Writing for Audio Drama: An Overview
By Robyn Paterson (with special thanks to Fiona Thraille)
“Life ain’t art.” – W.O. Mitchell
So, you wanna write audio drama (aka radio plays), and you’re wondering how you’re going to do it. Well, I have good news for you, and I have bad news for you. The good news is that like most artistic things, there’s actually no “right” way to write audio dramas. There’s ways that work well, and ways that don’t work so well, but in between those there’s a lot of room for you to pretty much do what you want. As long as your audience is getting the ideas or feelings you intended, you’re successfully producing audio drama- congrats!
But, before you fire up the word processor (or your copy of Final Draft if you’re one of the wealthy few), I should probably give you the bad news. So, sit down and pay attention, because there’s a lot of it.
The bad news is that while you can indeed produce anything you want, a lot of people who have already gone before you have produced a lot of dramas, and this has built up a set of expectations you need to be aware of. People have been producing audio drama pretty much since the first radio was invented, and for a long time audio drama was the “TV” of the radio generation. Hundreds of thousands of shows were produced, and they formed the core ideas of what we today call audio drama. Even though it’s no longer a major art form in the English speaking world, having been largely replaced by video, Audio Drama still has it’s place, especially in the new age of Podcasting and online radio productions. So, while you’re entering this new world of unlimited possibilities, you still need to know what your audience is expecting of you.
It’s a lot like knowing how to structure a book, stage a play or direct a movie- you need to know the strengths and limitations of your art form if you’re going to achieve the best effect and reach your target audience. That’s what this article is about- an overview of some of the concepts and ideas that have grown up around the writing of audio dramas, and what they mean for you, the writer. It’s not going to cover everything in depth, there’s just too much material and not enough time or space, but at least by reading this you will hopefully understand some of the basics.
Speaking of the basics, let’s start with terminology you need to know.
Audio Drama: Also called a radio play or sometimes a pod play, this is a story told through the medium of voice and starring multiple characters (and usually multiple actors) to an audience who can only hear the story and not see it.
Audio Dramatist: A person who writes and/or produces audio dramas. This is different from a playwright in that an audio dramatist is often a writer/director/producer/mixer who is literally a one-person show thanks to modern audio editing software.
Dialogue: Things said by characters to others within the story.
Mixer: Someone who assembles audio clips to form an audio drama, often adding music and sound effects in the process. In the production of internet audio drama, when the actors often record their lines alone and send them to a single person to be assembled, the mixer is the one who puts it all together.
Narration: Things said to the audience, often by a narrator, but
occasionally by characters speaking to the audience directly.
Stage Dialogue: Things said by characters in the story to others (or themselves) within the story which contains extra information meant for the audience. This can be as simple as characters speaking in full sentences (ie. “Tell Tom to go out back to the shed behind the house and feed that old German Shepard of his.” Vs. “Tell Tom to go feed the dog.”) or as complex as characters narrating their actions or what they see or feel. (“I’ll just jump over this railing and into the creek! God that’s cold! Julie’s necklace must be down here someplace, I’ll just fish around in this muddy water with my hands until I find something that feels like…Aha! Got it!”)
Stage dialogue in fact is probably the trickiest, but most important difference in writing audio dramas from any other form of storytelling. Unlike real people, characters in audio drama need to convey a lot of extra information to the audience with their speech because their audience is effectively blind. The art of audio drama storytelling is about giving the audience the pieces they need to assemble a scene or situation inside their own heads using their own imaginations. Or, to go back to the quote that started this article, you need to remember that no matter how “realistic” you are trying to be with your audio drama, it’s not real.
In audio drama, you can’t possibly convey everything that a movie can, a stage plan can, or even what a book can. Movies and stage plays are visual, and as the saying goes “pictures are worth 1000 words”. Well, movies are 24 pictures a second! How can you possibly hope to convey that much information through a pair of people talking, or a narrator’s voiceover? You can’t, it’s that simple. On the other end, books, which on the surface seem to have a lot in common with audio drama, can go into far more detailed descriptions than an audio dramatist has time for. Audio dramas are by their nature fast and light things, and if you start to give the audience too much heavy narrative prose it’s a good way to lose their attention. (If that’s what they wanted, they’d be listening to an audio book, not your latest audio drama!)
