Thoughts on Narration

It was a dark and stormy night…

This is perhaps one of the most famous (if clichéd) bits of narration ever written, and is a suitable place to start this article on…you guessed it! Narration! Specifically narration as it relates to Audio Drama. There are as many kinds of narration as there are types of media, but I specifically want to discuss audio drama narration because it seems to yours truly that narration in audio drama has been getting a lot of knocks that it really doesn’t deserve. I’ve heard people state things like “narration just sounds cheesy” and “it gets in the way of me imagining the scene” when talking about narrated parts, and to a casual reader this would probably be taken to mean narration is bad, and shouldn’t be used.

I’m here to say that just ain’t so.

Narration is a tool in a storyteller’s box of tricks, and an extremely powerful and useful too if used properly. Simply put, narration allows the writer to speak directly to the reader and tell them what they need to know. To a point, this can be done through dialogue (especially “stage dialogue”), and in some cases might not be necessary, but it’s an option that should always be there on the table. If the writer chooses to use it, that’s good, if they don’t want to use it, that’s also good. There’s no such thing as forbidden techniques in a audio drama writer’s arsenal (well, except the one that involves summoning Orson Welles and having him talk the audience to death), just as there’s no right way to write audio drama, there is only what works well, and what doesn’t work so good. Just because you narrate, doesn’t mean it’s become an audio book, and just because you don’t narrate something doesn’t mean it’s become a radio play.

But, before I go on with this discussion of narration, let me take a moment to point out that there are different narrative voices. In this discussion, when I’m taking about “narration” I’m referring to the “voiceover” type of narration when a character or narrator is describing events separately from the dialogue itself. This is different from “stage dialogue” narration in which the narrative descriptions are inserted into the dialogue of the work to avoid having a separate level of storytelling. Think of it as the difference between “In a world where nothing is what it seems…” (voiceover narration), and “You know Mike, as you and I walk down this road heading to McDonalds I think to myself- nothing in this world is what it seems.” (stage-dialogue narration.) Unless I say otherwise, I’m talking about the voiceover narration, not the stage-dialogue narration.

So, that said, when should you use narration? Well, the thing to keep in mind is that narration is a means of communicating information directly to the audience, and is meant to bridge the gap between the senses the audience are missing due to the audio medium. This is mostly sight, of course, but it can extend into touch, smell, taste, or even aspects of hearing that the writer is unable to communicate due to lack of appropriate sound effects. In a sense, narration is the all-purpose sound effect which covers everything that normal hearing doesn’t or can’t. To continue, narration should be used when it’s the best possible way of conveying something the writer wants to bring across, but is unable to through normal audio.

Let’s get a little more specific- say you’re doing a James Bond fanfiction radio play, and you’re wondering if you should have a narrator or not. What should you do? Well, the key point to remember with narration is that the bigger the information gap between what the audience knows and what the writer is trying to convey, the more useful narration is likely to be. So, in the case of fanfiction, the audience likely already knows who James Bond is, they know what he does, they know what a James Bond story plays like and who his villains are. They don’t even have to imagine what James Bond looks like, because they can choose from an array of handsome actors to play the role in their theatre of the mind. So, considering all this, I’d say the need for narration here is highly optional, and very likely unnecessary to tell this story. (Or the stories of most fanfiction directed towards an audience already familiar with the characters or setting in question.)

But, what about if you’re telling an original story with your own characters and premises set in a place the audience may or may not be familiar with? Well then, now you have to consider deeply the key elements of your story and what’s important to getting that story across the way you want to tell it. If the visual elements are important, you’re going to need some way to get them across to the listener, and narration is probably your best way of doing so. If, however, the story is drama-focussed and about the interaction of personalities more than what they are doing, then maybe you don’t need to worry about visuals so much and can simply make do with stage dialogue and/or sound effects. This has other advantages too, narration overused can slow down the pace of a story, and dialogue tends to flow faster and be more dynamic than narration. It doesn’t come without a cost, however, as dialogue also requires the listener to work harder to visualize the scene and can easily lead to confusion if not handled properly or anchored down with narrative voice.

In the days of “old time radio”, when audio drama ruled the airwaves, what were the most common and popular genres? Dramas, Comedies, Mysteries, Pulp Adventure stories, and Westerns, are what comes to mind when I look at a who’s-who of radio shows from the golden age. The first three are all genres that naturally lend themselves to pure dialogue stories, but what about the other two? Well, in addition to being radio shows, many of those pulp adventures and westerns were also magazine stories and comic books which were read by the listening audience. In a sense, they were almost the same as fanfiction stories are today and the writers could tell stories of near pure-dialogue because the audience knew what The Lone Ranger looked like or who Superman’s cast contained. However, if they needed to tell original stories about the pirate infested Carribean in The Adventures of Henry Morgan, or Mars on X Minus 1, well then, suddenly you had a narrator’s deep tones describing the lush tropical scenes or cold martian winds.

