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Peter Rogers's Blog
Artist-in-Residence at Chez Firth

Tuesday (2/28/12) 3:02pm - ... wherein Peter sends off some advice to the radio-serial crüe.

So it looks like I've been signed on as a writer & actor for the Brand New Theater Company's upcoming radio serial.[0]  One point of clarification:  this won't be an old-school 40s adventure serial, but rather a series of pieces featuring a variety of characters dealing with the aftermath of some central event.

Because my schedule is OMGCRAZY, I am missing their first meeting tonight, where they're hammering out the basic details of their story.  This makes me sad, but I'm sending them this post with all the general advice I can think of.

A word to the writers:  first off, take all of this with a grain of salt.  I offer all these opinions humbly to writers who are certainly better than me at the writing-thing.

Okay, moving on...

As I understand it, we want to sort out two things from the top:  what is the central incident that happens, and who are the characters involved?

My only hard and fast advice is:  don't make the incident itself a mystery.  That is, *don't* go the route of "ooh, *something big* has just happened, but we won't find out exactly what it was 'til episode five."  Among the many, many reasons not to do this, it's nigh-impossible to market a show about "er... well, we haven't revealed that yet."[1]  If the incident is known, and it's something I can summarize in a word or two, it'll cut through the marketing noise nicely.

Beyond that, well, the event can be anything, can't it?  I would hope that it's something significant -- if it's an event with lots of obvious consequences, we writers will have an easier time writing our scenes.  (I will tear my hair out trying to come up with a decent episode 3 about, say, the fallout from a guy losing his favorite pen.)

I would hope that it's something involving a wide range of characters, for reasons I'll go into next.

Right -- the characters.  One thing that I'm worried about is winding up with a set of characters that are *too samey*.  If all the characters feel sharply different, then every episode is likely to be sharply different from its predecessors.  If all the characters are same-ish, then it will take extra work from the writer to make the latest episode go somewhere new and keep the show from feeling like a broken record.  (Note:  I am all about making things easier for ourselves.)

It's also more difficult to generate conflicts *between* characters if they all have kind of the same take on the world.  Not only that, but conflicts between similar characters tend to be small and detail-oriented, unconnected to any larger, more interesting philosophical questions.  If you're not careful, the conflicts can feel petty and unengaging.

I bring this up because we have a cast of performers who are all kind of in the same age range, and mostly white.  The cast all seems to be from the same general social class, and that may well bleed into the characters they (okay, "we") play.  So it's possible we'll get a cast of characters that's very homogeneous.  If we're aware of this pitfall and occasionally pose 'the Passover question' about a character ("How is this character different from all the other characters?"), we should be fine.

Beyond that, I don't have much advice about the initial setup.  For the incident, I favor big flashy, attention-getting things (CDC quarantine! earthquake! bank robbery![2][3]), but I'm sure that y'all will cast about until you find an incident that excites everybody, and I'm sure that it'll inspire me, too.

Once we have an interesting incident and some solid characters, then we're all but guaranteed a show that's at least pretty good.  I trust everybody involved knows how to write good scenes; beyond that I just have a few words to say about serialization and audio.

So:  the only differences, really, between an episode of this serial and any other short play one might write are that (1) these are all stories set in the same world, around the same incident, and (2) these stories all have to work in audio.

I want to mention three fun ways to leverage the 'same world' factor.

1.  Rashomon-ing
That is, describing the exact same thing (event, person, object) from different perspectives.  I don't think we need to go as far as the Kurosawa film -- sheesh, we'll have our hands full *without* unreliable narration -- but even just having different perspectives on the same factual information should be fascinating.  I especially look forward to seeing a character's inner life detailed in their 'starring' episode, and then in other episodes, seeing how that same person comes across to other people.

Fortunately, we don't have to go to much conscious effort to make this one work for us.  Just follow this rule:  if you're writing about something that another writer has already described, consider how your description could be different from theirs.[4]

2.  Mysteries
It's fun when one episode leaves an unanswered question, and another episode picks it up.  Interlocking episodes like this will reinforce the notion that this series is all of a piece.  From a marketing perspective, it excites the interest of detail-oriented geeks, and makes somebody who listens to one episode more likely to listen to the rest.

Again, I think we can take advantage of this without much effort on the part of the writers.  All the writers have to do is just ease off of explaining every little detail of their episodes.  If somebody else has put a useful bit of information in their episode, you don't have to repeat that exposition in yours.  Instead, consider leaving that detail *out* of yours, and making listeners *curious* about it.

3. Plot
Traditionally, a radio serial is all plot, with each episode following the previous one chronologically, and each episode typically resolving whatever cliffhanger the previous one ended on.  *shrug*  It can keep audiences on the edge of their seats for weeks on end.

We're not doing that here, and that's okay.  That just means, if we want to work with plot between episodes, we treat it like a "mystery" from section 2.  One episode leaves an open question about "what happens next"; another episode can step in with the answer.

For example, I'll be very tempted to have Sara mention glimpsing Olivia briefly, and adding, "I wonder whatever happened to her."  Well, good luck finding out before episode eight. :)

All that said, these three techniques are just colorful sprinkles on top of the dessert.  What matters is that each individual story can stand on its own.  If, in addition to that, there are some interesting connections to other episodes, great.

But if an individual story doesn't work, no amount of connections will save it.

As for writing a script that works in audio, I'm guessing everybody knows their way around that pretty well.  If you start your scene with thirty seconds of two guys silently sizing each other up... congratulations, you've failed at audiodrama.  And if we don't have narration, it may be that we have to make do with a certain amount of clumsy exposition -- remember that audiences are more forgiving of that towards the top of a scene rather than in the middle of one.

But generally, if we just stay consciously aware that these scenes have to work as audio, we should be able to stay clear of any problems.

Side note:  Kara, have you met Buzz Moran yet?  He's a local foley artist who (among other things) did the sound design for The Intergalactic Nemesis.

Finally, here's a bulleted list of ideas I couldn't fit elsewhere in this post:

... aaand that's it for me for now.  Have a great first meeting, and I'll try & call in when my Professor rehearsal finishes up to see how things went/are going.

[0] ... hopefully I'm not letting a cat out of the bag illicitly here.
[1] See also:  NBC's travails with The Event.
[2] No, no, don't do 'bank robbery'.  It's been done before, as an awful TV show.
[3] Note that one pitfall of such "big dramatic" events is that their fallout would likely be all negative.  You have to be conscious of this problem to ensure that all the episodes don't add up to a monotonous downer.
[4] ... yeah, yeah, I know, exposition should *always* reveal character.
[5] I would say, "No, we don't want to do that."  I think we should focus on writing something simple and easy, as we work out our production workflow and logistical kinks.  Once we have all that sorted, then I'm all for trying round two of the format with a more ambitious/difficult concept.

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