The Narrator in Audio Theater

The following post started back in 2007, from the now long defunct Radio Drama Listserv (Today the closest thing to it is the Google Plus Community. Anyways, back then, a noob, I posed the question (and look to the comments below for some answers. In 2014 I went back and answered my own question

…I’d like to bring up something I’ve been pondering for some time — what is the role of narrator in audio theater? …And it is staid to use the narrator in modern stories? The question arises on the basis of comments of the narrator’s obsolescence as well as an observation that neither of the plays produced for this year’s NATF used a narrator.

Now, I’d be the first to agree that the objective, birds-eye, “It was a dark and stormy night” narrator is a little heavy-handed, but I wonder if we’re being a little hard on a perfectly good literary device. Having more a literary than a broadcast background, I personally use narration in the same way that an author uses summary prose in lieu of scenes. Sometimes, you just need to speed the narrative along, give the audience some key information, and keep moving without making everything happen moment-by-moment.

For example, “Raymond Chandler’s ‘Goldfish,'” is an absolutely splendid audio drama piece as well as an excellent example of how a narrator can be used to good effect (another good one is a surprisingly great rendition of “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” I heard recently). The imminent, first-person narrator guides us through the story and heaps so much of Marlowe’s character upon us that we might not get through just dialogue alone (at least, not with so much nuance). Likewise, the Hunter Thompson dialogue is about the only thread of sense through a completely crazed narrative. Both are enhancements rather than distractions from some pretty compelling stories.

Obviously if you’re looking for “audio art” rather than “audio theater,” you might prefer stuff that strays further from established traditions, in the same ways that some prefer the avant-garde and experimental fiction. However, I think that since this form already limits us to so few tools, we shouldn’t shuck this one out unless there are some rather solid reasons to do so.

Thoughts?

Fred’s comments circa 2014

About a year after I posed this question, I took a big departure in my scripts and removed a first-person narrator from the story. That story was Waiting for a Window, which originally leaned very heavily on Norman’s voice leading you into scenes and generally setting everything up (if anyone cares to see the original script, email me and I’ll send you a copy). My dear friend Chris Newcomb and I read the script aloud together, and it just didn’t work! It had these great dramatic moments, but then a lot of clutzy awkward lame narrator stuff getting in the way.

I didn’t know what would happen, but I took a risk and removed the narrator entirely. This was most challenging in the first scene, where Norman is on a boat by himself and there is no one for him to talk to. The “have Norman to talk himself like the crazy delirious sailor he probably is” route occurred to me, but then on reflecting I thought I could pull off the whole thing with sound design – remove the narrator entirely.

Did it work? Well, go listen to “Waiting for a Window” yourself. I will say, it was my first award-winning work, and I feel a momentous step forward in terms of FinalRune’s quality of sound and control of story. It was our second field recorded show, but we had learned a lot since working on “Dark Passenger” that previous fall.

In the years since, I’ve lightened up on the narrator a little bit. A first-person, ‘in the moment’ narrator (who bounces from character to character) appeared in The Cleansed as a dramatic device, as a way to try and slow the story down and show a little bit of the humanness of each of the characters in the midst of the full-throttle apocalyptic thriller. Again, does it work? It is certainly easier to just pass all the informational heavy-lifting onto an omniscient, godlike narrator. But I think that’s often a cop-out for the writer and doesn’t result in the best overall drama.

As a trained literary writer turned audio writer, I will say that ditching the narrator was a critical exercise for me in the development of my craft. On my early stories (Day of the Dead, Drizzle, Fall of the Hero come to mind) I leaned on the narrating device as training wheels to keep me from really making the audio scenes come alive. When I had better gathered the power of sound design (sound affects not just effects) then I was able to lock the narrator in a trunk, dump him in a watery grave and go on to write some better stuff.

  • Craig Wichman

    Folks-

    Two Bits:

    Since we’re rolling on this track, I’d like to bring up something I’ve been
    pondering for some time — what is the role of narrator in audio theater?

    It can be as many things there, as in can be on Stage (ANNE FRANK), in Film
    (PHILIP MARLOWE), or especially, in Print (DOYLE, STOKER, and MOST EVERYONE
    ELSE.)

    As ever, it is the Skill with which a thing is used that counts, not the
    Thing itself.

    The question
    arises on the basis of some comments here — “…trouble finding any new
    work that really tries to push the edges of how a story can be told or
    without relying on a narrator” and “We intentionally worked on not using a
    narrator”

    I understand the point raised (see below). But complaints in this direction
    sometimes veer perilously close to being analagous to, “how can I make a good
    film, without that annoying element of moving pictures?”

    (Yes, I know about Direct Process, etc; I’ve done them! But they’ll never
    yield you a GRAND ILLUSION or a GODFATHER.)

    Now, I’d be the first to agree that the objective, birds-eye, “It was a dark
    and stormy night” narrator is a little heavy-handed, but I wonder if we’re
    being a little hard on a perfectly good literary device.

    We are, yes.

    Of course, your example of ham-fistedness is the downside referenced above.

