Fifteen minutes long, because you're in a hurry, and we're not that smart.

18.24: “Dark One: Forgotten” Deep Dive

The team grills Dan on his audio-only book “Dark One: Forgotten,” which he co-wrote with Brandon Sanderson. We find out how he wrote a book that became a six-part audio series, and why exactly that form is important. *Please listen to “Dark One: Forgotten” before listening to this episode!*. 


What’s a thing you know, but everyone else has forgotten? Come up with a supernatural reason why this is.

Thing of the Week:

Zombies, Run! 

Credits: Your hosts for this episode were Mary Robinette Kowal, DongWon Song, Erin Roberts, Dan Wells, and Howard Tayler. It was produced by Emma Reynolds, recorded by Marshall Carr, Jr., and mastered by Alex Jackson.

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As transcribed by Mike Barker

Key Points: Dark One: Forgotten by Dan Wells and Brandon Sanderson. A six-hour audiobook as if you were listening to a girl’s amateur podcast. Prequel to the Dark One graphic novel and book (being written), and let’s do it as a true crime podcast. Light on the explanations! Slow on the supernatural. Recording together or separately? Mix. Ad-libbing? Just the swear words that got bleeped out. 

[Season 18, Episode 24]

[Mary Robinette] This is Writing Excuses.

[DongWon] Deep dive, Dark One: Forgotten by Dan Wells.

[Erin] 15 minutes long.

[Dan] Because you’re in a hurry.

[Howard] And we’re not that smart.

[Mary Robinette] I’m Mary Robinette.

[DongWon] I’m DongWon.

[Erin] I’m Erin.

[Dan] I’m Dan.

[Howard] And I’m Howard.

[Dan] So, today, we are going to do our deep dive into a book that I wrote. We said by Dan Wells. This is cowritten with Brandon Sanderson as well.

[Howard] But he’s not here to get his feet…

[Dan] But he’s not here.

[Howard] Held to the fire.


[Dan] So, the way this is going to work, we’re going to spend our 20 or 30 minutes today talking all about this in detail. How it was written and why and… Everything, everything. Then we’re going to spend the next seven episodes kind of using that as a guide to talk about a lot of different principles that I find really important or interesting that this story helps to illustrate. So, we warned you a couple of times in the past. You need to go and listen to Dark One: Forgotten. So we hope you’ve done that. If you haven’t in your sticking with us anyway, spoiler warning. This is a six-hour audiobook that is kind of disguised as if you were listening to some girl’s college dorm amateur podcast where she is doing a true crime thing. So, that’s Dark One: Forgotten. I love it dearly. I open it to the rest of you. What do you want to say or ask about this story?

[Mary Robinette] So, first of all, I am enjoying the heck out of it.

[Dan] Thank you.

[Mary Robinette] It… One of the things that I particularly enjoy is the fact that it is an audio drama. That there are… They are characters that are playing off of each other. So that’s a lot of fun. I love that you’re like… That the format is part of the story. My question is how much of that was decided when you and Brandon were sitting down at the beginning? Like…

[Dan] Yeah. So, that, interestingly enough, that specific aspect is the only bit of guidance that I had writing this. This is kind of sort of the prequel to a novel that we are still working on. There has been previously a graphic novel put out of the Dark One story. This is the story that sets that up. Basically, the two things Brandon said were A) this is a prequel to Dark One, and B) I think it would be cool to do it in this format, where you… As if it were a podcast. So… Then it was just me, making everything up beyond that point. Then he came back later during the revision process and there was more collaboration. But initially, that was the one guiding principle of the whole thing, is make this sound like some girl’s true crime podcast.

[Mary Robinette] So, you know the ending that you’re aiming for, and you know the format, and everything else is like Whee!

[Dan] Yeah. Pretty much.

[Chuckles] It was interesting because while I have written, for example, the Zero G series that we talked about on the show before, I wrote those as novels and then adapted them as scripts. And, crucially, they still have narrators. Where is this, because of the format, does not. So, basically, I just went back and re-listened to a couple of seasons of Serial, did some other things, did some homework. It took me… I want to say five months, maybe six months, to write that first episode. Because I had to get my head around what the format was going to sound like. Then, the second episode took me about a week. Because all… I knew what I was doing, it all made much more sense.

[Mary Robinette] I’m going to challenge you on the narrator aspect, though, because there is a narrator. She’s just an embedded narrator.

[Dan] Yes.

[Mary Robinette] As opposed to a separate narrator.

[Dan] Yes. So, the main character, Christina Walsh, she does kind of narrate her story. I don’t think of her as a narrator because she’s not serving the function that the Zero G narrator serves. Which was to provide blocking and describe what things look like. It’s not that kind of a narrator. It’s more of a framing device to say, “All right. Now we’re going to go talk to this person.” Then the scene will change and it will all be in scene.

[DongWon] I think one thing that’s interesting in hearing you talk about where this project comes from is you’ve kind of framed it as a prequel, but it’s prequel to a thing that doesn’t exist yet.

[Dan] Yes.

[DongWon] So you’re sort of…

[Dan] This is true.

[DongWon] Writing in this extended universe, but that’s not a universe that we had the opportunity to meet yet. So this is kind of our introduction. Was that a particular challenge, knowing that you had to hit a mark at the end of this and set up all this future plot and content and world, or was this more like a natural thing for you in terms of writing your own thing, and then it being able to build off of that and leaving hooks to build off of?

