These are three questions that almost always turn me off of listening to a full episode of audio drama. You can play with these questions, but beware that your audience will get frustrated or bored and turn off. If your listeners are tuning out, here could be some of the reasons:
1. Where are we?: There’s a reason why movies and television begin with an “establishing shot”. It’s important to ground the audience in exactly when and where the scenes are happening. Certainly there are times when you can be cagey; and sometimes even hold back a twist. But as a general rule, let your listeners know exactly where and when to find your characters. And speaking of characters…
2. Too Many Characters: One of the largest problems are the plethora of characters in a radio play. Tolstoy can get away with a cast of hundreds in his novels, because the reader can go back and forth through the pages to refresh their memories. Sense8 uses different nations, ethnicities, genders, and lighting shots to keep characters clear in the viewer’s eyes. Audio Drama only has sound. So keep your character numbers limited in both your scenes and stories. Some of the best audio plays I’ve heard have only two or three characters. My personal rule is to average no more than six. Even then, you can get lost with just two characters who sound alike…
3. Who’s talking? (too many voices sound the same): Your actors need to sound different. Years ago, an Ex-Drama Chair from Dalhousie University told me that women generally have a more diverse singing range than men, but a less diverse speaking range. This clarified why so many of my amazing actresses sounded the alike in a scene. I began searching for unique voices- like Indiana Jones on a quest. Consider mixing up your actor’s sexes for clarity- one guy and two girls; two guys and one girl. Make every voice unique. The Songonauts have a great mix in their cast. Every actor hits a different range. As much as you love working with your favourite people, if you’ve got a skilled bunch, always cast for diverse voices. Just make sure, like The Songonauts, that when your characters change location, the audience knows where they go.
4. Time/Space leaps: Be careful with massive transformations in location and time. Your audience cannot be lost as your characters travel from place to place. If you’re operating a TARDIS (or more likely a TORTIS) make certain the listener is clear where you land. And if you’re not planning to go anywhere, make sure you move the audience between each scene.
5. No Transitions between scenes: As we wind our way through the Bill Hollweg Retrospective, I’m reminded of Bill’s excellence in guiding his listening audience between scenes. In our recent episode, Jake Sampson and The Gods of War, Bill identifies Jake’s team is on board their plane by creating a transition of a fly by. That’s not what actually occurs in the scene, but it’s a perfect clue for the audience to understand the sequence of events- Previous scene: they were in the hanger. Next scene: they are flying in the plane. Use sound effects, music, or even well placed fades to create the illusion of time and distance for your scenes. Remember, when you’re operating in audio drama, people can’t see what’s happening next…
6. Visuals not Audio Visuals: Many people in the modern audio drama movement from the Silver Age onwards wanted to make movies, but don’t have the budget. Hey, whatever gets you here. We want to hear your tale. But our medium is different from film. Audio Drama can be cinemagraphical (another new word!) but only within the strictures of the art form. You can’t wow people with visuals they can’t see. In a great bit on writing for audio drama, Crazy Dog Audio demonstrated the challenges with a mime exploring his emotions. Make your audience understand what is going on. Describe the action and setting with sound effects, music, and dialogue. Ham-fistedly if necessary, for comic effect. And that goes the same for music.
7. Music that overtakes or doesn’t fit: I remember listening to an audio drama where the producer literally played circus music during a tender love scene that took place the heather in Scotland. There was no rhyme or reason for this. Not even a travelling circusi (two new words!) were plodding their way through the moors! Make certain your music fits the genre and the mood of the scene. Also, keep it playing at decibels that won’t diminish the performances. One of my favourites, is a Dead Line mood music piece from Sharon Bee. It feels creepy, and at low levels, unnerves the listener. Music is another character in your story, and if it’s surreal, make sure it’s meant to be.
8. Surreal storylines: Everyone loves to be in on the joke. If you write an audio drama only you and your buddies understand, please don’t put it on your feed. Sure, there are people who like storylines that make no sense. Find them and begin the Salvador Dalí/Luis Buñuel Un Chien Andalou Theatre Podcast if it so moves you. Make sure you label it accordingly so that the fourteen art students can enjoy the podcast in peace along with the fried egg sun-scorched, hurricane beach record player clicks patiently by the melted clocks of eyebrow penciled-praying priests in their wrong trousers.
9. The Wrong Trousers (Sound Effects) There was a time in the Golden Age of Modern Audio Drama where a whole lot of mistakes could be accepted: Poor acting. Bad writing. Rough Production, and ill-fitting sound effects. With a growing audience and better tools, those days are behind us. If you don’t want to lose your audience, have the right sounds. I call it The Wrong Trousers Effect (from the 1993 Nick Park short film.) Wallace has put on some mechanical trousers and gets in all kinds of trouble. Throughout the ongoing disaster, he’s shouting, “They’re the wrong trousers Gromit! The wrong trousers!” Every time I hear a chase scene with cars, when the perspective is inside the car but all the effects of squealing tires and roaring engines are obviously outside of the car, I want to shout “The wrong trousers!” Make certain you have sound effects that help tell your story and not place the audience at odds with the action.
Those are my nine suggestions for creating better clarity in your audio drama. If you’re asking how to start, my best advice would be: Keep it simple.
Tell a small story and make it grow. If you begin with a huge story at the outset, all nine issues may be at odds with your audience’s ability to appreciate your tale.