Writing for Audio

Jonathan Lowe

Writing for listening can be different than writing for reading. Unless it’s the direct narration of a book, the audio listener requires a pacing and higher level of engagement to offset a greater sensitivity to distraction. (Take commercials as an extreme example.) The use of abridged text once told stories in a way that saved the listener from much of the extraneous narrative, but it was a sacrifice many rejected. People felt cheated when not given the entire story. So most abridged audiobooks have gone away, which is unfortunate in only one sense: overwriting. Depending on the writer, some of the minutia of fiction is not served well by audio, and should remain in print only. (Some books don’t make great audiobooks.) Of course some writers cannot overwrite, they are simply that fascinating. Others have responded to this by writing shorter novels, more precise and affecting. Still others are aware of the listener, and make the writing more visual or tactile. Which makes sense: attention spans are dropping in the general population, due to Twitter and other social media madness.

Naturally, most listeners would probably not want to hear actual dialogue recorded at a coffee shop, either. Creative license is required. Last week I was in a coffee shop, with an ear for the dialogue going on around me. Not very interesting. You can imagine characters discussing sports or relationships, but something has to be unique. Imagine if they were confronted by a surprise, an anomaly that tested their character. How different would their reaction be, and why? Everyone has a different experience, a different personal story. So it follows that some would react differently to the identical circumstances of, say, an infidelity or betrayal. One person might react with fear or violence, Hollywood reporters with laughter or stoic dismissal. Having written and performed in radio dramas, a stage play, and a short film, I can say each instance was unique, never to be repeated. Such is life. The best way to write is to just be open to what can happen, and where a character may go. You learn the rules, then you break them in favor of being real.

My pet peeves, and one of the things that comes from being aware of dialogue, involves the use of viral phrases and lazy cliches. The phrase “at the end of the day” comes to mind, or “for all intents and purposes.” Or, “he screamed like a stuck pig.” James Lee Burke would never use such a phrase. He creates his own, never to be repeated. A couple I overheard at the coffee shop were talking about dating, but I wasn’t listening to the details. I was listening to the number of times they used the word “like.” It was difficult not to notice, after about the 100th time. On MSNBC the reporters use all of these phrases, along with saying the word “right” a lot. (They caught this from Mark Cuban.) On Book TV a tech writer used the word “like” about, like, 400 times. And he seemed unaware of it in describing how social media can infect how people think! So writing for audio requires judgment and selection of the words most befitting. Unless you’re writing comedy, in which case, for all intents and purposes, at the end of the day, it’s okay to, like, scream like a stuck pig, right?

Jonathan Lowe

Family Guy