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Four Narrative Techniques that Increase Immersion (and a Fifth Tip that Matters Just for Audio Drama)

microphone by Miyukiko © 2013
microphone by Miyukiko © 2013

Are you looking for some suggestions on how to increase the immersion created by the stories you tell?  Some simple ways to bring your scripts to life in the minds of your audience?

The following are some ideas/techniques, borrowed from prose and narrative writing, that I have tried to employ in my script writing in order to do just that.

1. Create a sense of time and place – ensure the audience knows where and when the action is taking place. You can reveal it slowly throughout the dialog or in a single convenient hit (using a narrator). Some folks hate the use of a narrator, but for setting a scene, the narrator can be genuinely helpful.  It’s easy to forget to tell your audience where and when the story is taking place but without that information the degree of immersion is lessened.

Even though we are talking about audio drama, it can be helpful to think about setting the scene in cinematic terms – using the wide shot, medium shot, and closeup to set the scene.

The wide shot (or establishing shot) sets the location in its context (eg. “In a dusty desert plain…”).

The medium shot presents the location itself (eg. “… stands an old wooden house…).

The closeup presents the scene’s characters in context (eg. “… in which an old man sits on a battered sofa, staring out his lounge room window.”)

2. Establish the mood – is it celebratory, creepy, tragic, joyful etc? Finding and communicating the emotion of a scene to your audience increases immersion. A scene in which giggling children visit their grandparents well-kept house for a family celebration on a sunny day has a totally different mood to a scene where nervous children visit their grandparents run-down house for a wake during a thunderstorm.

3. Activate the senses – let the audience know how the setting sounds, smells, feels, and appears. The more the audience can “sense” the space in which the characters are moving, the greater the immersion that will result.

4. Engage the emotions through reactions – reveal the physical/instinctive reaction, emotional reaction, and volitional reaction of protagonist(s).

Instinctive reactions are laughs, cries, grunts, turning pale, breaking out in a sweat, having your heart start thumping in your chest, jumping with fright, etc. These reactions follow events instantly, occurring at the unconscious, instinctive, level and are usually physiological in nature.

Emotions then follow; fear, surprise, joy, sadness, anger etc.

Lastly, the brain kicks in and our characters decide how to respond.

Jack is walking along a jungle trail and out jumps a lion – he freezes and starts to tremble, the fear mounting inside him, and raises his rifle to try and sight along it at the creature.

We don’t need to provide cues to each of these elements of human reaction every time, but we do need to take note of the order. Instinct precedes emotion which precedes conscious thought and not the other way round. Audiences can ALWAYS tell when we mess this up; it just feels wrong, somehow (like someone saying tock-tick instead of tick-tock).

5. Have the characters use each other’s names regularly; in audio, names need to be heard more frequently than in visual media (or even books). In real life we don’t use each other’s names that often, but in audio drama we need to provide the audience with name cues fairly regularly in order to make up for the lack of a visual reference points for recognizing characters.

These techniques don’t need to be used in every scene and situation, but they can be used to help create immersion whenever and wherever you deem fit. Let’s take a closer look at how this works with an, admittedly, artificial example.

Example Scene (Before)

Firstly, (for comparison purposes) here is an example scene without resort to these techniques. It’s incredibly basic and could definitely use some sprucing up.

1. SOUND: NIGHT AMBIANCE – SOME WIND – ESTABLISH AND UNDER.

2. JOHN: Look at this place will ya? No-one’s been in this old house for years.

3. BASIL: Yeah, well. I never said we was going on a picnic.

4. JOHN: I mean it, Basil. It’s like the folks who lived here just got up and left everything behind.

5. BASIL: Stop being such a whiner.

6. SOUND: AXE BEING DRAGGED ALONG FLOOR. LIMPING FOOTSTEPS APPROACH – UNDER.

7. JOHN: Basil, d’you hear that?… Basil?

8. BASIL: This ain’t right. There shouldn’t be anyone else here.

9. JOHN: Basil? What do we do?

10. SOUND: LIMPING FOOTSTEP AND DRAG APPROACHES – CONTINUE UNDER.

11. BASIL: Just get your gun up and ready. Who ever this is… they’re in for a big surprise.

12. SOUND: TWO GUNS BEING READIED – LET IT FINISH.

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Example Scene (After)

Even though what follows is a little artificial, it’s easy to see how the techniques we’ve discussed add immersion to the action.

1. NARRATOR: It’s midnight and deep in the Wisconsin woods stands a large wooden house, the second story of which juts up over the dark and twisted treetops. Inside the house two intruders are moving quietly from room to room. [Establishing sense of time and place – and a bit of mood –  using wide shot, medium shot, and closeup]

2. SOUND: NIGHT AMBIANCE – SOME WIND – ESTABLISH AND UNDER.

3. SOUND: CREAKING FLOORBOARDS – UNDER. [Activating senses – hearing]

4. JOHN: Look at this place will ya? No-one’s been in here for years. This dust is an inch thick and I ain’t seen this many rat droppings in… well, ever.

5. BASIL: Yeah, well. I never said we was going on a picnic, John [introducing the second character’s name].

6. JOHN: I mean it, Basil [introducing the first character’s name], this place is creepy. Nothing’s been touched in here forever. It’s like the folks who lived here just got up and left everything behind… and the shadows look… wrong somehow. Deeper. [Establishing mood and activating sight].

7. BASIL: Don’t get your panties in a twist. You’re gonna make the women nervous. Hold that gun of yours tighter and wave it around a bit if you’re scared.

8. JOHN: (IGNORING BASIL, GRUNTS IN DISGUST) Ugh.

9. BASIL: What now?

10. JOHN: I just walked through a mess of cobwebs. Damn it. They’re stuck to my face. Here, check if I’ve got any spiders on me! [Activating touch]

11. BASIL: Stop being such a whiner. What’s a spider or two? They ain’t gonna hurt you. (BEAT) What’s that smell? I think there’s something dead in the next room.

12. JOHN: I don’t… hey yeah. Something smells… rotten. [Activating smell]

13. SOUND: AXE BEING DRAGGED ALONG FLOOR. LIMPING FOOTSTEPS APPROACH – UNDER. [Activating hearing].

14. JOHN: Basil… Basil, you’ve gone pale. [Physical reaction]

15. SOUND: BEATING HEART – UNDER AND FADE.

16. BASIL: This ain’t right. There shouldn’t be anyone else here.

17. JOHN: Basil, I’m scared. [Emotional reaction]

18. SOUND: LIMPING FOOTSTEP AND DRAG APPROACHES – CONTINUE UNDER.

19. BASIL: Shut up, John.  Just get your gun up and ready. Who ever this is… they’re in for a big surprise. [volitional reaction]

20. SOUND: TWO GUNS BEING READIED – LET IT FINISH.

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The above example may not be great art, but I think it illustrates how the elements combine to intensify the immersion of the audience in the scene.

A Note on Music

Background music of the appropriate mood also intensifies the experience for the audience (but I’m no musician, so I really don’t have much to say about the use of music).  If the use of music to affect mood is of interest, I’d recommend the following video by Brian Mackenzie as a great example of just how powerful music can be.

Well, that’s it until next time. Why don’t you reply in the comments with any tips and techniques you use to increase the immersion your audience experiences when listening to, or reading, your plays.

This article is © 2017 by Philip Craig Robotham – all rights reserved.

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