So I’ve been sitting on a few reader questions to this general effect fora while. Don’t get me wrong - it is super flattering and unbelievably thrilling to think that anyone would want my writing advice. It is also utterly terrifying and completely laughable, as there are scores of people who actually know what they’re doing and are far (far!) better qualified to give sensible advice than I am. I am an audio drama baby - I’ve only been doing this for a few years and I only have a few scripts under my belt.
But I keep getting a few questions like this, soooo… okay, here’s what we’re going to do. If you’re looking for an expert’s insight on writing audio dramas, someone with authority and qualifications and tried-and-tested methods, you just keep on going. May I suggest hitting up this gentleman’s blog? But if you’re interested in reading what basically amounts to the assorted thoughts of some dude who’s trying to figure this stuff out as he takes his first halting steps into the playground… and we’re going to proceed only under the strict understanding that I want all of you to expand, challenge, and improve upon everything that I’m about to say… then join me after the jump.
Still with me? Okay, cool.
1. Do Your Homework
This is probably the most important piece of advice I can give, and the most simple: if you want to write radio dramas, you should be listening to a ton of radio dramas. It’s as easy as that. Like any other kind of writing, radio is a set of skills to acquire and a set of challenges to overcome, and the only way you’re going to do either of those things is by absorbing and internalizing what other people have done with the medium. Which basically means, listen to a lot of other radio dramas. Listen to things you love, to things that are way outside your comfort zone, to things that sound weird, or insane, or off-putting. Even if you don’t fall in love with the finished product, you might be able to steal an idea, or an interesting technique, or a way to pivot around an issue, and that might be the difference between being able to pull a story off or having to bin a promising idea. So take the time to explore the possibilities and build up your arsenal before you go into battle.
And remember, radio dramas are going through a renaissance of sorts nowadays, but it’s nothing compared massive growth and popularity that the medium saw during its “Golden Age” back in the 30’s, 40’s, and 50’s. During that time the radio industry was producing hundreds of radio plays a year, many of them utterly terrifying in terms of how impressionistic, baroquely experimental, or just straight up bonkers they could get. As an added blessing, thanks to lax copyright enforcement practices, almost all of the surviving works from this period can be found for free on the web, so there’s really no excuse! I recommend starting with the works of Wyllis Cooper, the Mercury Theater, and Lucille Fletcher, and just going forth from there. But no matter how you go about it, the point is this medium is full of giants who have produced amazing work – make sure that you start off your own writing by standing on their shoulders.
2. Put Fuel in the Tank
With that said, have some chocolate along with your vegetables. Spend time consuming things that’ll help you grow and think about the medium, but also take the time to watch/read/listen to things that just get you excited, that are fun, and that pump you up and make you want to go create things. We all get into this game because we fall in love with certain pieces of art, so take the time to revisit those landmarks and to find new things that remind you that, for all the work it demands, this “telling stories” thing is about fun and excitement. So when you get to one of those nights when the writing thing is just not happening, don’t be afraid to slip on your consumer hat and just spend some time refueling. You may not find the solution to whatever creative roadblock is dragging you down, but if something can give you the drive to spend another day or hour or minute toiling away at your story it’s worth it.
3. Write For the Ears
Radio is both very similar and very different to mediums like film and television. You’re still telling a story that is steadily moving forward through time, but you’re doing so entirely through an audio channel. So on top of all the usual good stuff like plotting and characterization, you need to constantly be thinking about how your audience is going to be receiving and processing information. Some very complicated things might be surprisingly easy to portray through audio, while some very basic things might be deviously tricky to get across. Space mutant plant monster? Surprisingly easy. Someone pointing a gun at someone else? Surprisingly difficult. You just need to constantly be thinking about the fact that you’re still showing a story to an audience without ever tipping into just telling, working around the fact that you don’t have visuals and depending on your listeners’ natural intuition and perception to fill in the gaps. On the most basic levels, it means always making sure that your storytelling is clear and easy to follow, and that you’re giving enough information to your audience to make sure they’re filling in those gaps the way you want them to.
4. Structure Backwards
I know some writers that can just start writing scripts without an outline or even a clear destination, just setting off towards the unknown until they hit land and discover their story in the telling. My position on these people, many of whom I love dearly, is perfectly summed up by one of the songs from [title of show]: “While I celebrate their creative freedom, a little part of me just wants to punch those motherfuckers in the teeth.”