    Sometimes, you just need to speed the narrative along, give the audience some key
    information, and keep moving without making everything happen moment-by-moment.

    AND, be more Intimate with your partner, the listener.

    Welles once said, “the camera is your enemy; the microphone, your friend.”
    Nothing is stronger, in the Theater of the Mind, that one mind addressing the
    other – directly.

    (Example, Dickens in A CHRISTMAS CAROL:
    “…Scrooge … found himself face to face with the unearthly visitor … as
    close to it as I am now to you –
    and I am standing in the spirit at your elbow …”
    Try to beat that position, for artist-to-patron power; can’t be done.)

    Obviously if you’re looking for “audio art” rather than “audio theater,” you
    might prefer stuff that strays further from established traditions, in the
    same ways that some prefer the avant-garde and experimental fiction.
    However, I think that since this form already limits us to so few tools, we
    shouldn’t shuck this one out unless there are some rather solid reasons to
    do so.

    Again, well said.

    Ten minutes of a Cityscape done only in effects, or a tickle-the-senses
    op-art cacaphony of “loose” sounds,
    can be a blast. But it’s never going to bring Tears, Laughs, or Empathy the
    way a great story well-told will.

    Don’t be afraid of “old” methods; they are still in use, because they still
    work – on a Human Animal that has basically not changed since hunters came
    home to weave stories of their adventures in the field.

  • Richard Fish

    Good question, Fred! You wrote:

    >…what is the role of narrator in audio theater?

    For starters, that depends on whether the narrator is a character or not, and on whether it’s first-person or second/third person.

    I know that much is obvious to all of us, but can’t help saying it — I majored in Tautology in college.

    Also, the best answer depends on who your audience is.

    > …the objective, birds-eye, “It was a dark and stormy night”
    > narrator is a little heavy-handed, but I wonder if we’re being a
    > little hard on a perfectly good literary device.

    Better to say “…can be a little heavy-handed.” When third-person narration works for the listener, it works.

    (Second-person narrative usually annoys me. It’s so in-your-face that it can very easily be off-putting, even offensive, unless it’s just perfect for the purpose and perfectly done.)

    > …And it is staid to use the narrator in modern stories?

    It is if you think it is. (Anybody ever adapt Pirandello for radio?)

    Narration is very rare in movies and TV shows, where it’s considered always better to show the story than tell it. Same for most stage plays, with some notable exceptions. We’re used to that, and in those contexts a narrator usually does seem staid.

    But.

    Those who are already listeners today are well-used to narration, thanks to the popularity of audiobooks. So who’s your audience? People who are already listeners? Or are you looking to hook people who are primarily watchers?

    We take you now to West Plains, Missouri…

    The NATF workshop show this year incorporated a whole track of
    narration, several short narratives performed solo by some excellent people. As you mentioned, neither of the two fully-audio-theatre plays in the show used a narrator at all. But the art of narration has become so important now that it’s earned a major place at the Workshop, which it has not had before.

    How it’s done is the real question, for both the writing and the
    reading. A really good narrator cannot save bad writing, and a poor narrator can really screw up good writing.

    Meanwhile, in Owensboro, Kentucky…

    “Albatross” was one of the screenplays David Ossman adapted for the Mystery Writers’ Festival performances last month. In this case, he used straight-ahead narration to very good effect, and needed it. This was a feature-length movie script, a political thriller/love story set in the Cold War era. In the audio adaptation, the narration set scenes and painted detailed mental pictures quickly, and kept the audience focused on the main story by simply reporting some events which were necessary for the plot-line but would have taken a lot of time and effort to stage
    fully.

    For this piece, omniscient narration was the only way David could
    condense a long and complex story down to manageable length. Each
    narration was fully underscored with music, which had two purposes: it told the audience when the focus stepped back from the action, and it tuned their emotions for the next scene. Nothing new about that, but it worked well because it was done well.

    For “Luckiest Woman In The World,” another screenplay done in Kentucky, David used a narrator who was not telling the story but commenting on it. The narration here WAS in second-person, as the narrator always addresses the central character. The character is unaware of the narrator, but the audience overhears what is almost a soliloquy, interspersed. This made second-person narration NOT a direct, in-your-face experience for the audience. It worked wonderfully well, and my objections to second-person, mentioned above, went completely out the window.

    First-person narration is something else again. Thanks for the kind words about “Goldfish!” Again, that’s David Ossman’s adaptation from the original Chandler short story; David is simply unsurpassed (at least!) at adapting stories for audio. For a Noir-flavored hard-boiled detective story, first-person narrative is so common it’s part of the art.

    As you say, the narration:

    > …guides us through the story and heaps so much of Marlowe’s
    > character upon us that we might not get through just dialogue alone
    > (at least, not with so much nuance).

    Very good point. A character stays in character, whether playing or narrating. The listener not only accepts that but expects it.

    Norman Corwin did a play called “The Moat Farm Murder” which was an adaptation of the actual confession of an English murderer. (Charles Laughton found the story in a newspaper, was so rivetted he went three stations past his stop on the Underground, sent it to Norman, and claimed the star part as his reward.)

