Mouths gape in awe as my students struggle to believe me. I explain again, that I don’t keep music on my phone. This doesn’t mean, I don’t use audio. I listen to spoken word- podcasts and audio drama. Recently, I’ve discovered the “speed up” feature on my podcast app and I devour my audio efficiently. What a joy! I remember at one point, I accidentally listened to a modern audio drama podcast at 2X the speed. Some of our most interesting discoveries occur incidentally. For example in that error, I learned that heavy first person narration can be understood fairly easily at high speed. But “classic”, mostly dialogue-driven audio dramas, lose their coherence when sped up.
This got me thinking about an old debate in the audio drama world:
Narration or no Narration. What should I use?
Some story conventions certainly come in play here. Pulp Noir, for example, creates a very definitive flavour in its style of storytelling. Detective tales have conventionally used hardboiled internal monologues to illustrate bleak worlds, complex characters, and dystopian settings. Fairy Tales are another example of conventional storytelling. In a fairy-tale a narrator presents the story and describes, often poetically, fantastic worlds and mythic characters. Both the Noir and the Fairy Tale conventions are most familiar to audiences from fiction and the book medium. They are perfect examples of story-telling and not story-showing.
Show; don’t tell.
Ernest Hemingway‘s “Hills Like White Elephants” is an excellent example of how sparse description and sharp dialogue asks more of the reader. When an author cuts details there are several beneficial effects- clearer plots, deeper character interpretations, and richer metaphors and symbolism can emerge. Don’t just take my word for it, consider the Bard. Shakespeare’s plays are extremely economical on everything from stage directions, character expression, and narration. Show more, don’t tell.
I was listening to a Confessional Audio Drama yesterday, and I noticed even more than your average narration. The story began with the usual set up for the audience, and segued into a charged interaction between the narrator and another character. As the tension mounted, the narrator broke in with voice over snippets like, “His eyebrow raised” and, “He looked nervous.” Every time the protagonist used narration to describe the characters actions, I was reminded that I was listening to an audio drama and not enjoying the story. And then it hit me- narration breaks the Fourth Wall.
Audio Drama’s Bill Hollweg, used to say vociferously that he hated audio books. It was one of the extremely rare negative opinions he expressed. “If I want to read a book, I’ll read it!” he’d say. Bill felt just as strongly about narration in audio drama. While I enjoy stories of all kinds, I think Bill’s biggest complaint was justified. Even in my own productions, I usually kept narration at the beginning and end of my shows. Narration can destroy the Fourth Wall. When a narrator addresses the audience, the listener is aware that they are part part of the conversation. Shows with no narration makes the Listener a silent witness to events. Like Hemingway, the Listener is shown the story, not told it.
Involving the Listener in a story is the hope of all writers. Engaged Listeners buy into the plot, the characters, the emotionality of the experience. If engagement is key, why would anyone use narration? I can think of three reasons : comedic purposes, as a part of the story, and for an easy in.
- Comedic Purposes- As demonstrated in movies like Deadpool and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, surreal takes from actors to the audience can provide unexpected comedic opportunities.
- Part of the Story- Many Confessional-style audio dramas include the audience as a kind of faux documentary in which the host of a podcast is trying to uncover a mystery or explore an issue. Narration becomes an aid in which to explore the protagonist’s thoughts and help create a framework for the plot.
- Easy In- After decades of visual media, many people lacked the opportunity to “tune in” to the medium of Radio Drama. Detailed narration builds a picture in the same way familiar fiction does.
I’ve always felt that good writing is affixed with tools and not hard-and-fast rules. Whether you use narration for the conventions of your story, for comedic effect, or as a way to help first time listeners, above all, try to consider how to best use narration so it doesn’t tell a story, but instead shows a story.
After all, every Audio Drama is a show!