How to Increase Engagement in Audio Drama by Writing Less
CONTINUITY, PSYCHOLOGY, AND THE AUDIO WRITER
The brain is an amazing thing, and it is easy to immerse our brains in a story. Try this little thought experiment.
Here is the word TREE. The word is a signifier and it signifies an idea. That idea, in a typically functioning brain, tends to be a picture. You hear or read the word TREE and there in your mind, instantly, a tree appears. And what’s more, it is a tree unique to you. No-one else sees quite the same tree you do. It might be an oak, or a maple, or a eucalyptus, or any kind of tree, real or imagined. Furthermore, your brain doesn’t just create a tree, it creates the entire world around that tree; the ground, the backdrop, the sky, the entire environment. The word TREE is taken by your brain and amplified far beyond its existence as four letters on the page or the sound used to express the word. Your brain does this instantly and without any conscious effort. Totally amazing!
But doesn’t that create a problem for me as a writer? Won’t it be jarring for the audience if I say TREE and the members of the audience imagine a maple tree only to find out later that the tree is a fir tree? The short answer is Nope. And here’s why.
Look at this sentence…
It was a beautiful tree, a majestic fir standing one hundred and fifty feet tall.
When the brain processes this sentence, the word tree creates an image in our minds the moment it is encountered, and then as more details are provided the brain AUTOMATICALLY redraws this image. It does this without us even being aware of the fact. We don’t feel any jarring sense of discontinuity. The brain recognizes that the words we are encountering are just abstract place holders and approximations for communicated meaning. They adjust these approximations in light of new information without us having to think about it, stopping at the point that no further information is provided, but fully ready and willing to do more adjusting the moment further information comes to hand.
In response to the sample sentence provided earlier, your brain will have added location and weather and other information. Perhaps you see the fir tree as being in a forest. Perhaps against a clear blue sky. It doesn’t matter that the sentence can be expanded to invalidate that picture as follows…
It was a beautiful tree, a majestic fir standing one hundred and fifty feet tall. The drivers in the cars passing it little wondered or cared why such a tall tree had come to stand so close to a major highway. Their attention focused far more on the storm that currently brought cascading sheets of rain against their windshields.
Of course all bets are off, once a fact is consciously established. The brain will rewrite the unconsciously chosen details of our mental images to accommodate new information without a murmur, but it will ALWAYS notice information that contradicts what has consciously been established.
For example, while the passages submitted above layer on details without creating any sense of discontinuity, the following passage does not…
It was a beautiful tree, a majestic fir standing one hundred and fifty feet tall. A car careened off the road into it, bringing down a shower of eucalyptus leafs.
The eucalyptus leafs violate the conscious mental imagery established by the words themselves and that results in a jarringly noticeable continuity error. The details the mind creates around the words in a sentence are malleable until fixed by the words themselves. Once fixed however, we generally need to avoid violating that sense of continuity. I’ll come back to why I say “generally” before I close this little post.
Right now, however, lets look at how this applies to Audio Drama.
When I write for audio drama the mental immersion of my audience is achieved in exactly the same way. Each revelation builds upon the last and the audience collaborates with me in the task of world building.
Look at the following example.
- SAM: I walk into my office about half past eleven and begin going through the mail that had been slid beneath the door. (SIGHS) More bills.
- SOUND: TELEPHONE BEGINS RINGING – THREE RINGS THEN PICKUP
- SAM: Spade Detective Agency. Sam Spade speaking.
Did I need to describe the office and everything in it? Nope. The audience heard it was an office and immediately created it in their minds. Did it matter that they didn’t necessarily imagine a telephone in the office? Not at all. Whether by sound or word, the telephone comes into existence at the moment it is needed and, as far as the audience is concerned, it has always been there.
That’s a pretty neat trick and allows a writer to let the audience do an awful lot of heavy lifting on his/her behalf. In fact, there is a sense in which the experience of listening to audio is more immersive, the more it relies on the audience to supply the detail of the scenes it seeks to portray.
Jarring continuity errors still occur, however, whenever established information is contradicted. This, as was stated earlier, is generally to be avoided. But it can also be harnessed deliberately for comic effect.
- SAM: I walk into my office about half past eleven, exhausted and very glad I’ve never installed a telephone to interrupt the nap I intend to take.
- SOUND: TELEPHONE RINGS.
Or, as a more ludicrous violation…
- SAM: I arrive at the No-tell Motel, camera in hand, ready to snap some candid shots of Mrs Ligetti and her latest fling. It’s not glamorous, but divorce work pays the bills. I try to look through the window but I’m just not tall enough. I (GRUNT) climb (GRUNT) up onto my own (GRUNT) shoulders for a better look before losing my balance and collapsing onto the nearby garbage cans.
- SOUND: BODY DROP AND CLATTER OF CANS – LET IT FINISH.
- BUSTER: (AT A DISTANCE) Hey, what was that?
- MRS LIGETTI: (CALLING TO BUSTER) Come away from the window, darling. Those blinds are drawn. You know they’re not real.
The brain is an amazing thing. It creates entire worlds, some of them completely impossible, from small amounts of information, and this capacity is one of the key reasons audio drama is such an immersive experience. As writers we need to be deliberately looking for ways to harness this feature of human psychology. Knowing the audience is on our side in this makes our work both better and easier.
What methods do you use to increase the engagement of your audience? Share your thoughts in the comments below.
This article is © 2017 by Philip Craig Robotham – all rights reserved.