So, what can you do? How can you convey the vast windswept plains of your alien world, or the deep inner turmoil of your lead characters? How do you show off your lead character’s fashion sense without describing how fashionable she is in the latest fashions? Doesn’t the audience need to at least know what the characters look like? Or where they are?
The answer (which may surprise you, being a visual animal) is- “only if it’s important.” Those 4.5 words are the ones that every audio dramatist needs to tattoo on their hearts, because they’re perhaps the most crucial words you need to remember when writing audio drama- “only if it’s important”. Do you describe what the stranger is wearing? Only if it’s important. What kind of house the lead lives in? (Is it really that important?) How the air smells when she enters the room? (Why does the audience need to know this?)
In visual arts, this is called sharpening: cutting back the detail to only the most essential elements of an image or picture. Think of it as the difference between an outline and a photograph- a photograph gives you all the colors and shapes and textures, while an outline only gives you rough shapes and requires you to fill in the rest yourself. And that, that is the other half of the key to writing good audio drama- you need the audience to do most of your work for you!
Writing audio drama is actually a little bit like writing half a conversation, with the other person being expected to fill in their own half of the dialogue. You give them the cues and set the scene, then you let them supply the rest from their own feelings, opinions, experiences, thoughts and ideas. A master audio dramatist (or master writer period!) is skilled first and foremost at making connections between their story and what’s already in the heads of their target audience. If you want to write well, you have to know your audience and use what they know to shortcut around having to fill in a whole lot of details. This is where the whole “you don’t read a book so much as you become part of it” idea comes in- you are working with the author to create a story that is as much you as it is them!
To give an example, so this doesn’t become too much theory and not enough explanation, let’s say the opening line of narration is: “Monica had a bad day today.” Well, pretty much everyone listening to the drama has had a bad day, so the moment they hear that they think about their own idea of what a bad day is and unconsciously project it onto her. Monica didn’t just have her bad day, she had their bad day as well, unless you decide to go on and explain what her specific bad day was all about. If you don’t explain it, and just leave it at that opening line, it’s still enough for the audience to work with because it’s such a strong common experience and frames everything that Monica now says and does in the story. (“Oh, she’s just grouchy because she had a bad day, I feel that way too when that happens to me.”) This builds both a connection between the character and the audience, and it helps to draw the listener in to the story (…if done right. If done wrong, it can also drive them away, or make them feel confused.)
Knowing this is a godsend to an audio dramatist, and the reason for that is because as I noted above, audio dramatists are usually pressed for time and space. You just don’t have time to describe everything in your story, and that includes characters too! While you may take the time to describe your lead in exquisite detail from the top of her head to the tips of her toes, do you really have time to do that to everyone else in the drama? Of course not! So instead you slip in archetypes (people most listeners have met someone similar to or are already familiar with), such as clerk, doctor, lawyer, teacher and intergalactic bounty hunter. Archetypes are great, you don’t even have to think about them, they’re just drag and drop, paste and go, season-to-taste and serve. They will also normally make up most of the cast of an audio drama, sometimes including the leads, because they save a whole lot of time. (Time you often just don’t have.)
This is actually a pretty good way to write, especially in audio drama- take an archetype and then let the audience use that archetype to understand the character while you slowly fill in more and more detail (or not) over time. The archetype acts as an “outline” of the character for the audience to imagine in the mental play going on in their heads, meanwhile you fill in the details using the characters’ dialogue and actions during the story itself. (Go team!) It’s not the only way to write, of course, but it is one of the best for this particular art form. This is especially true in audio drama, because you have an extra level of character between you and the audience- the voice actor. (More on them later.)
So, to recap- when doing audio drama it’s best to focus on the key details of everything and let the audience fill in the rest. Your job is providing those details in such a manner as to create the story you’re trying to make inside the heads of your audience in the way you want. With this in mind, let’s look at some of the other important considerations an audio dramatist needs to think about as they write and plan their production.
There are a number of formats you can choose when writing an audio drama, but the best ones are the simplest. If using a standard word processor (as most people are), you scripts will either look something like this:
FX- Screen door opening, footsteps on wood.
Detective_32_: I’m here looking for someone named Ted Kord.
Farmer_33_: (Unimpressed, defiant.) Yeah? What do you want with old Ted?
