Ten tips for writing for audio

Ten tips for writing for audio

FutureBook's audio original writing competition is asking authors to write a short piece of fiction (no more than 5,000 words) that will be made into an audiobook.

As a university writing tutor it can be embarrassingly tiresome to practise what you preach. But 5,000 words is not a daunting challenge, not an Annapurna, nor even a Munro, except . . .

Except that these 5,000 words must lift themselves from the page and fly from the mouth of a narrator into the ear of a listener. They must convince by their authenticity. They must instantly engage, hold and persuade the listener to join in a secret communion. As a BBC radio producer, the watchword (we didn’t have mission statements or mantras back then) was always "take me there and make me care".

Our duty was to bring the listener on a journey, and make sure they stayed on the voyage until the final second. No small task these days with a magnitude of offerings to tempt us to detour this way and that.

There are no specific skills required to write for audio that do not apply to writing for publication in print, but there are some suggestions that might make it easier for a producer to transform your prose into memorable storytelling.

We all write with a person or a voice in mind – as a crime novelist, I am fixated by the idea of Ben Whishaw playing the lead in a dreamed-of future TV adaptation: the first Met gay detective in 1983 dredging the swamps of sinful Soho. (So fixated that I cornered him once by our watercooler and made him agree to consider the role.)

Producers do have tricks up their sleeves, but we are not magicians. Try to foresee the traps that are lying covered in freshly hewn brushwood up ahead. I recall meeting with Dawn French to discuss our audio approach to her novel Oh Dear Silvia, which is essentially a series of different characters visiting a terminally ill friend/family member in a hospital bed. Silvia hears (we think) but cannot respond. In order to provide the precise confessional atmosphere, we created that room in our drama studio, with a body lying immobile in bed, various tubes and machines connected. Each actor—without warning of what awaited—was told to enter, and deliver their chapter to "Silvia". The results were astounding. Likewise, having produced John Le Carré’s work for three decades, we rarely disagree on the way he (as both author and narrator) pitches his characters. This is a man who has Alec Guinness and Beryl Reid in his head for instant recall.

So, if I may guide you as far as base camp, I would recommend:

  • Edit before you submit—in audio we do not require He said/She sighed as attributions. The narrator will do this for you. Those saved words might be useful elsewhere.
  • First-person narrator is wonderful (Graham Swift’s Last Orders is a supreme example) but it does mean that the narrator cannot characterise or impersonate others. That will destroy the conceit. (Unless we have been told that the first-person narrator is a Judi Dench or Rory Bremner.)
  • Think of it as a Ted Talk or a speech—actors are most often frustrated by Charles Dickens’ lengthy parentheses and dependent clauses. Try reading it out loud and see if you can make the arc of the sentence comprehensible to the listener.
  • Dialogue is good—but not too many challenges please. A dinner party with a person from Orkney, another from Belfast, a guest from Istanbul and an Australian nanny can cause casting problems. Equally, six middle-aged male friends in Leeds can confuse.
  • That said, do give us character traits rather than spending time describing the tablecloth. Anything that can help the actor embody your people.
  • If a scene has several people present, do keep reminding the listener who is there. Even if they don’t speak.
  • Try to give the actor (and listener) some dramatic curtain lines, obviously as a conclusion, but also within the narrative.
  • In audio, we can suggest a time shift or gear change with a 3-second pause.
  • We can also use enhancements such as music, to set a scene or atmosphere. We apply a telephone effect to a conversation between people on phones.
  • If you have a passage which you present on the page in italics (a dream? a memory?) we might use an echo effect to suggest this.

 [We probably won’t use sound effects – we save those for Cressida Cowell.]

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