Sound as a way of telling stories – Part 1

Sebastian Connellan, Mia Gallagher, and Janine Durkop on the set of The Wall in the Mind.
Sebastian Connellan, Mia Gallagher, and Janine Durkop on the set of The Wall in the Mind.

I’ve written before about building a studio for radio drama, recording on location, and applying for funding through the BAI’s Sound & Vision scheme. But, I just realised I’ve never taken the time to write about storytelling through sound. I’ll be teaching a course at A4 Sounds on using sound to tell stories early next year, so now’s a good time to put together what I’ve learned. Hopefully it’ll be of use to writers and radio producers dipping their toes in the water of audio storytelling.

Starting in 2009, I’ve written and directed eight scripted radio productions, ranging from sitcom series to one off dramas. Meanwhile, the podcast revolution and listening events like Hearsay Festival have not just raised the bar of audio production standards, but have fundamentally changed how I think about sound. Hopefully some of the experience I’ve had making drama and docs, and the ideas I’ve been exposed to meeting and listening to brilliant sound designers and producers like Brendan Baker, Julia Barton, Steve Fanagan, Rachel Ni Chuinn and Mitra Kaboli, have left me with something useful to say about the potential of sound as a storytelling device.

Radio as a Medium

Take a look at this, it’s Georges Méliès 1902 film ‘Le Voyage Dans la Lun’ (A Trip to the Moon). You’ll probably recognise it as one of the classics of very early cinema, or as the inspiration behind Smashing Pumpkin’s 1996 video for ‘Tonight‘. One of the many fascinating things about the film is that here at the dawn of a medium is a piece of art that embraces it fully. ‘Le Voyage..’, is one of the first pieces of art to treat film as a distinct original medium, rather than a platform for adapting stage plays or still photography. While the succeeding century has brought revolutions a plenty in style and technology, the film remains startling evocative and inspirational – primarily because of it’s use (and invention) of many of the unique aspects of film grammar and visual storytelling.

Radio is a form with a long history, in some ways distorted by the commercial imperatives of the broadcast medium. But we find ourselves at a unique moment. Podcasting has come of age, and online audio in general is giving creators the opportunity to use sound in more diverse and organic ways than was allowed by the gatekeepers of broadcast radio. In turn, spoken word radio is opening its arms to more musical and sound driven storytelling. Together these trends provide us with access to the best and most creative sonic storytelling from sound art archives like, to narrative journalism networks like Radiotopia. There’s really no excuse left to put a stage play on the radio. Sound is it’s own medium, and to ignore that is to work with both hands tied behind your back. So what are the unique characteristics of sound? And how can they be employed to convey emotion, develop character and immerse the listener?

Where People Listen

Much more so than film, sound is appreciated differently depending on how it is consumed. While a Stanley Kubrick film might lose a lot of its impact watched via youtube on an ipod nano, the unfortunate ‘2001’ viewer who enjoys the film like this will still hear and see much the same thing (all be it lacking in fidelity). However, a beautifully produced piece of radio may be completely incomprehensible on a car radio or a cafe sound system. With that in mind, when storytelling through sound we need to take tough decisions about the audibility and comprehensibility of what we’re making. My rule of thumb for broadcast radio is that it has to be readily audible through my laptops speakers, walking the streets with a ten euro pair of in-ear TDK headphones, and over my (pretty muffled sounding) Rokit 6 studio monitors.

Some of this is about mastering and compression, but a lot of it is about making sure that you don’t overwhelm a scene with too many similar sounds, or by contrast a cacophony of contrasting sound and action. Listeners are smart and media literate, they don’t need the script to be didactic, they don’t characters to explicitly tell them where they are or what they’re doing – good writing and foley will do that job. On the other hand, radio is linear, the listener can’t easily go back to check something they missed, and they can’t see the background action of a scene as clearly as on film. So a good rule of thumb for broadcast radio is to have one piece of foregrounded sound or action at a time – scuffles and shouting matches don’t work, unless the goal is to create a moment of chaos and confusion. Sound art or podcasts on the other hand – provide the opportunity to create work for a more predictable listening environment, whether a set of headphones or an octophonic speaker array.

