [sucking in a deep breath]: Andrew! What the fuck are you doing here? You scared the hell out of me! ANDREW [laughing]: I'm glad to see you too Mark! You should have seen the look on your face. MARK [angrily]: You fucking weirdo! Do you always creep around Willoughby Forest on a Saturday night? ANDREW: No, only when I know you're coming home from work, carrying a pizza. Can I have a slice? [SFX: Box opening] MARK: Sure - but I don't think you deserve it. ANDREW: Haha, I probably don't, but thanks anyway man. [SFX: Both of them walk along the track together]
So that’s a few ways to approach the same material. And here are a few produced examples:
Straight Read + sound design
This is a straight read of The Shadow over Innsmouth by H. P. Lovecraft, read by the English actor Richard Coyle. Although it is a straight read, just like an audio book, the producer Ladbroke Audio have also brought in sound design and music.
The music helps to break up the long sections of text, as Lovecraft’s stories usually have very little dialogue and interaction between characters. In this instance, Richard Coyle performs the dialogue of the secondary characters, bringing them to life.
Omnipresent Narrator + scripted dialogue
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is probably the best example of a high-end audio story, a favourite example from when I was a kid. It started life as a BBC radio play in the late seventies, which was so successful that Douglas Adams turned it into a series of book; it then became a TV series, and eventually, a movie.
It had the omnipresent narrator — the voice of the actual Hitchhiker’s book — who describes the action, recaps on previous episodes, and holds it all together. But each character is also scripted as dialogue and performed by an actor. Listen out also for the sound design and music which greatly enhances the story.
First person narrator + scripted dialogue
The House in Cypress Canyon, a radio play from 1946, is not only a clever and brilliant story that makes a perfect full circle, but is also an elegant script (and is genuinely creepy, if you like horror!)
Listen to how it shifts from scripted dialogue between the main character, his wife, and the other characters, into the VOICE OVER narration of the main character, before moving subtly back again.
One more . . .
1984 (the Year not the Book) by Benjamen Walker is one of my favourites, and though it is not a fictional audio story, more of an autobiography, it has the first person narrator as the solitary voice, using archival TV and radio recordings, sound design and music to support it. Besides being funny and entertaining, it is a stunning example of what you can with the right audio.
Sharpening your claws
A couple of years ago the Austin Film Festival, which focuses on the screenwriting aspect of film-making, started up a new category for its awards competitions for fiction podcasts, recognizing the new area of serialized fiction podcasts that has opened up over the last couple of years.
This competition and festival is a great opportunity for anyone writing audio story scripts, as all entrants receive quality feedback about their work, regardless of where they place in the competition.
Entries open on in April and close in July, with more information about the competition here.
As far as technical help is concerned, Transom.org has helped me massively over the years with radio/audio production advice and techniques. Also, NPR Training has created a series of production guides that will benefit anyone interested in audio storytelling; and this is a previous post I have written about choosing the best equipment for recording spoken word audio.
A Genuine Medium for the 21st Century
Audio stories are not just written content rejigged for an extra market; nor are they a poor person’s form of film-making. The amount of creative effort that goes into their conception is the same as any other medium. The only thing different is the scale; an audio story is more achievable for someone working on a smaller budget, with a smaller number of component parts than a film or TV show.
The reason audio stories have become popular again is thanks to the rise of podcasting and digital platforms. The small size of an audio file — making it easy to distribute, as well as consume due to the accessibility of smart devices — has meant that spoken word audio has become attractive to media companies again, who previously focused only on film and television.
But also, we are nearly sixty years on from the heyday of radio plays, and the amount of change in recording and audio production technology has been phenomenal, and there is no reason why audio stories should not leap ahead in the same way that film and music has with these developments.
Anyway, I wrote this post because it is very difficult to find information about writing audio stories online — even in published books — so I hope it has been useful, and good luck with anything that you might make.
P.S. I have set up a Producing Audio Stories page on Quora, if you have any questions that you want answered, or want to look for more resources.
Header image courtesy of Raw Pixel/Unsplash.com