Detective_34_: He’s a friend of mine. (pause) Have you seen him?
Or, if you want to follow the traditional industry format, something like this:
(ignore the dotted lines, they’re there to compensate for forum formatting issues)
FX- Screen door opening, footsteps on wood.
………………………………..I’m here looking for someone
………………………………..named Ted Kord.
………………………………..(unimpressed , defiant)
………………………………..Yeah? What do you want
………………………………..with old Ted?
…………………………………He’s a friend of mine.
…………………………………(beat) Have you seen him?
The first format is better for saving space, and fine for most simple scripts, the second format is easier and quicker to read, which is why the industry uses it. (If you use scripting software like Final Draft, it will automatically put it in the second format.) The key things you need to remember are to leave spaces between each actor’s lines, don’t use quotes, and very important for audio production – number your lines! Numbering lines is perhaps the greatest time-saver known to mankind when you come to the mixing stage, and literally lets you slip hundreds of lines into order relatively quickly. Yes, you may remember who says what while you’re writing it, but at 2am when you’re staring with bleary eyes at the sound clips of the lines you wrote 4 months ago, those numbers are all that stands between you and calling it quits. (There are even programs that will add those numbers for you afterwards, you just need to find them!)
Pacing is the speed at which the story moves, and in a book it’s normally controlled by the amount and length of words used by the writer. The more words, and the longer they are, the slower the story will read, and conversely the less words and shorter they are the faster the reader will go through the text. In movies, pacing is controlled by visual movement, editing, negative space (silence/music), and the frequency and amount of dialogue. (As you can see, movies are actually quite complicated, be happy you’re only working in audio right now!) Audio drama falls somewhere in between these two media?, with pacing controlled by the amount and length of dialogue and narration, but also being affected by negative space (silence/music/sound effects), editing techniques and how the actors deliver their lines.
Of those, the audio dramatist has the most control over the words, and these will largely determine the pace of most audio dramas. As a general rule- more words means a slower pace, fewer words means a faster pace. These can be moderated a lot by music (which can affect the feeling of the dialogue), negative space (few words but silence between them to make it slower) and actor delivery (a good actor can deliver a lot of information in a short time if needed, or take forever to say just a few words). However, the dialogue and narration and how it’s written will control the majority of the pace, so plan carefully how you want it to move during the writing stage. You probably want your action scenes to flow quickly, and your more powerful dramatic scenes to flow more slowly, and should write accordingly.
English, like most languages, is what is called a contextual language, which means that the meanings of words and statements change depending on the situation they’re said in. “I need help” means different things in a classroom and a hospital emergency room, despite being the same words, and possibly even being said the same way. This context is what lets us understand the real meanings behind the words, and is extremely important in helping them to achieve their full impact.
The problem with audio drama is that in audio the audience can’t see where the characters are, and need to rely entirely on words and sounds to guess the context of what’s spoken where. Sometimes this really isn’t that important, and the lack of clear context can actually benefit audio drama by creating a more dreamlike situation where the audience makes up their own context. But, at the same time, there needs to be some sense of context or it’s easy for the audience to get lost in the rush of words as they listen to these bodiless voices speak from the dark.
Stage dialogue, narration, key sound effects and ambient noise are the best ways to set up context. Using them to “set the scene” before you get to the real “meat” of the scene will help make everything more solid in the listener’s mind and really help to make things come alive. Hearing the sound of a coffee shop in the background will make the difference between two characters having an intimate chat at home, and two characters outside relaxing in public. People say different things under different circumstances and even act differently, and the more cues you give your audience the better they will be able to interpret the scenes you’re giving them the way you want them to.
Clarity and Brevity
When writing and planning audio drama, it’s always important to make sure that the listener has to think about things as little as possible. It needs to almost always be clear who is speaking (unless you’re concealing it for a reason), and they need to be easy for the audience to follow. As an audio dramatist you need to understand that listening is a different experience than reading- a reader can go back and re-read lines (an unconsciously often do), but a listener can’t without stopping the show and rewinding back to a point, which completely kills the flow of the story for them. You need to make sure they don’t need to do that.
