Until recently, I used to think that upon reaching a…ahem…certain age, I would see the evolution of my writing process level off and stabilize, a sort of “We’ve arrived, darling, so you can relax now!” moment where I could rest on my laurels and, at the very least, not get actively worse.
In other words, I would transition from the very rough and immature writing that is the (extremely self-evident) product of my inept youth to the more mature, polished writing that comes with life experience and practice.
Lots and lots of practice.
Ultimately, my expectation was this evolution in my writing would hit ‘peak’ maturity (or as ‘peak’ as my maturity allows) and then I’d be settled in and have very little left to learn or add to my repertoire.
And as with just about everything else I think about life, I was wrong.
Recently I was asked if I’d like to adapt some of my written work into a radio drama. I’d never written a radio drama before, the closest I’d ever come to it being writing a couple of plays in college many years ago.
Many, many years ago.
I remembered listening to “The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy” and “The Empire Strikes Back” radio programs even many more years ago, and I had nothing but fond memories, so naturally I said yes.
I’m glad I did.
Writing for a book (or short story) is a very different process than writing for a radio program. There’s the oft-repeated old saw applied to writing that you must “show, don’t tell,” which is basically an instruction not to dump a lot of boring exposition into your prose when you can describe the events instead.
“He was so angry with himself for eating the whole pizza in one sitting.”
“Reginald stared hard in the mirror, disgusted with the weak-spined man, if ‘man’ was the right word, staring back. Even his internal organs couldn’t hide their disdain at the selfish act of desecration his dining choice represented – his heart burned with the fire of a thousand suns and his stomach quivered and heaved with the sort of restless fury that could only portend a long, violent session on the commode. A commode that, Reginald realized with shame, he didn’t deserve. ‘What was I thinking!? A whole pizza? And with pineapple on it!?’ No, there was a special place in hell for Reginald, and he would make no effort to resist his well-deserved journey there.”
This is also good advice if you are being paid by the word.
But paradoxically, writing for the radio is literally telling, not showing. The medium precludes showing the audience anything.
OK, I know, technically the written word also imposes this same limitation, but you can have picture books and there is an accepted convention that you can describe events and people’s thoughts outside of your characters’ dialogue. So it’s easier to ‘show’ in a short story or novel without sounding all stilted and overbearing.
Yes, you can just have a narrator explain the unspoken bits in your radio drama in-between stretches of dialogue, and there are examples of radio shows that do just that. But I didn’t like it. It felt like taking the easy way out.
Well, I say I didn’t like that approach. Not entirely true. My disdain for the approach wasn’t strong enough to prevent me from trying it (I’m a big fan of the easy way out), but the feedback I got for that draft of the script was, to be blunt, that it flat out doesn’t work. No doubt this reflects more on me and my writing than on the technique itself.
Denied the easy way out, I was forced down the more arduous path of “figuring out what the hell to do to make this damned script work.”
At first, I felt limited by the different requirements for a radio script. But I slowly came to discover that the constraints of radio weren’t limitations at all. In actuality, they opened up new possibilities and pushed me to expand my understanding of storytelling.
It was a journey of self-discovery, and while an unwilling passenger at first (“Wah! I don’t wanna go! I’m already a mature writer! Wah!”), in the end I’m glad I stuck with it.
Where did this journey lead me? To a heretofore unknown-to-me tool to add to my writing arsenal, a skill not just limited to crafting radio dramas, but something which can also be applied and is essential to improving my prose in general:
How to show while telling.
What is showing while telling?
Well, it isn’t flashing your second grade teacher while tattling on a classmate about his nose-picking addiction.
It’s taking into account that a radio story is conveyed through actual sound waves moving through the air and physically striking the listener’s tympanic membranes, not photons bouncing off words on a page and being silently absorbed by the reader’s eyes.
It’s embedding narrative information in dialogue without sounding (too much) like the dreaded ‘info dump.’
(I have to admit, it’s really hard to avoid the ‘info dump’ feel, but I actually like that about some of the older radio dramas. So for me, at least, a little bit of over the top exposition adds to the charm. A little bit.)
It’s revealing needed details via the flow of action and events instead of a character saying it.
(In my case, I turned a letter read by the main character in the book into a barbershop quartet that sang the content while interacting with the main characters (by which I mean they got punched a lot). And I liked the result so much, I fully intend to back-fill that change into the book!)
It’s including audio effects in the script – like the sharp crack of a bullet striking a car windshield followed by squealing and the violent roar of the car crashing into a wall – to further convey information that just can’t be reasonably worked into the dialogue.
(Do you really want to hear, in the heat of the action, a character say, “Oh no! A bullet just hit our car’s windshield and broke it! I can’t see! Oof! We just crashed into a wall!”)? No. You don’t.
It’s also hard and I’m definitely still learning.
I discovered, in other words, that I have a lot more evolving to do.
The drama of which I write herein, a chapter from my in-progress novel, Luck Be A SpaceLady, was one of four produced this year by the KFJC Pandemic Players. Social distancing was observed at every stage, which makes the final result all the more impressive. I encourage you to check them out, but especially (because I’m a selfish attention-seeker) their production of my script, found here in MP3 format.