HOW TO WRITE A KILLER PODCAST SCRIPT WITH SARAH RHEA WERNER

  • When you start to write a podcast script, you’re going to make a series of choices.
    • The first choice: what kind of tools are you going to use to make your story? How are you going to format your script? Where do you want to write your script? Final Draft, Celtx, Microsoft Word, etc… Maybe you want to start by hand writing.
    • The next choice: what sort of episode and series structure would you like to use? What kind of story do I want to tell, and how do I want to break up that story for listeners? An episode can be as long or as short as it needs to be to tell your story. A piece of advice that has stuck with Sarah: “There is no such thing as a podcast that’s too long, only too boring.” We aren’t working within a regulated medium. Think about how you want to structure your show beforeyou start writing it so that you are writing it to the structure. There is no set structure in fiction podcasting right now which is what makes it such an exciting time to be a fiction podcaster.
    • You also get to choose how much planning you want to do ahead of time. There’s room to be flexible—you can plot methodically, or you can write by the seat of your pants. You can be a “plotter” or a “pantser!” It’s also okay if things change along the way.
  • One thing that’s unique in audio fiction is that the writing stands out in a way that’s unique from other mediums. Visuals are often a band-aid for bad writing in movies and TV—we don’t have that luxury in podcasting. We can only rely on our dialogue and our sound effects. The audience is relying on you as the writer to navigate them through your world. It’s going to make your writing a bit different.
  • Dialogue
    • You’re not focusing on things that are happening, but on things that are The interaction is what creates the sound. This will create an immersive experience where the listener becomes a participant in what you’re creating. To accomplish this, I use stage directions to indicate what things sound like. All actions need to be audio-focused. What does it sound like, and how do you convey what it sounds like within you’re writing?
    • Who is going to be reading this script? Do you have a team? Are you going to be doing your own sound design? If not, how can you make the sound cues as clear as possible for the people who will be doing your sound design to help them create the soundscape you are imagining.
    • Be sure to be explicit about the emotions and tone you need to come through in stage directions for the actors. This is especially true if you are doing remote recording.
    • It’s so important to have dialogue that sounds natural. Audience will be filtering it through their “reality filter” – is this how people actually talk? Be honest to your world, but if you’re writing something contemporary, be sure to make it natural sounding. Listen in your life how people actually talk to each other. Part of creating natural dialogue is interruption, “um”s, gasping, laughing at jokes. Adding these little details make things feel real.
    • Too many fiction podcasters rely on dialogue to convey action. Be very cautious and make sure you are writing things that people would actually say.
    • You can also develop your characters through dialogue in a way you can’t in other mediums. Having someone who cuts everyone off, or interrupts. These details indicate what a person is really like.
    • Silence can be your friend. One of the most powerful things you can put into your dialogue is silence, a heavy pause. You need some space between dialogue to let your listener digest.
  • Characters
    • Develop characters through dialogue
    • Your characters need to be flawed
    • Every single character in your story needs to have a motive. Plot should be driven by character’s motivations
    • You want your characters to grow and change as a result of the things they’ve been through
  • Plot
    • You need obstacles for your characters to overcome.
    • Causational storytelling. Instead of “and, then” connection all of your plot points, think of it like: [plot point] – but [plot point] – however etc… It creates little hooks to keep audience engaged
  • Atmosphere
    • Keeping the atmosphere immersive. The atmosphere is 100% the soundscape that you create. Keep things interactive – how do people interact with the atmosphere in a way that produces sound? Silence is also a powerful tool here. Listen to what’s out there and think about what’s compelling for you yourself as a listener.
    • You’re guiding a blind audience through your world.
  • Final tips
    • Ask yourself: is audio the right medium for the story that I’m going to tell? Why is this not a play, a screenplay, a novel, a short story? Use the medium to your advantage.
    • Don’t overdesign the sound. Silence is an effective tool. In sound design, less is more. Make sure to lose anything that doesn’t need focus or emphasis.
    • How can I innovate? How can I move storytelling forward with this audio drama/fictional podcast? There is so much space for innovation right now. How can I use the superpowers of this medium to tell a compelling, addictive story?
  • Q+A
    • I’d like to write a scripted comedy podcast, how would you suggest drawing an audience to the podcast?