For us mere mortals, the process of plotting out an episode, of figuring out how things are going to flow from one point to the next, who is going to know what when, whether it was Col. Mustard with the wrench in the Billiards Room or not, etc. can often feel like a nightmarish journey into some dark corner of the subconscious, a place made entirely out of logical leaps and terrible plot twists. (It was actually Mr. Wrench with the mustard…) As hard as it is to navigate the process, figuring that stuff is what lets you actually move through the story. I spend about twice as much time figuring out the structure of an episode (where the suspense beats are, where the funny beats are, where the character beats are, etc.) as I do writing the actual drafts. All too often it feels like I’m spending days just staring at notebook pages, scrawling down bad ideas just to get them out of the way, and not getting any writing done, but once that process is done it means that I can write fast and with a real sense of direction.
The best trick that I’ve found for breaking through the structuring quagmire is to work backwards, starting with the last pieces. Not necessarily in terms of where the plot needs to end (although this is always helpful if you know it) but in terms of where the audience’s knowledge and emotions need to end up. What do they need to have learned about the characters? About the universe? Do they need to feel more sympathetic towards someone? Do they need to dislike someone more? Suspect something? Fear something? Love something? If you know where you’re starting and where you need to end up the process of outlining becomes more like discovering the connection that joins those two points.
5. Restrictions Are Your Friends
I know this sounds weird, but setting yourself some arbitrary restrictions will often make the task of plotting out stories and creating arcs for your characters easier rather than harder. I think that it’s because writing, in a weird way, is like trying to solve a jigsaw puzzle, except you don’t necessarily know what the right amount of pieces is. You could bring in some more pieces, you could put some pieces you have out back in the box, and there are multiple combinations that’ll solve the puzzle. If you’re constantly swapping new pieces in and out, chances are you’ll be trial-and-erroring for a very long time. Setting yourself some restrictions and limitations is kind of like going, “Okay, no, I’m not going to go back into the box until I’ve done everything that I can with these pieces that I already have out.” Sure, it might cut down on the wider possibilities, but it has a way of letting you zero in on what you can do with what you do have with a lot more efficiency.
Wolf 359 was intentionally designed to be a very restricted narrative playground. It’s all set in a single, isolated space that the characters can’t leave. It’s only four characters. It’s all organized around the audio diaries they make. A bit of a tight fit, sure, but having such a narrow scope is precisely what led to us figuring out most of our early stories. Heck a lot of our episodes revolve around me setting myself even more restrictions (An episode with only Eiffel and Hilbert! An episode that’s set entirely in the Comms Room!) and figuring out how to make all the pieces fit together.
Now, this is by no means something you have to do, or even something you have to stick by. (God knows that all of our initial restrictions are starting to break down to varying degrees by the middle of season 2) If your grand ambition is to make the radio play version of Magnolia and you have a way of making that work, have at it! (and please send me the finished product, because I’d love to hear it) But if you’re new to this whole crazy thing and want something to steady the ground beneath your feet, consider giving yourself some restrictions, like small cast or a restricted space. It may sound like an albatross, but it’ll set you free.
And on a similar note…
6. Don’t Be Defined By the Medium’s Strengths and Limitations But…
… be aware of what they are. Radio as a medium has traditionally been most comfortable around stories that actively get something from the fact that the audience is at a bit of a remove from what’s happening and have to constantly be filling in visual and narrative blanks. That’s the reason why we see so many radio-comedies and radio-horror stories, but not so many, say, radio-romances. You can’t put kisses on the radio. You can’t put hugs on the radio. You can’t put cuddling on the radio. (Night Vale fans, note the way that Cecil and Carlos’s relationship has largely been portrayed through the effect that it’s had on the characters’ lives outside of the relationship rather than by a lot of scenes or the two of them together.)
Now, don’t let me (or anyone else!) stop you from telling the stories that you want to tell. By all means, jump into the deep end! Experiment! Push that envelope! Chances are that you’ll come up with something more exciting and more innovative than what those of us who stuck a bit closer to the shallow end of the pool will. But, you should take a moment to think about what you’re doing, and to consider how steep of a climb you’re about to tackle. No narrative or formal obstacle is insurmountable with enough careful preparation, but you should be aware of how tough of a fight you’re going into and plan accordingly.