The best way to make sure of this is by keeping your sentences clear and concise- avoid long sentences whenever possible, and make sure the subject and object of your sentences is clear and easy to understand. This is where the needs of the writer using stage dialogue, conflict with the desires of the listener who wants things to stay short. Stage dialogue often requires packing as much information into sentences as possible, while keeping things clear means only giving them the information you have to give them. Somewhere in between lies the balance of perfect audio drama writing- writing that does everything it needs to do, but is easy to follow and not a word longer than it needs to be.
The other reason to make sure your dialogues and narration don’t run on too long is for the poor people who have to say your lines- the actors. A sentence that sounds great when you’re reading in your head can sound clunky when read aloud. Certain clusters of sounds and rhythms can be harder to pronounce aloud (try reading ‘…Uncle Stewart, who hadn’t been seen since staggering out…’ aloud) If your actors are busily trying not to stumble over the words, they can’t give the best performances, which is costing you, the dramatist. Before you send something off to be produced, try reading your lines aloud. This allows you to 1) check for clunky words and phrases and 2) hear the rhythm of the lines more easily, which also helps with characterization, ensuring all the characters don’t have the same voice pattern.
The next advantage you have over people who are simply writing books is the ability to use sound effects, and the proper use of sound effects can literally make or break a production quite easily. While a movie can paint a story with pictures, audio drama paints pictures with sound, and using the right sounds at the right time can have a huge impact. Sounds are what will literally make your story come alive on a level beyond the word/imagination level, and provide that extra boost which takes your audio drama from being like having a story read to you, to being almost in a dreamlike state. They make a story more “real” by providing the audio cues our imaginations need to add an extra level to the story in our heads, one less thing for the listener’s imagination to make up, and one more thing the audio dramatist can have control over in their toolkit.
Something you’re going to need to deal with when writing is deciding which sound effects are important to your production, and when to use them. Just like words, you really can’t recreate whole environments from sound without things starting to become too noisy or bogged down. Even a simple dinner can quickly become a distracting mess if you have layers of people talking, people cutting their food, people chewing, people moving and then ambient noise. When you start to listen, really listen, to your environment you’ll realize just how much noise we actually filter out from our everyday lives. The answer to this problem is simple enough, and comes from the days of radio when they pretty much had to make all their effects while they made the shows, right there and then- use just enough to make the environment seem real, and don’t worry about the rest. (The listener’s imagination will take care of that part.)
As a writer planning the production, only worry about the key sound effects, the really important ones, and leave the rest to the mixing stage (or mixer, if it’s another person). Mixing and adding sound effects are arts into and of themselves, and should generally be left out of the considerations during the writing stage. If more are needed, or if there are too many effects, then that’s something that will get played with later, when the time comes to select and insert effects. It’s perfectly reasonable during the writing stage to just make general notes about the key effects (ie. “Garage Door Opens.”) and leave it at that. (In fact, it’s probably to your advantage to do so during the writing stage so you don’t lose focus on the writing. If you have a specific effect in mind at a specific time, note it, otherwise just use quick notes and add more information during the editing stage.)
Music is very similar to Sound Effects, it’s something that unless you, the writer, already know a lot about, you’re not going to want to really think of during the writing stage. Music can really enhance a production, making scenes glow in glorious imaginary emotional colors and really pump up or bring down a scene’s emotional content. That said, unless you know what you want, just ignore thinking about music or make general notes when writing the production, then come back to it later during the revision and planning stages. Even more than sound effects, music requires a lot of skill to make the best use of, and scoring productions is pretty much a completely separate art. Don’t let that keep you from doing it, but at the same time don’t let worrying about it interfere with the actual writing process until it becomes something you really need to deal with.
From an audio dramatist’s perspective, there are a few things you need to keep in mind about characters when planning an audio drama. The first is the most simple one- the more actors you need, the more complicated your production is going to become and the longer it may take to produce. In the old days of radio, most audio productions were literally done with casts of 3-6 people, tops. Now, part of that was because that’s all they could fit into the studio, and part of it was time, and part of it money, but a large part of it was simply the more people you had to co-ordinate to get into the studio to produce the drama, the longer it took.