    So of course it’s an illustrated first-person narrative, and the
    terrifying thing about hearing it is climbing into the mind of a
    murderer, which happens mostly through the voiceover. Half a century later, this OTR production works as well as ever.

    And Martin Gabel, narrating “On A Note Of Triumph,” simply grabs your brain and runs with it. THAT hasn’t dated, either.

    As Henry mentioned, the narrative function can be accomplished in other ways, beyond just a single omniscient voice. How about some more examples along this line? Anybody?

    All in all, narration is storytelling, perfectly valid and time-tested. It’s staid, heavy-handed, cheap, or bad technique only when it is used without a real need and a clear purpose, or just plain poorly done.

    Returning to your original question, how’s this for a short answer:

    “The role of the narrator in audio theatre is to say things which cannot be said as well, or at all, in any other way.”

    Rich

  • http://www.finalrune.com Fred

    Thanks for the comments regarding narration, and for some good examples of stories that use the narrator well (or in unconventional ways). I agree with you guys — if it works for the listener, it works. And while I appreciate the avant-garde, I’m really a writer at heart, and there is only so much you can do in the soundscape without words! I’ve tended towards the first-person, or third-person subjective narrator in my works so far, though I think in the interests of pushing myself further I’ll try working outside of these styles, even if they ARE proven and do work.

    The more I work in audio theater, the more my ears become aware of the sonic environment… Whether that’s the different textures of a setting, the odd sounds of everyday objects, or how quickly we chime in to an unfamiliar sound in an expected scene.

    In the hands of a skilled designer (which I’m working on becoming!) there’s a whole other world in addition to that which is scripted and recorded, which adds the kind of depth that makes a recording worth listening to over and over.

    Great drama will use the audio form to its best, and the audio form is at its best when there is a textured soundscape that is realized by those fully aware of its potential…

    Those who when writing the script write “SFX: Click, Brief Fuxx, ANNOUNCER: (FILTERED) blah blah blah..” vs. “Hey Jane, let’s turn on the TV! — Okay, Ralph!” — and engineers and sound designers who can read INTO a scene when working on its soundscape, and make a world outside that which is printed come alive.

  • Craig

    Fred!-

    Good stuff! Hope folks keep this very interesting ball rolling!

    (BUT – speaking of “assigning dialogue” – you put some of your words in my mouth, above!)

    Best,
    -Craig

  • http://www.finalrune.com Fred

    Craig… think we can blame this on technical demons rather than artistic intentions! Thanks for your commentary on this topic and hope it inspires some others to chime in

  • rich

    Great discussion. May I recommend the audio series “Shadow Falls” for an example of complex narration. All the episodes are on the web.

    Secondly, I’ve started reading fiction again and having filled my head with movies, fiction is a wonderful experience again and it reminds me how empty films and TV can be. I think audio theater/radio drama can bridge the abyss between novel and TV using narration but PERHAPS it has to be done in a new way or we just need to work harder at the craft.

  • http://www.finalrune.com Fred

    Rich, thanks for the comments — Shadow Falls indeed is a great example of using the narrator in a unique way, and if others out there haven’t heard the series, I’d highly recommend it. The series is really well done from a technical perspective, for one, and it showcases a style that’s very conscious of television and new media but shows how compelling audio can be in that world (rather than pretending that other forms of media don’t exist). Not to mention it has a solid story with an ample set of unexpected twists.

    I also heartily agree that audio theater is the bridge between TV and literature, and that if we dramatists make work of a fine enough caliber that truly is literary in nature, we’ll find a greater audience than we experience now. The biggest challenge is getting story to drive audio theater, not the medium (a challenge because we spend all this time feeling the medium is so unique that making the medium look transparent may not come easily). There’s always the issue of getting the work to the consumer, but that’s another discussion.

    Anyways, thanks again for commenting and love to hear more of your thoughts!

    – Fred

  • http://none Deirdra Baldwin

    Narrative isn’t as effective as dialogue, except that it helps to establish point of view in the first person. Used strictly for information, or exposition I should say, it’s boring. A good writer can pull any of it off, but sometimes as a literary device it reads like the proverbial king’s new clothes. I don’t know how many book purchases I’ve made that have left me chagrinned, feeling like a big idiot. A great many of those follies surrounded a nauseating emersion in narrative. MASCARA for one. In audio reality, there must be an occasional tweaking of audience interest, no matter how that is done. It’s like the black screen inserted in film, sometimes without the audience realizing it.

  • http://www.finalrune.com Fred

    Deirdra,

    Thanks so much for your comments. I agree — narration requires a writer of fine caliber to not come off bulky, heavy, and boring. In fact, that’s one of the challenges I truly enjoyed about moving to the audio medium… I find my writing can’t rely on narration and I’m forced to write imminent scenes.

    At the same time, we face this challenge where we need to communicate information, and sometimes there’s stuff that the audience just needs to know that we don’t want to spend much time experiencing. And as in some of the examples we’ve pointed out above, the narrator can be a major contributer to the story as well.

    Thanks again for your comments and would love to hear more of your thoughts.

    Best,
    Fred

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