As a rule, don’t declare that any script is done until you’ve heard it read outloud at least once. Radio dramas have a way of becoming a different animal when they go from existing on the page to existing in the air around your actors, so always give yourself the ability to course correct and adjust the things on the page once you’ve heard how they sound off the page. And after that’s done, keep listening. Ask your actors and anyone else you trust what sounds weird, or what needs tweaking. Be open to trying out people’s ideas if they have suggestions (usually the only thing this will cost you is a few minutes, and you will feel whether it’s working or not fairly instantly). It’s important to know when to stick to your guns, but there’s a difference between that and being defensive or closed off. Protect your work, but just keep in mind that oftentimes the best way to do that is to listen to everyone in the room and to be willing to set off in a new direction when someone says something smart.
Now, with that said…
8. Don’t Follow Every Piece of Advice
Here’s a bit of wisdom from Javier Grillo-Marxuach and Jose Molina. Writing is a bit like partying at a bar. If one person comes up and tells you that you’re drunk and you should go home, you get to tell that person to fuck off. If another person comes up and tells you that you’re drunk and you should go home, you get to tell that person to fuck off. But when a third person comes up and tells you that you’re drunk and you should go home, you are drunk and you should go home.
I think this is a good way to think about how to deal with feedback and people’s reactions to what you’re doing. If a whole lot of people are telling you that you’ve done something wrong, you should probably own up to that and (as much as possible) do something to fix or address it. But don’t feel beholden to follow everyone’s advice, or to punctually address every bit of criticism or negativity that your work elicits. Remember that sometimes those things have as much to do with the individual who’s engaging with your work and their subjectivity as much as with your work itself, that you’re never going to make something that pleases absolutely everyone. So by all means, listen to everything people say about your work, be mindful about it and open to what it might teach you, but also stay aware of the difference between a single dot and a pattern.
9. Be Kind To Yourself
As anyone who has ever tried to any kind of creative endeavor will tell you, devastating despair and agonized anxiety are all too common traveling companions on the road towards artistic creation. As you go down the road that leads from idea to outline to draft to finished script, be careful not to let them wrest the steering wheel out from under you. There is a moment for the kick in the butt and for the tough love that get you in gear, but it can be dangerously toxic to start looking at writing as an all-or-nothing affair where your blood, sweat, and tears are not valid until you cross the finish mark. Finishing a scene is an accomplishment. Rewriting a line to make a joke funnier is an accomplishment. Having an idea about how you’re going to connect two scenes – even if it’s one that gets discarded at a later point – is an accomplishment. It’s all too easy to feel like every day in which you don’t set that final period into your word processor is a let down, but the only way you’re going to get to that big accomplishment is through a multitude of smaller ones. So do your best to keep moving forward and to remember that you’re not going through this by yourself, but don’t beat yourself up on the days when it does feel like finishing that scene with anything resembling grace or sophistication is Sisphyean task. You have enough to worry about without worrying about the fact that you’re worried.
Also eternally – painfully – relevant is this advice from Ira Glass:
10. Be Ready for It to Be Difficult
Radio dramas are tricky, finicky things. They require audiences to pay very close attention to what they listening to, while offering up far less in terms of immediate sensory stimuli than film, television, and other mediums. Even the smallest moment of boredom, distraction, or confusion can spell doom to a radio play, as they might totally break the audience’s engagement or understanding of what’s happening. Issues of clarity and pacing, so important in all narrative forms, become matters of life and death in a medium that requires so much audience investment and participation. It’s a tough balance to nail (Wolf 359 only gets it kinda right on it’s very, very, very best of days) so no matter how prepared you are, it’s probably a good idea to expect to go through a few bumpy attempts or harebrained experiments before you get to something that feels right.
