Overcoming the Disadvantages of Audio Drama

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I have mentioned in the post “Six Reasons Why Audio Drama is Not Outdated” that audio drama is not inferior to visual entertainment. In detail I said:

The challenge in producing audio drama is the same as producing in any other medium – you must use the advantages and unique aspects of the medium to overcome the obstacles the genre presents.”

This is the topic of today’s post – using the advantages of audio drama to compensate for its disadvantages.

Many of the problems that one faces in creating audio dramas are highly technical. Others are artistic difficulties. For instance, an audio drama producer must communicate the action of scene through the dialogue and sound effects he has available. This takes a lot of creativity and outside-the-box thinking. These kind of problems usually have a variety of ways to approach it, and every writer would deal with it in his or her varying style. It’s an artistic problem.

A technical problem may be in creating a specific sound effect. How does one record or create the sound of a pensively bleating goat? This is a technical question. How can one create the sense of a battle raging – with a thousand shouts and yells and clashing of swords against shields and thundering cavalry charges – without overloading the listener’s ear or distracting from the focus of the scene (perhaps amidst all this ruckus, the focus is a single man fighting his arch nemesis). This last problem is partially technical – the producer should not overload the listener’s ear – and it is artistic, in that he must tell the story of this single man. An audio drama producer must solve these technical and artistic problems so that he can communicate such a scene in a comprehensible format. Perhaps the worst thing one can do is confuse the listener, thereby breaking up the flow of the story for him.

The challenges that an audio drama producer faces are varied, as the examples above show, but a large percentage of these fall into two basic disadvantages of the audio drama genre. The first of the two we will be looking at today is that fact that audio drama has no visuals. You could say it is blind. (And Anosmic, but that’s beside the point!)

Because the listener cannot see what is happening in the room – or what appears to be happening – dialogue and sound effects are required to make the story comprehensible. Imagine a character finds an invisibility cloak, puts it on and stalks throughout the house. What if someone bumps into him?

How do you communicate that to the listener without relying on a narrator? Perhaps you could write this scene so that it makes enough sense, yet you still undergo the risk of confusing a portion of your listeners. In the end, the best strategy is probably to cut out that scene.

This practice, of avoiding scenes based on visual understanding, can be called the Ventriloquist Principle. I call it that because it’s hard to show what a ventriloquist is doing using only the power of sound. Thus, if a listener must see a scene to understand, it should be cut. The strength of the audio drama genre does not lie in that area. For instance, it would be almost impossible to produce an audio dramatization of the Invisible Man. It’s the wrong story for the genre.

That said, most scenes, even ones that are based on a moderate amount of visual understanding can be used. Dialogue and sound effects do go a long way. Take this example. If a person is stuck out in a desert and sees a mirage, he might shout and say he sees water. But, when he catches up to the spot he cannot find it. The listener would be able to guess that he has seen a mirage.

Now let us move on to the second major disadvantage of audio drama that we will be covering today. Audio drama is not eye-catching. You may have just thought, “Well, duh!” It is an obvious fault in the genre. And it’s similar to the first disadvantage we talked about, but different enough to have different effects.

Because there are no visuals in audio drama, not only are certain heavily visual scenes harder to communicate, but an audience is not drawn in so quickly. It takes time for our brains to get moving to interpret and imagine an audio drama, whereas movies are instantly available for our eyes to watch.

So how do you avoid or overcome this obstacle? Unfortunately, you really can’t. And so you have to work around it. Remember, “you must use the advantages and unique aspects of the medium to overcome the obstacles the genre presents.” In this case we must outweigh the disadvantages. In other words, audio drama is not so good for capturing a listener’s attention. What you must do then is quickly establish an emotional connection between reader and listener. Empathy is the strongest tool a writer can use, no matter the genre.

Now looking back, I did not really give a solution for either of these problems. That is because these are fundamental disadvantages of audio drama. A writer must work around them. And the best way to do that is to go to the fundamental advantages of the genre.

So I asked myself why I like audio drama so much. After a moment’s thought I decided this: Audio drama combines an effective use of sounds and voices to make an entertaining and imaginative story come to life in a listener’s mind. This sums up the key advantages of audio drama in that there is no medium that does both of these things at the same time. Books do not have the entertaining thrill of hearing a character’s voice (or the explosion behind them) without taxing the reader’s mind to come up with an imaginative rendering of it. They do not have an exciting and engaging way of communicating the story – audio drama does. On the other hand, movies take out the entire piece of imagination. They simply don’t engage the viewer as much as audio dramas do.

That is why I love audio drama. And despite its faults (every medium has its faults) I believe that audio drama as a form of storytelling is in no way inferior to visual entertainment. There are some stories that should not be told as audio dramas, just as some stories should not be told as movies or books. Each individual obstacle is unique to every story that an audio drama producer tells. The best way to solve almost any problem is to go back to the advantages of the genre.