Why is this even on the radio?

Well, why is it? What is it about listening, about sound, that makes the story you’re telling appropriate to be heard rather than seen? Or if you’re adapting an existing piece of work, what can you do with sound, to take advantage of the medium? I try to think of writing and making audio, not as a set of limitations – ‘oh we can’t show this, the audience won’t understand that, it’s to expensive to do such and such’, but rather as an opportunity. We have the listeners full attention, and that attention is on a canvas that can be painted with any scene the writer can imagine. In a moment audio can take us from the surface of Mars to the guillotines of the French revolution, from a characters subvocal thoughts to inside the organs of their body, from an orchestral crescendo to the breath of an individual cellist. One of the most powerful techniques of sonic storytelling is the journey. Movement and dynamics – the difference between the quietest and loudest, most sonorous and dissonant, most physical and ambient sounds – are incredibly compelling. They tap into how humans as physically vulnerable hunter gathers have evolved to be lulled by consistence and sensitive to sudden change.

The piece above is perhaps my favourite radio storytelling ever, and I don’t even know what to call it. Is it drama? Dramatisation? Illustrated storytelling? It doesn’t matter, because those boundaries are becoming irrelevant. Innovative artists like Pejk Malinovski (creator of the piece above), and Kaitlin Prest (whose podcast ‘The Heart’ seamlessly mixes dramatic reconstruction, live recordings of intimate moments and more conventional reporting), are using sound to take us deep into the moment of personal experience. This piece ‘Everything, Nothing, Harvey Keitel’ takes us with the writer / producer, as he attempts to meditate, while distracted by the presence of Hollywood legend Harvey Keitel. Malinovski’s mind drifts to his recollections of Keitel’s starring roles, and he can’t help but place himself in the action – as God responding to the plaintiff cries of Abel Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant. So intimacy, bringing us right into the thoughts and the meandering stream of consciousness is a strength of radio. But that’s something literature can do too. Perhaps a particular strength of radio is to be able to combine real moments, whether captured by the producer or remixed from the culture, with a crafted narrative. Real and imagined combining the realms of the imagination.

Writing with sound

It’s easy to get confused between what we want to say, and what we think we ought to be saying. Every teenage filmmaker’s first script is a rip either of Richard Linklater’s early mumblecore faux naturalism, or Scorsese meets Tarantino cynically violent cool. Not just because we try to write like our heroes, but because we try to live up to the idea of a script. In the same way, there are ten thousand ‘Captain Proton and the Space Pirates’ radio dramas floating around. Not only because people who make radio drama are often fans of ‘the golden age of radio’, but because it seems like the natural thing to write when you sit down to imagine a radio drama. The canonical image is of well dressed old timey folks holding slapsticks and opening miniature doors in front of enormous ribbon microphones. There’s fun to be had with the stuff of course, and I certain don’t mean to condescend live radio theatre – which is an entertaining and challenging form. But radio drama, or audio drama, or whatever we’re going to call it, can do so much more.

First off, listen to this (another award winning piece from last years Hearsay Festival).

With the exception of the news report at the top, Conor Reynold’s piece ‘News is Proximity’, created while Conor was studying journalism, takes us on a wordless sound journey. It does this without abandoning narrative. We hear a character go on a very clear and easily comprehensible journey, an immersive voyage with a shocking conclusion. I use this piece to point out how much can be done without dialogue. As with screenwriting, often the less dialogue the better. But it’s also useful to show that sound is not about sound effects. Sound is about all the things we hear – breathing, clothing, wind, music, the street, cars, trains, footsteps, our perceptions and misperceptions, our bodies, our memories. Using sound to tell a story isn’t about capturing these things as they would have occurred in reality. Far from it – it’s about selecting the sounds which reveal our location, and tell us whats happening, from the perspective we want to emphasise. This point of view (POV) is always subjective, and can tell us as much about character and action as dialogue. We should never try to ‘capture reality’, we should instead convey what our POV character(s) believe they are hearing. This is as much about expression and perception as it is real sound. A door being opened is never just a door. It can be a scream, a menacing creak, a jaunty thump, a note of music. And this can and should be conveyed with sounds that are not simply and strictly literal. Sounds that emphasise the emotion of the listener. An excellent example of this is ‘The Sorcerer’s Apprentice’ from Walt Disney’s fantasia, which synchs animation to music in a way that conveys action and experience, not to mention mood, without ever employing a ‘sound effect’ (the action starts 1 minute in).

