Narration 1A1: It was my darkest and stormiest night…
So, you’re going to write your epic Star Wars audio drama in the grand tradition of NPR and many others. You’ve got characters, you’ve got a story in mind, now you’ve just got to write it and go, right? Wrong! There’s a really big decision ahead of you that you didn’t even know was coming- do you use narration or not?
“Oh get lost”, you tell me, “that’s obvious! The answer is…uh….Hmm….”
Well, in a previous article I talked about why one would or would not use narration in their audio dramas, but let’s for the sake of argument say you are indeed going to use it. This article is here to tell you in as simple terms as possible what narration is and how you can go about making the best use of it in your new epic audio dramatic works. I’m going to talk about the different kinds of narration, the effects those types of narration are going to have on your work, and how to put those effects to work for you. Narration is a tool, it’s neither good nor bad, and the better you can use it, the better your project has potential to be.
It was a hard day on Planet Ten, and John Smallberries was a Sad Panda- Narrative Terminology
First, let’s cover the types of narrative voices: 1st Person, 2nd Person, 3rd Person and 4th Person. (“What?” You exclaim, “there is no 4th Person narrative!” My 8th dimensional Red Lectoid friends would most heartily disagree, but fine, for our purposes we’ll drop that one since it would require a nanodecade to explain anyways.) 1st Person narrative is “I”, 2nd Person Narrative is “you” and 3rd Person Narrative is “he/she/they”. So it looks something like this:
1st Person: “It was my darkest and stormiest night.”
2nd Person: “It was your darkest and stormiest night.”
3rd Person: “It was her darkest and stormiest night.”
Now, normally we don’t use 2nd Person in narrative writing because that would mean you are telling the audience what they’re doing or have done. They already know what they’ve done, so how can you tell them? This perspective generally only works if your audience is supposed to represent a character within the story, and everyone is speaking to the audience. You see it a lot in Japanese console RPG games, where the main character really is supposed to be the player’s alter ego and occasionally it gets used in other forms (usually done with the audience as someone with no memories), but it’s pretty rare. (This is the last time I will mention it in this article.)
The most common form of narration is 3rd Person, and this is the type pretty much everyone reading this article is most familiar with. This is anytime the writer is directly giving information to the audience with neither the storyteller or audience as part of the story, usually through a manly proxy voice with deep deep tones nowhere near as cool as the writer’s own. (“In a world where…”) This type of voice can be pretty much used to set any kind of scene, but has the problem that it’s also an “other” which intrudes on the story from the outside. It’s a bit like the author literally stepping in and giving you the setup for the next scene, or telling you what happens. You get it, but you’re also being reminded this is a story you’re listening to.
And, this leaves the last, or 1st Person narrative voice, which is the one you use when the narrator is actually part of the story. Often they are the main character, but not always (Sherlock’s Holmes’s stories are told by Doctor Watson) and this type of narration creates a deep intimate link between the audience and the storyteller as they become a single set of experiences. This deeper connection is the big advantage of the 1st Person as it makes narration much less intrusive, but it also comes with a bit of a handicap- the narrator (and the story) are limited to things the narrator has or would have experienced. Doctor Watson gets most of Sherlock’s adventures told to him firsthand by the master detective himself, he never experiences the real legwork Holmes does, just the thrill of the main events. For audio drama, this can be both a blessing and a curse- it allows the dramatist (often limited by time like a short-story writer) to skip over the unimportant parts or just narrate them quickly away, but can also prevent many filmic techniques from being used such as flashbacks, cutaways, and any events the main character never sees. Use carefully.
So, let’s assume you decide on which “person” will be narrating your story, the next question is whether that person will have an Internal or External point of view. Think of this as being how close your “microphone” can move to the character(s)- if it can be a deep Internal point of view, then the listener has accesss to the “inside” of the character(s) and their thoughts and feelings. If it’s a purely External point of view, then the listener only has access to what happens around the character- much like a movie camera recording the events. There are of course levels in-between, with the listener getting different amounts of information about the character’s inside and outside surroundings. (These are mostly shown by the levels of detail in the descriptions that the listener is hearing. “He felt sad” is pretty shallow and could be judged by an external viewer. “He felt like his heart was again being ripped out as he saw the face he had seen so many times in his dreams!” is a little deeper.)
