Writing narration into audio drama
Use of narration divides opinion in the audio drama world. Three of my favourite shows deal with it in very different ways, but all manage to make their stories flow seamlessly. The Leviathan Chronicles is heavily narrated by a ‘disembodied voice’. Before listening to the show, many would frown upon this technique, but I think it they execute it brilliantly, and it complements the acting and the action very well.
Why does Leviathan work so well? Good reading, good writing, and good production. On top of that, the narrator herself is excellent. Leviathan shows that this is certainly not a “wrong” way to create audio drama (and I’d argue that there is no right or wrong way anyway) but like everything else, it must be done to a good standard to work.
The second show, We’re Alive, makes use of ‘in story’ narration through the use of characters keeping journals. This enables a character to jump in and help describe a complicated fight or action scene to the listener (as it’s being dramatised) as well as add description to things that would be difficult to convey without very unrealistic dialogue (We’re Alive has very realistic, cinematic dialogue that bears no resemblance to conversations heard in Old Time Radio shows).
The interspersing of narration during a scene is done so liberally that the listener will never think “now they are telling me what’s going on, not showing me”. We’re Alive demonstrates that you can add narration to audio drama via your characters, and give reason for it. Like Leviathan, they pull it off because of great writing, great production, and great acting.
The third show, Edict Zero FIS, uses no narration whatsoever. The interesting thing here is that the story world is extremely deep and complex, yet at no point are you ‘told’ what is going on. Leviathan and We’re Alive, through their narration techniques, have the capacity to inform you the private thoughts of a character, so how does Edict Zero work around this?
The shows are very long (on average around an hour) and in each episode you’ll spend a lot of time with the central characters. Over time you get to know them so well, through their traits, actions, and conversations, that it isn’t necessary to be directly informed of their thoughts. This is an example of a colossal amount of character development, which has been integrated so well into an engaging story that the two are inseparable.
Details of Edict Zero’s complicated story world are subtly fed to you not only through conversation, but also by catching snippets of radio and television shows running under the action and dialogue. The show plays ‘the long game’ in painting a picture for you, and once that picture begins to emerge it leaves a lasting impression on the listener.
In summary, those are three examples of very different techniques, all done very well, in three brilliant audio dramas. I don’t think there’s a “one size fits all rule”. Ultimately, it has a lot to do with your story, what kind of story is it that you want to tell?
If was looking to create a story that made use of narration (narration that wasn’t a disembodied voice and would allow me to convey character thought), how would I go about it? Here are three ideas…
- My protagonist is a washed up rock star, actor, or some type of celebrity. Each episode involves he/she being in therapy, where they’ll recall the events of that week, or even events from their past.
- My protagonist is an ex footballer/athlete, a failed writer, or small time crook. Each episode involves them being in the pub, talking to a friend who never replies (basically, the listener). Again, they recount tales from the week past, or from their life in general, their youth, etc.
- My protagonist is a heroic barbarian in a fantasy realm, who has given up the life of adventure to settle down in a small hamlet where they are now married with a young child. Each episode is a bedtime story to their son or daughter, where tales are told of the world itself, the many quests, adventures, and great wars they’ve gone on or fought in.
So this is all retrospective action, allowing the main character to be the narrator but purposefully. They’ll introduce a story by telling, but then we’d fade in to the fully dramatised story itself. We can pop in and out of that, back to the character’s narration if we need to (for example, to convey thought) – “when I was offered that million dollar record contract the first thought in my mind was to go out and buy a car” etc.
Big disadvantages of this, your protagonist is now invincible as long as the story continues, so in the case of the questing barbarian, will it be exciting to follow these adventures if you know they can’t die?
Using other methods, maybe a group of teenagers get together on a weekly basis and contact the spirit world through a Ouija board, each spirit then tells them their life story and how they ended up dead. Maybe a psychic detective is haunted by the spirit of the victim who’s case he’s trying to solve. Maybe your protagonist is literally a mind reader.
Ultimately… be creative; tailor to your story and characters. If you really want to pull something off, you can. That’s the real beauty of audio drama.
Radio Drama Handbook – Writing
In order for this project to be of any use at all, I need to create a captivating and interesting story. Without a good plot and script, the best production values and soundscapes in the world would be little more than elevator ambience.
I bought a copy of the Radio Drama Handbook: Audio Drama in Practice and Context by Richard J. Hand and Mary Traynor recently and have thoroughly enjoyed it. I really like the fact that the authors draw on many online examples and don’t seem to suffer the tunnel vision of ‘the only radio drama is BBC radio drama’ that some other textbooks do.
The chapter on writing was very helpful, the authors points and the selection of quotes used were pertinent calls to action, I will take a look at some of them in this post.
On page 104 Scott Hickey and Robert Madia are quoted, responding to the “show, don’t tell” advice for writers and arguing that “Dialogue is showing for the ear. Narration is telling.” This is a great point in my opinion, I’m personally not keen on using narration in audio drama and don’t plan on having any in this project. I think there are plenty of ways around it, use of television and radio running underneath character conversations for example, feeding you chunks of the story world from the story world itself, not outside of it.
Throughout the book, Hand and Traynor are keen to refute the well repeated claim that radio drama is a “blind medium”. On the same page we see a quote from Rosemary Horstmann, who talks about ‘the theatre of the mind’, and the fact that “the writer can move his characters instantly backwards through the centuries, or forwards into the future. He can set the first scene on an airliner and the next at the bottom of the sea. If he chooses to send his protagonist to the South Pole we can go with him every step of the way. This is liberation indeed.”
The authors expand upon this, suggesting that audio drama is not “blind”, but instead “has the potential to be limitless to an extent which would challenge any other medium. Exotic locations and elaborate set pieces could propel a film budget into multi-millions. Even what we might expect to be a ‘quick fix’ with CGI can be technically demanding and expensive. It may be the greatest sequence ever envisioned, but practical or financial reasons make it utterly prohibitive. However, audio drama has the potential to realise anything.” (page 105)