I decided to try my hand at writing audio drama earlier this year. My friend Adam introduced me to the world of fiction podcasts about 18 months ago, and the more of them I listened to, the more I began to think: I could write one of those.
So I did write one, or the first half of a season of one. I sent the first two episodes and outlines of the remaining six episodes off to the Austin Film Festival’s Fiction Podcast Competition. I’ve entered AFF in the past—I was a 2013 second-rounder in the feature competition—and really valued the notes they sent back. This year I’m a finalist in the thing. (I’m writing this on my phone as we taxi at Dallas-Fort Worth airport.) And my experience ahead of the festival so far has been really supportive (thanks, Gabbi Lindgren!).
To have advanced this far is, as they say in my adopted country, gobsmacking. But I’m really looking forward to the next few days of panels and meetings, hopefully learning more about how to get started producing in this medium and jobs elsewhere in writing for performance.
More about this medium, though.
NOW HEAR THIS
I like using sound in the other things I write. Particularly anytime I’ve written screenplays, sound direction has always been prominent. I’m aware of how it’s useful for bridging scenes of very different emotional tones, and for raising audience interest: you hear someone running before you see them; you wonder what they’re running for or from. You hear an unfamiliar mechanical noise and then see the printing press grinding out front pages announcing your hero’s triumph (or disgrace).
In a fiction podcast the sound is all there is. It’s how you shape and people the world of the story, how you tickle your audience’s nerve endings. It’s a fun challenge for a writer, because while you are restricted, you are also very liberated: there are fiction podcasts out there covering everything from historical drama to sci-fi heist capers.
I’m not involved in production at all (yet?) but my sense from listening to or reading about the people actively making these things is that while budget is still very much a consideration (it’s hard to afford large casts of actors) it’s also not quite the worry it would be for a sci-fi heist movie or TV series.
THE OLD FORKS INN
When it came to writing my script, I already had an important story anchor: a place. When I was three years old, my parents moved us from our rented house in New Jersey to the country inn they’d bought in the Poconos, and I grew up there over the next ten years while my parents went mad running the place.
When we owned it, the inn was called the Antlers Lodge. It’s now known as Woodfield Manor, and is owned by a large multinational (through various twists and turns of fate, my mother is the current general manager there). A generation or two prior to my parents’ tenure as owners, the place was known as the Old Forks Inn, and that’s the name I chose for it in my script.
I knew setting out that I would write a ghost story, because there were (are) several supposed hauntings attached to the inn—inevitable, given it is nearly 200 years old and set deep in the Pennsylvania woods. One of these hauntings had to do (I think—Mom, correct me if I’m wrong) with a woman and her sons who froze to death during a harsh winter prior to the US Civil War, possibly in 1856-57. I decided to choose that as the nugget of mine.
Many fiction podcasts feature a winsome female narrator who has misfortune inflicted on her by the supernatural. I find some of those characters irritating as written or performed, but I think anyone who pays attention to the media knows there is power and attraction in stories about young women in peril.
I took this trope on board but gave my narrator the voice and cheerful, wryly funny spirit of my niece Emily. My fictionalised Emily has a fatal blind spot that gets her in the fix she’s in—a blind spot many of us share. As I revise the episode drafts I’m struggling a little to make clear how universal that flaw is without speechifying about it, but we’ll get there.
The trope I don’t like is the “contrived-reason-to-record” present in so many fiction podcasts, so I don’t use it. Sometimes it works, as in Within the Wires (which tells stories variously through meditation tapes, dictations to a secretary, and recorded messages from a fugitive to her daughter), Homecoming (a psychologist recording her patient sessions), and The Bright Sessions (ditto). Sometimes it just feels tacked on: Alice Isn’t Dead doesn’t really seem to need its narrator to be talking into the CB radio in her truck (and sometimes she clearly isn’t). The narrator in Mabel leaves half-hour voicemail messages that would quickly lead to anyone’s inbox being clogged.
Sometimes a story can just be an audio play, you know? And sometimes a person’s ghostly, disembodied voice is only audible under specific vibrational conditions determined by factors such as air temperature, atmospheric pressure, and the presence of amplifying ambient frequencies (e.g. tree frogs).
Fortunately, I have two big things going for me: this trip to AFF, where I’m going to connect with working professionals who can provide advice (and maybe even support) getting the final scripts nailed down and production started. I may also be able to rustle up support from the Department of Film and Creative Writing at the University of Birmingham, where I just started my MA. That could come in the form of other enthusiastic students who know their way around a sound studio or further script development advice from a faculty member.
Whatever happens, it’s very nice to be able to shove this thing in front of producers with the label “Austin Film Festival Script Competition Finalist” attached to it. Wish me luck!