Now, the default setting for 3rd Person is External, and the default setting for 1st Person is Internal, but this isn’t always true. A 3rd Person narrator can still describe a characters deep and personal feelings, and a 1st Person narrator can choose to only describe the external events. The key here is choosing a point of view which will best focus on the details you want to focus on for your story. If you want to tell a deep story about internal change, then make sure the listener knows about the character’s feelings so they can compare them later. However, if you want everything told in dialogue and are using narration to cover only the most basic external details of what’s around the characters, then don’t bother with details like feelings- let the voices and dialogue do that for you.
Going back to poor left-out Doctor Watson (Was he not good enough for Holmes to take on his cases?!?), he was only able to get the details of the cases that Holmes deigned to give him. This makes his narration Limited, it can only cover a limited perspective (what Holmes gives him or what Watson experiences) and can’t tell about events happening overseas in the Wild West or at Moriarty’s hideout in 221a Baker Street. The narrative voice is limited to what he knows and experiences and can only give the audience a story from that limited knowledge.
On the other hand, there’s Santa- the ultimate narrator, and whose role a true Omniscient Narrator takes on when he’s telling a story. The Omniscient Narrator who can go anywhere and knows everything. He can tell you as little or as much as he wishes, and knows exactly what is happening everywhere. He knows who’s been sleeping, he knows who’s awake, he knows who’s been bad and good (so be good for goodness sake)! This is a good narrator to use when you don’t have any other in mind, and in fact 3rd Person External Omniscient narrators are the default for most literature and stories produced by human civilization. (The Lectoids prefer 4th Person Internal Limited narrators made of Blue Cheese, but you probably guessed that by their microcosmic nature!) That said, it’s still good to know your options even if you end up going with good old basic black.
Those are the key terms you need to know when talking about narration, but there are a few more. A Reliable Narrator is one who the audience can trust and believe in, and is assumed by most listeners to be the kind most Omniscient narrators are. An Unreliable Narrator is a narrator whose story may or may not be true in some way- they are normally (but not always) 1st Person narrators who have a self-interest in how the reader perceives the story. (A Vampire narrator, for example, is unlikely to portray his feeding on humans in a bad light when telling his story to other humans! “I had to do it! Oh Armande why did you curse me so?!?”) Unreliable narrators are usually also characters within the story, but more on that later.
Got all that? Cool. The hard stuff is over now, I promise you. So let you brain rest a moment, maybe check your mail, and then we can discuss the fun part- how you use these terms you just used to come up with the most butt-kicking audio drama the internet has ever heard!
What do I do now?- Making Narration do all the Hard Work!
Checked your mail? Okay, so to recap: Narrators come in 1st, 2nd and 3rd person flavors, can have an Internal or External point of view and be Limited or Omniscient in nature. (As well as being Reliable or Unreliable, for those of you who might have skipped ahead because you knew all that stuff.) Let’s start combining them and seeing what effects we can get!
Personal Attentions- Using the First Person
1st Person Narrators, as I mentioned above, tend to form a bond between the reader and the audience and become extensions of the dialogue rather than being outside of it if the character is part of the story (as they usually are). The good side of this is that they don’t break the “flow” of the story as they cut in and out, and they are a very natural perspective for Internal views of the character’s thoughts, feelings and emotions. The bad side is that they’re all about the feelings and emotions of one character! First Person narratives tend to be very egocentric, with the lead being the literal center of attention and those around them being a little more sketchy. You’re getting a great deal of information about a single person, but unless you use multiple first-person narrators you’re not getting a balanced perspective.
Also, the 1st Person is not very good on the external details unless the story is being told from what I call the “storyteller” perspective, which is a 1st Person Internal Omniscient narrator who is usually at some point in the future in the story’s chronology. This is a good way to give lots of extra details the character might not have known at the time, or even commentary and hints to future events (“…as I would later discover.”) and yet still have the closeness that comes with what feels like an internal perspective (the best of all worlds!). However, you are still mostly limited to what the character experiences themselves, and it comes with a really odd implication you may or may not want as a dramatists- it generally means the main character lives to the end! (Even if it’s the story of “how I died”.)
This makes it more difficult to do certain kinds of suspense, cliffhangers for example, with a really solid question of whether the main character dies because you already know they live! This is the flaw in general of 1st person narration, unless you have it told from a secondary point of view like Doctor Watson. (1st Person External Limited perspective.) You are pretty much stuck with making the question one of how the main character escapes the situation as opposed to whether they do. There’s also no “cutaways” with 1st Person- to use a cinematic term to describe switching the camera to a different location at an important moment to leave the scene unresolved. What the narrator sees and hears is what you get, and if they’re awake during that scene, you better have a good reason why they don’t tell the audience everything that happened (even in a summary form).
