A friendly desert community where the sun is hot, the moon is beautiful, and mysterious lights pass overhead while we all pretend to sleep … heard this line before?
Welcome to Night Vale is an audio drama podcast written by Joseph Fink and Jeffory Cranor about a strange desert town where the unusual and horrifying are the everyday for its citizens. With live stage tours, two books, and the recent news of FX developing a television show with them, if you’re a podcast listener Welcome to Night Vale has become a phenomena.
But audio drama is nothing new. If you haven’t heard of the original broadcast of George Orwell’s, War of the Worlds, you’ve probably been living in a soundproof cave. War of the Worlds was a fictional radio show that convinced the world that aliens were invading. Alongside this other popular shows included The Shadow, The Adventures of Superman, and many others. Audio drama podcasts are the contemporary version of radio shows before MTV and cable became the hulking monster of industry it is today.
Both audio drama and radio shows come from the same parents, the story is told through audio using dialogue, narration, and sound effects, and creates a non-visual world for the listener. Don’t get this confused with e-books, e-books are books as spoken word, but don’t always translate as smoothly to audio, whereas the radio show and audio drama are designed specifically with the ear in mind.
But how do you develop an audio drama? How different can it be from acting or writing a television show?
Let’s try an experiment. Close your eyes and remove your headphones and just listen. Build your surroundings from what you hear. Can you create a visual with just those sounds? That’s the battle of audio drama writing.
Welcome to Night Vale as an example has a slightly different format compared to many audio dramas. The majority of the show takes place from the monologues of Cecil Palmer (played by Cecil Baldwin) as he reports the events happening in the town of Night Vale. This sets up a single perspective and as we learn in later episodes, Cecil is not always a reliable narrator, so it creates tension for the listener. Playing along with the story is music from Disparition, a dark electronica band that makes use of electronic and classical instruments that is both soothing and unnerving. This is the soundscape of the show, a reflection of the isolation of the town of Night Vale with its content of being nothing in the grand scheme and enjoying the small moments of connection with the citizens listening to the radio.
A soundscape is how your show will sound, it’s the nitty-gritty of both what is written into the script you write and what is not. Marc Sollinger, creator of Archive 81 and The Deep Vault, in a lecture at the PRX Garage in Boston told the audience that even in the sound design there are musical touches; even footsteps have musical scales playing under them to enhance the rhythm that the listener will hear.
If you don’t do sound editing find a sound editor who you can communicate what you intend for your show, but also has enough creative freedom to make interesting creative decisions with the sound.
When writing audio you have to keep in mind what your audience will hear, so how do you actually write this monster with all of this in mind?
Writing that first scene should place your audience immediately into the narrative and set the tone of the story you want to tell.
Is it a detective noir, dirty and dangerous where the rest of the world dumps its trash? Set that scene with some sound, the light patter of rain on concrete and the sound of cars driving in the streets with rats scurrying by in alleys.
Is it set in the isolation of the mountains as a park ranger sits in their stations watching the world outside? Let your character narrate and contemplate their life in the woods over the sounds of a nearby forest muffled through the thin walls of the ranger station.
Wolf 359, a science fiction audio drama, begins its first episode with Doug Eiffel (voiced by Zach Valenti) first introducing the show, his tone monotone and slightly dark over the futuristic yet ominous theme music created by Alan Rodi. The theme does not fade for a while, and then we hear Doug Eiffel’s narration, an unprofessional and sarcastic communications officer who slacks on the job often giving us the reports on the station. There is the loud creak of machinery, telling the audience that everything on the space station isn’t nearly as peaceful as Doug’s casual conversation let on in the beginning.
The tension that this makes is what Wolf 359 builds itself on in a careful dance of comedy and tragedy.
Your characters are the ones who live in the world you have designed, both written and sound. They should reflect the place you have written, but also be their own independent entity in this environment and have their own way of navigating the space.
The last bit of advice that I can offer is a rule that also applies to any other art form, study what others have created. Along with the shows mentioned above, there are 200+ contemporary audio drama shows to listen to with every genre imaginable and style conceived. For the story you want to tell, don’t just explore the single genre you want to write because each story has new techniques to offer, and many of them offer transcripts for accessibility to read along with.
From the biggest thing on the radio to its defeat by television, to slow indie niche, and now on the rise of television, audio drama has reached cycle and will keep moving forward as one of the biggest contemporary mediums to explore.
Looking for some great podcasts, especially sci-fi and horror? Check out the links below: