Finishing your Shows

Size Does Matter – Finishing your Radioplays – by Robyn Paterson
(With special thanks to Bill Hollweg, Gregg Taylor, Julie Hoverson and Cryswave)

“To be a writer, you must write, and you must finish what you write.” Robert A. Heinlein

One of the most frustrating things as a fan of amateur radioplays is that many of the most promising stories I start to listen to will invariably never reach their end. When people first start the projects they are full of enthusiasm and dream of producing a mega-epic story that snakes out over hundreds of episodes and captures the world’s imagination! But, when they discover how hard being a writer/producer is, and how hard it is to keep all their voice actors for a long period of time, they often balk at the growing project difficulties and get frustrated and overwhelmed. End result is- what may even be a promising story never gets past 2 or 3 episodes before the whole thing collapses into obscurity. This isn’t fair to the voice actors who have put their time into the project, or the listeners who also invested their time into listening to the episodes that came out.

A lot of this could be avoided however if they just did a little future planning and actually thought their projects through instead of just jumping in guns blazing. So, in the interest of helping future audio drama producers, I present a list of tips to help keep projects under control and see them finished:

1) Write the whole thing before you even start casting it. Yes, it will be difficult, and yes, you’ll want to cast the first episode as soon as you write the “final” word, but nothing could be better for your project than to actually have all the scripts ready and done.

  • It lets you understand the whole story so you can edit and change before it hits production.
  • It eliminates delays for things such as writer’s block.
  • It lets you edit.
  • It lets you cast for the whole thing at once, and receive lines for the whole thing at once (if you so choose) so there’s no worries about actors disappearing forever in a few months.
  • It lets you time out the release of the project and helps keep it manageable- this helps to build a larger audience.
  • And did I mention it lets you go back and edit?

2) Set yourself goals and reach them. One of the things that most kills first-time producers is the workload- at first they get in there enthusiastically as producers, but by the time they hit the second or third episode the fun is gone and the drudgery of hard work is all that remains. Suddenly playing on the X-Box or spending time with friends is a whole lot more important, especially when they’re looking at an ever growing project of unknown length. This too is easy enough to fix-

·   Don’t bite off more than you can chew. Especially for first-time projects, don’t write anything over 6 episodes, and have an ending at the end of those six episodes. (Even if it’s just the ending for that first initial story/story arc.) This way when you reach the end of those six episodes (which also make it easier to write) you can decide whether to move on to another project or keep going with this one- but the key point is you finished your project and didn’t leave your audience hanging.

·   Work Ahead. This is also extremely hard, but try to have 3 episodes finished before you release the first of them, and then stay 3 episodes ahead. This will reduce the chances of life getting in the way of your release schedule, and let you work at a more relaxed pace that will prevent panicked mixing the night before a show is due out.

·   Let the Pilot show the way. In the TV business they used to (and occasionally still do) do this thing called a Pilot, wherein they make a TV “movie” to test how audiences like something before they produce a full series to follow it. They’ve done this for over 40 years, and there is a reason they do this- it works! It lets them set up for the series, and tell a single story with these characters to learn what works and what doesn’t. (And if something doesn’t work, it gets changed when it becomes a full series!) Do a pilot for your audio drama- it can be one 30 minute show, or six 15 minute shows telling a single story, but tell a single complete story using your characters first before you launch into a larger epic series.

·   Don’t write unlimited series. If/when you do a full series, break your production slate down into smaller arcs/chunks to keep things under control. For audio drama I personally recommend working in blocks of six to ten episodes, but do not to go above 10 episodes a season. If you do a monthly show this gives you 2 months of break/production time a year, and even if you don’t follow a set schedule this will probably be the point where you (and possibly your audience) could use a bit of a rest before moving on to the next block of episodes. (This also gives you the opportunity to do more than one series at a time.)

·   Just DO it! One of the best things about having a regular deadline (besides it being the best way to build a regular audience- hint, hint) is that it forces artists, who are by nature endlessly tinkering with their work, to just get it done and out there. Some people are afraid to put their work out until they have it “just right”, and others are constantly thinking of new ideas they want to put into their work and revising it. The truth is, both of these are guaranteed ways to get nothing done in the end. Plan your work, write it, produce it, and get it out there. This will give you the feedback and skills you need to improve your work and make the next project even better. Every project you do improves on the next one, and the truth is almost everyone’s first show is cringe-worthy (to them) after they’ve got a few more past that under their belts. If you want to create and produce, as Robert A. Heinlein said at the start- you need to DO it (and FINISH it). Skill and ability come through experience, not through dreaming.

3) Don’t have more than Two different incomplete series in production at a time.