The 1st Person External Omniscient form is also a good one when you want the narrator to be reporting the events- as in a police report or military report. The narrator, who could be a major or minor character within the story itself, is telling the events as they occurred according to all the information available to the character. This is an interesting one as it lets the narrator function pretty much as a 3rd Person narrator, but also lets them interject comments much as a storyteller might. (“When he came down the stairs Lt. Springfield waved, but my gut told me something wasn’t right.”) This does allow for slightly more jumping around in time than a normal 1st Person perspective might give, and at the same time gives more depth than a 3rd person External Omniscient perspective might allow. (Listen to the Old Time Radio series’ Dragnet or Johnny Dollar for an example of this.)
Getting another point of view- Using the Third Person
The 3rd Person perspective is extremely useful in that you can do almost anything you want with it, but of course that’s a two-edged sword. Having infinite choice means having to make infinite choices! A 1st person character is limited to what they experience, so it’s easer in some ways to determine what they say, but with a 3rd person narrator you have to decide on every detail, and what details you choose and leave out will more or less determine how you’re judged as a storyteller. (And in audio drama, have a huge effect on the pacing and effect of the narration.)
That aside, the 3rd Person is probably the easiest narrative voice to use, since it’s both natural for us to tell stories that happened to other people (gossip is 3rd Person External Limited narration) and it can function a lot like a movie camera does, so it’s something we’re used to in this age of video. “He ran down the corridor, fired off two more shots from his blaster, and then spun around to find himself face to face with the enforcer droid.” Covers the events pretty visually and nicely, and enhanced by a bunch of sound effects can really bridge the gap between audio and video.
As noted, 3rd Person External Omniscient perspective also allows for us to do a lot of the tricks that movie and TV shows use. Cutaways, just showing key moments or pieces of events, jumping locations in time (flashbacks or flashfowards), and space (2525 to Ancient Egypt in 1 easy step!) are no problem for this perspective. In fact, if you’re going to be moving around to a lot of locations, narration might almost be required to help the listener keep track of exactly where the characters are at the moment. Giving their exact positions in a scene isn’t necessary (unless the story requires it), but really big jumps in time and space can benefit from a little extra info.
3rd Person Internal Omniscient gives a very odd perspective we don’t use much in modern media, where we can look at the thoughts and feelings of one or many characters in infinite detail and with potentially as much or little knowledge about their true motives, their future and their past as needed. (“Billy didn’t know that the deep longing he felt inside was only the beginning, and that Susan’s hatred of her mother since childhood would spark tragedy for all of them.”) Whereas 3rd Person External Limited would be pretty much the same as 1st Person External Limited, but without any of the feelings or introspection- just the facts ma’am. This form is good for a very closed-in and tight feeling, where the focus never goes far away from the character and their surroundings at that time. (This is the perspective of most horror computer games like Resident Evil, or Massively Multiplayer Online games like World of Warcraft, for example. Nice, tight and limited so it’s easy to surprise players.)
When it comes down to it, the 3rd Person is the best perspective to use when you’re going to move around a lot, when you have a lot of complicated action, or play a lot of “information games” (where you only give the audience select pieces of information or events, like doing cutaways to enhance suspense) with your audience. It’s not so good at making the listener feel part of the story since it normally keeps them external to the events, and can feel more like watching a movie than being inside a book.
Tips from the Pros
So, to conclude, I’d like to offer a few pieces of advice in regard to using narration in audio dramas:
Pacing: The simple truth is that generally the more the narrator speaks, the more it’s going to slow down the pace of the story. Narration is by its nature slower than dialogue, however this is not automatically a bad thing. In an action story, you need to keep narration tight and focused, and try only to tell exactly what’s needed when you need it. Use as few big words or descriptive adjectives as possible- every word must literally have it’s place or it will drag your story down. (Character descriptions? Is it important? If not, who needs them? Let the audience imagine them from the sounds of their voices!) The opposite is a long internal monologue (like most Hardboiled pulp detectives give) where the verboseness and the adjectives carry along the story like a flower in the Summer breeze, and the words pour out a long stream of aural pictures that would make Picasso jealous were he alive enough to be jealous. If you want a slow paced story, increase the amount of narration and its complexity, and if you want a faster one, decrease it- it’s that simple.