By that same token, arm yourself with patience when it comes to finding an audience for your work. Again, radio dramas are a demanding form of narrative to consume; they require you to invest time and attention in the listening. They don’t go viral the way a web series might, and they don’t grab people in the same flashy way a web comic can. The artform has been done a massive amount of good by people like John Finnemore, Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor, and Acker and Blacker – and, in a more peripheral way, by Ira Glass, Jad Abunrad, Sarah Koenig, and the likes – and the medium feels more vital and alive than it’s felt in a long, long time (one kind of shudders to think how dire the landscape might be without the phenomenal work those titans have done). But let’s not kid ourselves: interest in and openness to radio dramas remains very much a niche thing. So don’t expect everyone you know to immediately drop everything to listen to your work, and don’t get discouraged if it takes a while for the work to connect to a larger audience.
11. Be Ready for It to Be Amazing
With all of that said, if you are about to embark on your first radio drama adventure you should be very, very excited. As torturous and difficult as writing a radio script can be, the process of actually bringing that script to life is fun like nothing else. In many ways, radio is the most immediate of the collaborative narrative mediums. It strips away most of the massive machinery and physical constraints that make theater and film productions such protracted and drawn-out affairs. In radio you can finish writing a script on Monday, rehearse on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, be recording on Friday, and have a finished product by the start of the following week. In addition to that, since the only technical concern is the relatively simple task of setting up recording, your work during production is almost exclusively focused on working with the actors and their performances. Film sets have a reputation for being tediously slow crawls even on their best days, while radio recording sessions tend to be fast-paced, focused, and, honestly, thrilling. I’m obviously not saying that one medium is better than the other, that would be silly… but I will say that I’ve had a lot more fun recording radio than I’ve had shooting films.
In addition to that, the narrative possibilities that radio offers are, there’s no other word for it, exhilarating. A properly produced radio drama, with rented studio time and licensed audio effects, can run you a budget in the high triple digits, which may sound like a lot… until you remember that if you were trying to tell that same story in theater or film that’s probably what you’d be paying for a day’s catering. Given the complexity of what you can do with it, the per episode price of radio is scandalously low, and once you realize that at the end of the day a small-town courthouse and the fourth moon of the plant Xaland'ar XII cost about the same to create sonically your creative opportunities will really blow wide open. It still staggers my mind that I am running a science fiction show set on a space station, featuring mutant plant monsters and technologically advanced artificial intelligences, and it feels fully realized on a DIY budget, and the ease and immediacy of production is only matched the ease and immediacy of distribution. So basically, be ready for it to be a difficult climb, get ready for some hard work, but also be excited for how much fun you’re going to have and how far this medium can let your imagination fly.
There’s probably been more written about writing, in some way, shape, or form, than about almost any other subject matter. Everyone has ideas on what works for them, and a lot of people have shared their practices, methodologies, and philosophies. By all means, pay attention to as much of that as you feel is helpful to your process, but – in the vein of don’t follow every piece of advice – remember that at the end of the day it’s your process, something that is happening privately between your head and your keyboard. The moment that something does not work for you, that a piece of supposed wisdom encumbers you rather than lightens your creative load, drop that shit like it’s a hot potato. Whether it’s because you’re one of those graced with the Apollonian blessing of being able to jump into a story without a full outline in hand or because you have a radically different conception of radio’s strengths or because of an infinity of other really valid reasons, some of the advice that makes this process easier for me may make it harder for you. So try everything once, but don’t get bogged down by “good practices” that only slow you down. Remember, the products of your writing are for the world to enjoy, but the steps you take to get there are for an audience of you alone, so be as selfish, self-centered, and self-aware as you possibly can. The only person that can tell you that you’re “doing it wrong” is you.
TL;DR: Writing radio dramas is both ridiculously hard and ridiculously rewarding. Think long and hard about what you want to do, how it’s going to unfold in an audio-only setting, and how hearing what you’re going to give them is going to affect your audience’s understanding of the situation and feelings about the characters. Be patient, look for knowledge and inspiration every day, keep your ears open, and travel light – keep the things that help you and your fiction babies, drop the rest. And finally (finally!) if you want a short and pithy how-to-art guide, the best one that I know comes from Stephen Sondheim’s phenomenal book Finishing the Hat:
1. Content Dictates Form
2. Less is More
3. God is in the Details
… all in the service of…
And goodness knows that we could all do a lot worse than that as a guiding light…
All right, that’s enough. Stop listening to my too long by half ramblings and go make some beautiful radio plays. If I can (sorta-kinda-maybe) figure this out, all of you are more than capable of rocking it. You are fabulous creatures, now go forth and write.
- July, 2015