      • This will come with your marketing. Marketing begins the second you get the idea for your show. Understand who your audience is going to be, where they are online, and how to engage with them to establish community. The best way to market a podcast through my experience is word of mouth. Promo swaps are a good tool as well.
    • Are there any standards that are recommended for age appropriate audiences?
      • I use film and TV guidelines. You can decide if it’s considered “explicit” or not on Apple Podcasts. G/PG is generally clean, and PG-13+ would be explicit.
    • I’m not too familiar with any scripted podcasts. Can you recommend any?
      • Girl in Space, Lime Town, Cybernautica, Wolverine The long Night, The Bright Sessions, The Big Loop, The Black Tapes, Spines, We Fix Space Junk. Check the Audio Drama Subreddit.
    • Where can we find improv comedy shows?
      • Hello From The Magic Tavern, The End of Time and Other Bothers, The Adventure Zone, Mission to Zyxx
    • How many speaking characters can be in a scene?
      • As many as you want without it being confusing. Make sure their voices are distinct enough to avoid confusion.
    • Are you directing your actors remotely or are they self-directed using your script?
      • They are largely self-directing. If you want to be remotely directing on a skype call it’s possible, but I just ask for multiple takes of each line, and over communicate through stage directions.
    • How much focus do you put into writing the non-verbals in your stage direction in your script, or do you rely on your voice actors to breathe life into that part of the characterization?
      • It depends on your actors. Some actors read purely their lines, and that is it. When in doubt, communicate.
    • Should I have a narrator?
      • It’s up to you. A narrator might add to a story, but it could also distract. There are no should and should nots, just ask yourself if you can make it sounds professional.
    • What are the drawbacks to working through your sound as the show is airing as opposed to having a solidified signature sound right out the gate for episode 1?
      • If you’re new to this, you might not have a signature sound out of the gate. My signature sound emerged as I kept going. You start with a blank slate. If you’re working with a sound designer who has a sound pallet they are already working with. The drawback is you might not sound incredibly original as you start out, but in your first few episodes you will basically just be finding your footing.
    • Can you recommend links to sample scripts?
      • If you have a show you really like, transcripts are likely to be on their websites. You can also ask on Twitter if anyone is willing to share any scripts with you. Girl in Space scripts are available on my websites, or you can email me.
    • Can I submit written like a short story or should I transcribe it to a screenplay format?
      • For AFF it needs to be transcribed to a screenplay format. This is also best practice if you’re sending it out to actors.
    • Can you tell a story like a traditional storyteller with no sound effects and minimal music?
      • Yes! The rules are here to be broken. If it’s not boring and it’s not confusing, then it can be successful.
    • I hear a lot about scripted fantasy, but not scripted comedy? Thoughts?
      • Scripted comedy is hard. It’s one of the hardest genres to write. If you can do it and be successful, you’re going to really stand out.
    • Do you format the podcasts the same as you would a screenplay?
      • Any tips on adapting a general idea into a proper plot? I have many nuggets of ideas but don’t know which to use.
        • Basically, you must pick the one that’s going to be the most fun. Otherwise you will lose interest and it will fade away. As far as adapting it into a plot, ask yourself: who are the characters, what are their motivations, and what are the obstacles that are getting in their way? You can also work “premise first.”
      • How do you pay your voice actors, sound mixers, and editors? Monetary standards?
        • My budget is really small. Most of my voice actors are friends and family. Others, I do a trade with, where I play a voice on her show and she plays a voice on my show. Other shows pay SAG rates. It’s up to you and your actors. Be sure to keep your expectations realistic.
      • What is the hardest writing part you had to get through for Girl In Space?
        • The finale. It took me five months because it was my first time ending something.
      • Can you speak to what editing software and recording software is best?
        • I use Audacity. There are many other great paid services, like Mixed Crat, Reaper, Audition.
      • If the main character is narrating, how important is a gimmick, such as a radio host, audio log, etc… for legitimizing the narration?
        • You set the expectation for your listener. You establish what’s believable and what is not. You don’t have to have a gimmick for your narrator. If you feel it would add an air of authority to your show, you can try it. Be willing to experiment.

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