Point of view is another particular strength of radio. We can be a ‘camera’ floating above a battle, or we can enter the thoughts of a single combatant, or move between moments of action, while retaining a coherence that’s difficult or impossible on the page or in film. So the important question to consider is why we are hearing exactly what we’re hearing. What does this moment tell us about the characters and their perception of whats going? What do we as producers / writers want to audience to feel, and how best can we evoke that? I’m not arguing for absurdism or surrealism necessarily, but for a richer consideration of sound than as ‘effects’. As an example (of what not to do), here’s a segment from one of my first scripts.

Screen Shot 2015-12-13 at 13.07.47

It’s the perfect storm of bad radio writing. Sound used to clumsily offset dialogue heavy writing. Hokey broad comedy, terrible script formatting and massive blobs of dialogue. It’s really embarrassing. By contrast, here’s a segment of my latest script (currently in post production).

Screen Shot 2015-12-13 at 13.10.54

While this is a dialogue heavy piece, which employs a lot of monologue – something I’d generally recommend avoiding, you can see that sound is an equal player – helping to convey in an expressive way the subjective experience of the character. I’m no longer thinking about a particular sound effect, any more than a screen writer would think about how the model of a space ship for a sci fi film is constructed. Now the concern is much more about the purpose of the sound – I have faith that the sound designer (although I often fill that role too), will creatively convey the intent by interpreting the the imagery of the script. This acknowledges that the world of the piece is very much constructed in post production – and shouldn’t be limited by the writers initial vision. This kind of writing is also more helpful for actors, who can get more of a feel for the finished piece than they would merely reading SFX cues. Character is conveyed subjectively – the POV character has a bleak view of events, reflected in his monologue but also the sound of his impressions of whats being done to him. What we hear is not the equivalent of a microphone stuck to his ears, but rather a window into his imagination.

Of course, this isn’t the only way to write for radio – comedy is completely different, as is documentary realism, and they each necessitate completely different production techniques. In my next post, I’ll talk much more about these distinct production and writing techniques, about the physicality of sound, as well as ways of thinking about music, and touch on the dark art of working with actors.


Lastly, a word on tools. Core skills like sound editing and script formatting are useful. They let you work faster, and think less about the process and more about what you’re trying to make. That said, the best tool for any job is often the one you’re most proficient using. What experience writing scripts and cutting sound on different platforms and with different people has taught me is that tools change and evolve. Different tools work better for different people and different projects. There’s no perfect script writing software, no ideal microphone, and no one size fits all digital audio workstation. Right now, for editing I use Cockos’s quirky but powerful and customisable software Reaper. Reaper is the pet project of anarchic genius Justin Frankel, who’s ‘Winamp’ programme helped overturn the music industry as part of the MP3 revolution. For more finicky audio manipulation I use Adobe Audition, a slow crashy beast that comes with a powerful variety of easy to use tools for playing with reverb, eq, delay, time and distortion. For writing scripts, I’ve recently switched from Celtx to the much more flexible, reliable Scrivner. Scrivner is ugly and overcomplicated, but it doesn’t need to be online to render a script, and it supports open scriptwriting formats like fountain. While there’s no ‘correct’ writing tool for drama, and formatting generally matters a whole lot less than people think it does (unless you’re submitting to RTE, screenplay format is generally fine for radio drama) – using a dedicated scriptwriting programme, like Scrivner, Final Draft or even Celtx is a much better idea than trying to cobble something together in Microsoft Word. Using Word will eat time formatting that a dedicated programme will fix automatically, and produce a script that you can’t edit in any other way.

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