Audio Drama: It all starts with a single idea. A “lightbulb moment,” so to speak. Once the concept is realized, as with any organized podcast, an audio drama requires structure. This comes in the form of a script.
Coming up with the concept is the easy part. Pen to paper, or hands on the keyboard, page after page… That’s the hard part. Each page of dialogue equates to about a minute to a minute and a half. This means that when you’re writing the story, you should know how to fill those pages, and keep the listener intrigued.
You can write an entire 30 minute episode, but if it doesn’t keep the listener’s attention, what’s the point? It helps to have multiple people involved, to write an episode, to really help expand the concept of the episode. This roundtable should involve thought-provoking questions, so it can keep progressing. Voices shouldn’t be shy, nor overwhelming in a roundtable, because that one idea one individual may have had, could alter the series for the better.
The difference between writing a series versus an anthology (unrelated episodes) will result in a different writing style. These have their benefits and drawbacks, in contrast to one another. With a series, there is a linear thought-process. Each episode segues into the next episode, whereas an anthology will start and conclude, often within a single episode.
An anthological audio drama allows for a writer to come up with a new concept every episode, while a series has a goal that doesn’t get reached for some time. Anthologies can be listened to beginning at nearly any episode, not needing any context, whereas the listener would need to start at episode one for a series. An anthology limits character arcs, or simply building their character really well. Why does so-and-so want such-and-such? What’s their motivation? What you would expect from writing a series, you are limited on, with anthology.
The same is true with an environment, but this is generally an easier sell than character motivation. But, KC Wayland asks his readers to imagine Rothgar 12. What does that location look like to you? What does it sound like? You can’t describe it, can you? But, you also mustn’t do the ham-handed description of everything. If you have listened to audio dramas from the black and white era, you know what I’m talking about. My favorite line has been “Her hair! Her faaaaace!!!” Who would say that in real life? Nobody. Unless it is an entirely new environment, you can’t describe everything all at once. This limits the story you can build in an audio drama anthology. Sounds will carry a great deal of the environment you’re building, but they won’t do your whole task for you. A rooster crowing can tell the listener it’s morning, and that it’s a rural environment. Constant cars honking and footsteps could give the impression that someone is walking in the downtown area. Sounds are written into the script to, let the director, and the listener know how to gauge the scene.
On the page, you are a director. You are giving your director a heading they should follow. So, pen to paper, you are the one steering this vessel. Which also means, you are partially responsible for the loss of the listener, if they abandon ship. Grab attention! Whether it’s cannon fire, or whispering, make sure your listener is engaged. I cannot stress that enough.
With a series, there needs to be enough content, episode after episode, so you don’t lose the listener, while still moving closer to the conclusion of the season or series. Keeping in mind that every page equates to about 75 seconds, filling an entire series with this can prove to be a much more daunting task than originally intended. If a series is expected to be 10 episodes of 30 minute installments, this can equate to a massive 240 page script. But being the great writer that you are, you cannot allow yourself the cardinal sin of writing boring content either. You need to ensure that your listener will be active, from episode to episode. We’re Alive: Lockdown was a hefty 300 minutes runtime, and 379 pages long. The script for an audio drama is generally longer than a feature length film, since they are so dialogue heavy. A movie can get away with credits with music and scenery, whereas the audio medium needs talking to compel the listener to stick around. Music needs to be used to complement the scene, but a minute of music will often turn your listener off because there is no visual component.
As with most series, it helps to end off each episode with a cliff-hanger, so the listener doesn’t just leave your most recent episode, feeling entirely satiated. Give them something to come back to. After all, what good is episode one, if you can’t keep them coming for more after the fifth episode?
Your first hurdle will be to bring the listener to your audio drama, but the hardest part, is to keep them engrossed in what you’re offering. We live a society of microwaves, Tik Tok, and other sources of instant gratification. While some stories may have the best climax, or intrigue, if it hasn’t caught the listener in the first 30 seconds, you’ll lose them. Maybe not all of them, but a great deal of them will abandon you real quickly. This means your script is fighting against the clock to capture the attention of the goldfish who are listening. You are fighting against the better written audio dramas, when it comes to listenership. We aren’t in short supply of audio dramas. We are in short supply of well written audio dramas. Don’t get lost in a sea of mediocrity. You don’t have to be the best, but it helps.
I have written a short pros and cons list for Series vs Anthology. But, you may find that your experiences differ, and that you’re an exception to the rule(s). If you only find pros, then that is fantastic. You may even see the cons as pros, because of your writing style. More power to you. This should just give you an idea of what you may have going for you, or against you.
1) The writer only needs to be familiar with the one subject
2) You have an entire series to get the listener to know the environment and characters
3) Capturing the listener’s attention may only be required once per season at the very beginning
1) The writer can expect to write easily 200+ pages of script for a single series, with a higher potential for fatigue.
2) You only have one shot at grabbing the listener’s attention
3) If the listener doesn’t like the first episode, chances are they won’t be listening to episode three, to find out if your show is worthwhile.
1) You only need to write a script for few to one episode, before you can chase another squirrel
2) Your listener may not like episode 3, but might love episode 4
3) Writing anthologies may reduce content fatigue
1) The writer needs to be willing to get well-versed in the topics they write about
2) You only have a single episode, or very few episodes to get the listener to know the environment and characters
3) You must capture the listener’s attention immediately, episode after episode
4) If the listener doesn’t like the first episode, chances are they won’t be listening to episode three, to find out if your show is worthwhile.
I put the last one in there, for both Series and Anthology. Don’t write a bad first episode. Or do! Make episode one, and once you’ve gotten good at audio drama creation, put one to replace the position of the first episode. But, you’re likely only able to get away with doing that to an anthology, unless you wanted to give Lucas a run for his money.
About the Author: Located in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina, John S. Badger creates podcasts. Closest to his heart, is Mercury Theatre Podcast. Producer/Writer/Director/Audio Engineer, John is no stranger to the entire process of podcasting. His primary focus is audio drama, while also versed in creating interview episodes. Find more of his work at www.mercurytheatrepodcast.com.