Add to that the point that the more voices you have in a production, the more difficult it becomes for the audience to remember them all, and large casts start to become liabilities. In a TV show, book or movie, a large ensemble cast is fine because you can both see and hear them, but in an audio drama you can only rely on their voices to make them distinctive. Like most things, the less work the audience has to do to understand what they’re listening to, the more comfortable they’re going to be in listening to your production. It is perfectly possible to do large cast audio dramas, but generally they require each character to be slowly and carefully introduced in a way that sets them firmly in the listener’s mind before adding the next one. If you just start throwing characters at the audience, they will become confused and unhappy quickly, which is the last thing you want because unhappy listeners stop listening.
So, when writing an audio drama keep three things in mind about characters: 1) the less characters, the better, 2) each character must be distinctive and easily recognizable (by accent, mannerism, style of speech, associated sound effects, etc.) and 3) more characters means more production time and troubles. (Unless you have ready access to a group of willing victims ready to read what you write in front 6 billion people.)
It goes without saying that actors are a crucial part of any audio drama, without them, it’s you reading a script or audio book. The actor-producer relationship is a symbiotic one- they want roles, you give roles, they want to show off their talents, you let them show off their talents. In an optimal situation, you are each helping the other out, especially in amateur productions where people often aren’t getting paid to do this in real money.
How much planning and thought should you give to actors when you’re planning and writing an audio drama? Well, a lot of that depends on your available pool of actors and their respective levels of talent. If, for example, you have access to lots of male actors but few female ones, then writing lots of female roles in your productions is going to give you a big problem come casting time. The same is true for accents- you might want to have a story take place in the UK, but if none of your actors can do a decent UK accent, it’s not going to work.
Thanks to the internet, there are a few places you can go to find voice actors, both professional (paid) and amateur (normally unpaid), and different places will have different ratios of men and women. They will also have different mixes of accents, and different numbers of talented people, with the most talented often being the busiest and hardest to get. (Obviously.) So, when writing audio drama you’re going to want to consider this, and may need to be more flexible than you expected in your casting if you want your production completed.
If the role called for a South African male, and all you have available are Australian females, then you’re back to the question of “is it really that important”? If the answer is “yes”, then keep looking for your South African, if not, and you have a really talented lady from Australia who could make an interesting twist on the role, why not give her a go?
Obviously, another thing to keep in mind is that those actors are going to be a buffer layer between you and your audience. You may write the worst scripts in the world, but amazing actors can turn it into gold, or conversely, bad actors can butcher scripts that could have made Shakespeare envious. This can really be a two edged sword when it comes to audio drama production, and is perhaps one of the biggest wild cards in the whole system. Sometimes actors will come up with twists on lines you didn’t expect that really bring them more to life than your original script called for, but other times actors won’t be able to pronounce a word right no matter how many retakes you do. Once again, the key here is knowing what’s really important combined with large amounts of flexibility. Plan scripts the way you want them, try to carry them through, but be ready to improvise when necessary.
Writing audio drama is an art form, and like many arts, it’s easy to start, but once you get deeply involved in it there’s a lot of hidden skills and considerations required to do it right. Like other arts, there’s not really so much of a “right” way to write audio drama as techniques which help you find the best way to tell the story you’re trying to tell. This article has been trying to give you an overview of some of the things you need to think about when writing audio drama, but there’s a lot more that you’re going to need to learn through study and experience.
Like anyone who wants to write, you need to read, and in the case of audio drama, you also need to listen. I can’t emphasize this enough- read as many books and scripts as you can, listen to as many audio dramas as you can! The more you listen and read, the more you will learn, and the better you will get at producing your own work. Don’t just listen to new radio plays, and don’t just listen to old, listen to everything you can get your hands on, and listen twice- once as a member of the audience, and once as a student. Learn what works and what doesn’t, and what techniques go best with what other techniques. When you’ve done that, then write and produce as much as you can, because everything you write and produce will be better than what came before it. Don’t be afraid to produce crap, just do it, and then see how it turns out. If it’s crap, do something else that isn’t crap next time by learning from your mistakes.
Once you’ve produced a few audio dramas, your understanding of what needs to be in a script will also change (which is good, it should) and it will let you plan better productions and produce better work. Nobody becomes a genius at any art overnight, you have to work at it, and work at it hard. But, if you do keep at it, you’ll get to experience the joy of watching your creative endeavors literally come to life in front of you as words leap off the page into voice. Starscapes will shine, and oceans will crash while babies cry in the distance of your listeners’ imaginations, and all the while you’ll be able to smile and sit back seeing them enjoy what you have made.