Some Tips for Writing (Superhero) Audio Drama

I was recently giving some advice to a new audio drama scriptwriter doing a superhero show and thought I’d post some of it here (edited to remove the parts directly related to his show):

1. Every time the location/ambience changes make it a new scene. In my scripts I title each scene based on the location they’re in. This will also make production easier because the show will be mixed as scenes and then assembled as the final step into a single coherent file.

2. In CELTX Anything that isn’t dialogue or sound should be classified as “production notes” so it doesn’t list in the numbers or confuse the actors/mixers.

3. A good way to handle “sounds” when scripting is to just describe the scene with things that make noise in it and let the sound engineers do their thing. If I can’t think of specific sounds I tend to just describe the environment and let them do the rest. (Of course, in my case “them” is ME, just at a point in the future wearing a different funny hat. )

4. Superhero Transformation Sequences are a purely visual thing, in audio these will end up being the character calling out their transformation in an echo-y sound, and some short power-up effect (possibly with music, but it will probably be too short for music to be useful.) It’s sad but true that things like transformation sequences and robots combining are boring as heck in audio, or at least I’ve never heard them done well (Your show could always be the first.).  (Have you heard my own D-Ranger metal-hero style show yet? It might be worth a listen. It was one of my early works, but there’s a lot of audio tricks in there that might be worth listening to. Also I’d recommend listening to Sonique, but only from a production standpoint since Tamtu is a great mixer. Every mixer/writer/show has a unique sound, but we can learn a lot from each other.)

5. Actions sequences are the hardest thing to do in audio, and this as written will end up being boring as cheese. If you want a reference for audio heroes, I recommend the OLD (like nothing before 1980) Spider-Man comics, he’s a great example of a hero who talks his way through fights with quips and comments.

6. If you want to give lots of details you’re either going to need a narrator or start having secondary characters make a LOT of comments. (Narrators aren’t always bad, listen to how Circus 13 did their X-men:Days of Future Past plays.)

7. So how are you going to represent the visual element of monsters in a purely audio production? Really they end up being funny-voiced actors with maybe a few FX applied, but at some point someone is going to have to describe them to the blind audience.

8. Most radioplay listeners can’t keep track of more than a few characters at a time, so try to keep each episode’s cast small. If you have a team of regular heroes the audience will come to know them and will recognise their (hopefully) distinct voices, but beyond them your audience can’t remember very many people. When planning episodes to avoid listener confusion write them like each character costs you $10,000 in acting fees, and you have to keep your cast to a minimum to budget your costs. (Considering that your pool of actors may also be quite limited, this is always good policy.)

9. One other option you might not normally think of  for providing details is to have characters “think”, just like thought balloons in comics. This is usually simulated by a lot of echo-y reverb, and has the characters commenting on their situations almost like a form of self-narration. I used it a lot in the first episode of my Twin Stars series, and in some of the later Little Gou plays to good effect as a way of getting in details without a narrator.

Your job in audio is to help the listener paint the picture in their mind of the scene. Not paint it FOR them, but help THEM paint the mental picture. Always ask yourself if things are necessary for understanding the story, and if they’re not, then get rid of them. You might be able to sneak a lot of minor details into dialogue in later episodes, but do it in small amounts here and there, and resist the temptation to overwhelm your audience. Remember that without visual cues an audience can’t handle very many complicated details, especially a modern audience not used to the audio drama medium.

You really need to immerse yourself in listening to audio drama/radioplays for a while and learn how other people do it, if you do this then a lot of this will become second nature to you. One more thing to add to your recommended listening list is Unexpected Angel Force Seraphim, a magical girls/sentai/action/comedy show that just started on the VAA, which despite being done by a first-timer got a lot of the superhero team elements perfectly translated to audio form.