I know a lot of writer/producers are creative ADD types (which is why this whole article is needed) and once they start one project it’s easy for them to get distracted by something new and want to start another one. This is where discipline comes into play. Each unfinished script/project you have around greatly increases the chances of the other scripts/projects not being finished, and it can go up exponentially with each new project you add to the pile. So you need to avoid starting new projects until one of the others is “finished”. (Note- here “finished” can mean all scripts are written for the current season/set, not necessarily that the whole project is finished.) You can plan for future projects, take notes, sketch characters or whatever you do for pre-production, but then set those notes aside until you need them later.

4) The right format for the right project. There are, generally speaking, three formats for shows.

1.   Anthology- Every episode is a new story with a new cast, with the whole thing generally linked together by a genre or theme. (Examples- some OTR such as Suspense!, the Twilight Zone, the Outer Limits, Tales from the Crypt)

2.   Episodic (self contained)– In this format each episode is a self-contained story that begins and ends within the episode itself with generally no outside connections to a larger story. (Examples- most old time radio shows, CSI, Star Trek, Law and Order, Stargate)

3.   Episodic (semi-serialized)– Each episode contains a complete (or semi-complete) story story inside itself, but is also part of a larger ongoing story that slowly plays out over a story arc. (Examples- Most anime, most J-Drama, New Doctor Who, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Smallville, Battlestar Galactica 2.0.)

4.   Serialized– Each episode is simply a part of a larger story, and while there might be story-arcs most stories aren’t finished within a single episode. These are like chapters in a book. (Examples- Most manga, LOST, HEROES)

When a writer is planning their projects they need to think carefully about the kind of story they want to tell and then find the format which best suits their story. Traditionally Audio Drama has been done in the pure episodic format where each story needed to stand on its own, and many who continue the traditions of Old Time Radio have followed this format. It doesn’t have to be that way however, and (inspired mostly by Anime and Manga) some newer producers are exploring Serialized and Semi-Serialized formats.

All of these formats are good, and have their advantages and disadvantages (enough to fill a whole other article), but the key here is to consider what type of story and style best suits you as a writer/producer. Some writer/producers can do Serialized with their eyes closed, but can’t do Episodic to save their lives. Some stories work great in Episodic format (Detective stories, for example) but are much harder/trickier to do in full Serialized format because that’s just not how those stories are structured. (Whereas, interpersonal dramas flourish in Serialized and Semi-Serial formats since it lets the story play out over a large canvas.)

Final Personal Thoughts:

When I first started to do Audio Drama I wasn’t sure if I could manage it, so I wrote a pilot for my Little Gou adventures (Little Gou and the Emperor’s Cousin) so that I could see how it all worked. It was a simple self-contained story and if that was all there was to Little Gou’s adventures I felt I could live with it. When that worked out, I wrote some more stories- another pilot (D-Ranger), another episode of Little Gou, and a semi-serialized adventure series called Team Iron Angel. (10 episodes in length, which were supposed to be 12 minutes each, but quickly ballooned out into something like 20 minutes each.) I enjoyed doing Little Gou, so I kept writing more of his adventures, and Team Iron Angel was an ongoing project so I dropped D-Ranger (at the time) since I felt it would be too much to handle more than Two ongoing projects. So I had one regular semi-serialized project, and one semi-regular episodic project to alternate between, and I found it worked pretty well for me creatively and personally.

When I had both of those projects finished, I started Twin Stars, and even though I was experienced and knew what I was in for I still did a pilot for Twin Stars (notice that Episode One is 95% self contained, this is why) just in case some part of it didn’t work out on the production end. I also planned Twin Stars to clearly be 8 episodes a season, and plotted out the first book in detail before I began work on it to make sure I didn’t run into any writing roadblocks on the way. (Which still happened, but were about “how” to do things, rather than “what to do”.) This let me get Twin Stars out on an (almost) uninterrupted monthly schedule, and built my reputation as both a writer and producer, while still having time to work on some other projects on the side.

I think the reason I dislike unfinished projects the most is that I feel cheated by them- I put the time and effort into listening to the story and learning the characters, and then the producer hasn’t bothered to put up their half of the bargain by finishing the story. Think of producing like a contract between three groups- the Producer makes a contract with the Actors to use their talents well, the Actors make a contract with the Producer to gain exposure and experience, and the Producer makes a contract with the Audience to entertain the Audience in trade for the Audience taking the time to listen to that story. As you can see, the Producer is involved with all three of these contracts, and they need to live up to them- this is a lot of responsibility, so Producers need to consider that before they run off producing shows without thinking of how it will affect the other groups involved.