Placement: In the old time radio dramas, where most of the action was heard and not explained, narration was most often used for setup as opposed to description. For example, at the start of every episode of Superman, you’d hear the announcer describe the situation Superman was in and how he’d gotten there, with a similar bit of narration at the end of each episode. In between, all narration came in the form of stage dialogue (narration hidden within characters speech) so it didn’t intrude on the events of the story unless needed. A general good rule of thumb when using narration is to use it only for key important things- so at the start or finish of scenes, or when events occur that must be explained in a way that the characters or sound effects can’t do. Think of narration as a bun, and dialogue as the meat of most audio dramas (sound effects and music are ketchup, to continue the metaphor), people might like and accept the bun, but they’re trying to get to the meat!
Narration as Character: Sometimes you will use character voices to make narration more interesting or present it differently. For example, instead of talking about an event you could present a series of “news announcer” clips which express that same information in a lively or interesting way. Old EC Horror comics (and later horror comics that followed the pattern) had a “host” like the Cryptkeeper who set the stage and tone at the beginning of each comic, “told” the story, and added the moral at the end of each creepy tale. He’s really just a narrator, but this kind of narrator is a character unto themselves. Narration isn’t just a deep voiced guy doing a voiceover, it can come in many forms, and add flavor even to the point of altering the feeling of a work. Having a child narrate a gruesome horror story could enhance the horror or take away from it- it all depends on how you use it!
Narration as Props: When producing an audio drama, you may or may not want every character to have a voice, nor may every character need one. It’s perfectly reasonable to use narration to describe people as well as things and events when those people are needed in some way but unimportant to the story overall. Say for example a character meets the ghost of a dead friend in a hallway who desperately needs to communicate something to the character but can’t speak. Will you just have one of the characters talking to dead air? Will you use a sound effect to represent the ghost? One other approach is to have the actions of the ghost narrated in a colorful and interesting way- a character who exists as narration only. Is it really worth hiring an actor to do a role for a single line that the narrator who is already there can handle without breaking a sweat, and add more color to the environment as well by describing the character? Creative sound effects can bring an environment to life and can be a fun challenge to do, but sometimes they’re either not available or not able to really do the job. This is where narration comes in- it’s the all purpose-anything goes sound effect!
Single vs. Multiple Narrators: If you do have a narrator, there are no rules to say you can only have one. Sometimes multiple first person narrators could add a lot of color to a production, or even the use of “news clips” or passages from a book read by different characters. A single narrator will make the narrator fade into the background more as the audience recognizes them and tries to “tune them out” as simply part of the story, whereas multiple narrators will be clearly narration and a little more jarring, but that too can be used to produce different interesting story, sound and pacing effects.
Fun with Unreliable Characters: While most narrators are Reliable, Un-reliable characters can add a lot of flavor to a story if done right. Of course, you have to let the audience in on the joke, with clues or mistakes the character makes that tell them that maybe, just maybe, this lady shouldn’t be trusted. Half the fun then becomes guessing what’s true and what’s not true for the audience, and unreliable characters can often be made very amusing or frightening characters by what they say…and what they don’t say.
The Catch: Narration can be tricky to do, if you can’t do it well, maybe you should keep it to a minimum or not do it at all. Simple 3rd Person External Omniscient perspective is easiest to write by virtue of being the most familiar, but it’s also the most bland and adds the least directly to the story. The more advanced forms of narration and how much you use them will influence your story a lot, but they can hurt just as much as help if you don’t know what you’re doing. That shouldn’t stop you from trying to use different types and styles of narration, and if you want to be good at this art form you have to master as many as possible! But, if you do try something new narratively, having someone else proofread it or trying a “test run” (by having your friends just read it through with you) is never a bad idea before you run out and produce it. (It’s never a bad idea with a new script period!)
So, intrepid Star Wars Audio Drama Producer, there you have it! The power of Narration is now within your grasp, and you can wield it to show the deaths of a million suns, or a single tear running down a soft white cheek. Learn to use this strength proudly and carefully, and your heroes will be tearing through the next Imperial invasion in no time flat. Just remember that Narration is an option, not a requirement, in producing audio drama, and being able to use it gives you one more tool to use as you face off with the challenges of producing audio excellence.
May the 3rd Person External Omniscient narrative force be with you, always!