And that’s really narration’s strength- it’s ability to set the scene for the listener so that everything that follows can be more easily understood and visualized by the audience. Pure audio theatre often has a timeless quality to it, by which I mean the sense of time and space in audio is similar to that of a dream- elastic and changing. Narration helps to combat that, fixing the time and place of events to where the writer wants them to go and when the writer wants them to happen. A little narration (‘they’re in Japan in 1966”) can provide that small extra cue the audience needs to really understand what’s happening, whereas a lot of narration (“I turned the key and waited while the engine churned over and over, trying to start but failing miserably. I had to get away- they were coming, and I could see the lights of their eyes flickering red as they emerged from the woods.”) can give them everything they need to be pulled right into the situation with minimal guesswork required.

Human beings are inherently lazy creatures, and are naturally drawn to the medium that gives them the most stimulation for the least amount of effort. This is why radio replaced books and magazines, and why movies and TV replaced radio. Each medium was less efficient at conveying it’s ideas and requiring more work for the audience to understand it than the medium that came before it. If you see a picture, you don’t need to imagine it in your head, and if you hear a voice you don’t need to guess what it sounds like as you read it on the page. Dialogue also requires less active thought on the part of the audience to absorb than narration does, which is where the idea of narration “slowing things down” comes from. A writer of audio drama needs to very carefully learn to balance off the minimum of what’s required from the story’s narration, and what can be conveyed with dialogue and sound effects. As in most things, it’s a happy middle point between the use of all three that is usually the best solution.

Finding that balance is one of the key points of being a writer of good audio drama- knowing what to include is as important as knowing what to leave out. If only a little narration is needed, often stage dialogue can do the trick and leave the narrator silent, but if a lot is needed then a full-blown narrator is required. Narration also saves the writer the trouble of having to write stage dialogue, which in the hands of a less experienced writer can often turn out clunky and forced. Many writers of the video age are so used to “visual” dialogue that they don’t even know how to write for audio, and narration can help to overcome a bit of this bias towards the visual by being the eyes the listener needs to see what accompanies the dialogue.

Narration can tell us the colour of the female lead’s hair, and the way the male lead smells after sneaking home from a night away with his mistress. It can add levels of depth to the characters that pure audio (which often has to rely on archetypes) has trouble reaching in all but the most skills of hands. Characters can exist beyond their voices, which some prefer, and some don’t, claiming that narration takes away from their choice in how to visualize a scene. This is somewhat true, but it’s a little like claiming that video is “inferior” to audio because video “uses pictures, and that takes away my choice in how to visualize the scene.”

This is not to say that narration is without its problems- in addition to the issues of pacing, it definitely has a few other issues. For example, some writers may use narration as a crutch to avoid having to creatively represent things with sound, which is a waste of audio’s best trait. Also, as noted above, narration in the hands of a weak writer can often be harmful to the story, creating the wrong mood or just plain driving the audience away because of how bad it is. (Of course, if your narration is this bad, there’s a good chance your dialogue isn’t all that great either!) And finally, narration can often create a solid “framework” for the audio drama of the story, staging it like a play or a TV show is staged into scenes. While this is often a good trait, that’s not always true- one of the strengths of audio can often be that very dreamlike quality that narration counteracts, the ability to weave a story with pure clips of sound and without the entanglements of a traditional narrative structure. For some, the very love of audio drama comes from its ability to be purely in the realm of ideas, and they see narration as a bothersome nuisance they’d rather have go away.

Again, this comes back to how much information the writer wants the audience to have, and how important it is for the audience to have the information they’re being given. As this is crucial to writing audio drama, a writer needs to know their own strengths and weaknesses in this department. If a writer’s strength is dialogue, then they probably should try to steer clear of narration, but if a writer’s strength is narration, they should perhaps consider minimizing the amount of dialogue in favor of a more narration-oriented mix. Different amounts of narration will create different feels for the story, and the writer needs to choose the right one for the kind of story they’re trying to tell. If the writer is writing heavy hardboiled detective stories like Black Jack Justice, then a story that’s mostly narration sprinkled with dialogue will give the story that extra power it needs to slam that drama home like a hot cup of Brazilian Blend. But, if the writer is looking for something more light and playful, perhaps a story without any narration at all is the best choice when dashing through the streets with The Red Panda. (I note these two shows because despite being written by the same author they have radically different styles and feels due to their extremely careful use of narration (or sometimes lack thereof).)

So, having said all this, I get pretty puzzled when I hear people dismissing narration as a technique used in audio drama. Yes, it’s sometimes used badly, but then again so is dialogue more often than not, and I don’t see people trying to suggest pure narrative audiobooks are the only way to go! Writing for audio drama without having a narrative voice as an option in your writer’s toolkit is a little trying to run a race with one leg tied up so you can’t use it. It’s stupid and you’re wasting a heck of a resource! Yes, using it comes with a cost, and you need to aware of that cost so you can deal with it carefully, but as a wise old Swedish man once said: “if it’s stupid and it works, it ain’t stupid!”