Fridays at the Mic: Writing Then to Now

So we talked about Old Time Radio writing style last week and didn't draw too many conclusions other than to say it is one style of writing that works. In previous weeks, we brought up Ann Heppermann (The Sarah Awards, Serendipity podcast) who has a thinly veiled desire to see audio fiction move away from the old style into...well, listen to the Serendipity podcast and you'll hear what she'd like it to become. Now it's time to get a little perspective. What is audio fiction's current state, and what does that state suggest about the future?

Audio fiction podcasting today represents a unique art form in that it is shaped and enhanced by its own medium. What is a podcast? It is an audio file that's delivered for free on a regular basis. There is no concern for time limits, but there is a concern about the audience's attention span. The story is doled out over a regular schedule on the assumption that most listeners will probably not find it until after the entire tale, or season, has been told. Listeners can then be hooked potato chip style as listening becomes 'binging'. Writers employ classic concepts like cliffhangers to keep listeners coming back. And the overall season represents a single story line that can be enjoyed about as quickly as one could watch a television season on Netflix.

Of course, this is just one kind of podcast. There are plenty of great anthology shows as well as shows like 'Welcome to Night Vale' that seem to go on forever. But where audio drama of 2010 felt like a collection of false starts and semi-successes, audio fiction of 2016 feels much more organized. There is an audience now that knows what it wants, and what it wants is the weird, the strange, and the suspenseful often delivered through a single desperate voice in dire peril. New devices are emerging as tropes. Many shows focus on recordings or found footage, usually (and ironically) in the form of magnetic tape (see 'The Bright Sessions' and 'Small Town Horror') even though that media has been obsolete for over a decade. There are other examples, but you get the idea. Audio fiction is beginning to take on a recognizable form. The general, Kardashian-watching public will soon have an idea what it is, and we will not have to explain it too them. I've been answering the question, 'Audio drama? What's that?” for about 15 years. So for me, this change can't come fast enough.

So how do you get that audience? How do you find that common ear? The same way all good storytelling is accomplished, a combination of character and plot mixed with an alchemists' hand. For me, the beginning is story or plot. Like a journalist, my first focus is to tell what happened. Characters pop up immediately of course, but they appear in undeveloped form to be fleshed out as I go. And as that growth happens, the characters invariably gain strength and start having an influence on the plot. I think this is an earmark of drama as opposed to prose. Character is paramount in the world of prose because only in the world of prose can you really be inside the mind of a character. The reader becomes the character while reading; his or her thoughts become the reader's thoughts. Whereas any dramatic form including audio, presents the listener with a performance to be absorbed. The mind meld we experience while reading can't be re-created by listening to a performance not even in the form of audio books which represent a reading substitute more than a unique art form. Librarians and book store clerks will all tell you there is a large segment of audio book fans who will tolerate no sound effects or music, and who consider un-abridgment to be a holy state. You might cut a word here or there, but nothing too drastic. And nothing that would represent an attempt to enhance the listener's experience through sound design. For these people, an audio book is simply a way to read while driving.

There is a lot of pleasure to be found in listening to an audio book, but not a lot of art in its production. Audio fiction, on the other hand, is all about production. It is a technical art form that renders art in sound, and though words might be our most important tool, they are not the only one.

Next time, a departure from scripts to begin thinking about sound and sound design. I'll be at a conference on Friday, so the next post may be delayed a little, just so you know.