[Dan] Yes. It was much simpler than that. Because one thing that we wanted to do with this was kind of have is light of a touch as possible on to the larger story. So, basically, if you’ve read the graphic novel, anyone out there, it begins with a particular person in prison. This is basically the story of how that person ended up in prison. The… We’re full spoilers, so we’re just going to tell you. This is a… As Christina’s doing her true crime podcast, she is interested in this one particular case of a missing person. She stumbles onto what turns out to be a serial killer. Which then further turns out to be a supernatural serial killer. That’s what is going to set up Dark One for us. But it was important in this project, at least important for us, to not really explain any of that. To let Dark One be its own thing, and just tell as interesting a story as we could without worrying about the explanation. In fact, we pared a lot of it back during revision. Initially, we did explain much more fully what Mirandus is, for example, which is this word that keeps getting tossed around in the story. Then we decided, nope, that’s what the later story can do. This one needs to focus more on Christina and who she is and her investigation and we can leave those answers for later.

[DongWon] Yeah. I really liked all the supernatural elements of the story… I mean, to me, as a reader who’s read supernatural stuff quite a bit, I could tell that that’s what was happening, but I did like how grounded the characters were in their perspective and in their time and setting. Always trying to figure out, like, is this a drug? Are there other explanations? That led me to a point where I was like, “Oh, wait. Maybe it’s not. Maybe it actually is some kind of other scientific explanation that looks more magical in this way.” So when it got to the actual supernatural part, I kind of really enjoyed how much wasn’t explained. Right? There was all these things that I could fill in the gaps, but you had such a light touch with it that left so many more interesting questions and still kept me grounded in the action that was happening on the page, and the ark that this character was going through, without kind of, like, weighing that last act down with all this extra information. So I thought it was really nicely handled.

[Dan] That’s good.

[DongWon] Not a question there, I’m just complimenting you.

[Dan] Well, thank you very much. That’s what I’m hoping most of this episode will be.


[Dan] I’m glad that that worked, because that issue specifically was difficult enough that later in our series, we’re going to do a whole episode on it. Which basically is when you see Dan Wells and Brandon Sanderson on the cover of something, you know that it’s going to be supernatural or speculative in some way. So putting a really slow burn on that, where the characters don’t know that they’re in a supernatural story until episode three or four, five, when it really becomes obvious, was difficult. To get that balance right, how could we do that without making the reader feel frustrated. Like, oh, these idiots are clearly in a story with magic. Why won’t they just admit it?

[Erin] A question that I had is that you talked about this wanting to get this feeling of the kind of crime podcast out of the dorm room. As we start introducing, like, characters and, like, the interview this person, they interview that person, how much of that was driven by the story you were trying to tell, and how much of that was driven by trying to be really fidelity to the format that you were trying to replicate?

[Dan] It’s a mix of both. One thing that you’ll notice as you listen to it, is the first episode is much more in the style of Serial. Right? It is here’s my investigation, here’s me interviewing this specific person, and then we keep cutting back to that framing story of she’s in her dorm room recording this. Then, once we get to episode two, they leave the dorm room, they go out into the world, and it becomes a much more overt adventure. By the time we get to episode five, the gloves are off completely, and she’s just kind of recording her life is desperate things happen to her.

[DongWon] It does seem to go from Serial into The Blair Witch Project at some point.

[Mary Robinette] Yeah.

[DongWon] It becomes a found footage and found audio kind of thing, especially once no one can remember her anymore, and this is her only lifeline into the world. It really does have that feeling of like, “Oh, yeah. They went into the woods, and nobody knows what happened to them.” Right?


[DongWon] It’s like Out Of the Woods’s ending.

[Howard] There’s a nice verisimilitude to that. When we watch the early Marvel movies, and someone has a superpower, people very quickly twig to the fact that, oh, this is a superpower. When you look at… When you listen to this, it takes a long time for anybody to accept that there is not a rational, scientific explanation for what’s going on. Which is how the real world, I feel, would work.

[Mary Robinette] Yeah.

[Howard] It’d take me… I mean, I love magical science fiction whatever. It’d take me a really, really long time to believe that, for instance, Florida man gnawing on somebody under an overpass is an actual zombie and not just a one-off bad drug reaction. It’d take me a long time to come around to that. I like the way these characters were the same way.

[DongWon] Well, the way you kept hanging a lantern on it, with the Sherlock Holmes thing, with the Occam’s razor thing, of like here’s the simplest answer, and it’s like… I, as the audience, am like, “No, there’s a simpler answer. There’s magic.” Then I’m like, “That’s not a simpler answer.”


[DongWon] “That’s… It’s fundamentally insane. [Garbled]

[Mary Robinette] The whole impossible aspect of it. But one of the things that I really liked that you did, on the Into the Woods thing, is setting up the in-story mechanic of as a protection for ourselves, we are setting these up to immediately upload if we are… If there are problems. Which I think does two things. One, it forecasts it’s gonna get bad. Two, it does give you that transition to the immediacy of the found footage as you go. Which I was just, very clever. Well done.

[Dan] Thank you very much. If… One of the very few regrets that I have about this is that I wish that the sound design had followed more of my scripts.


[Dan] There are absolutely cases where you can tell, oh, they’re outside now, or, oh, they’re in a coffee shop right now. But not all of those got translated across. So, while I do think they did a phenomenal job and the acting in particular is stellar, there’s a couple of places where I wish some of that found audio sense was stronger, where a scene break is more obviously, oh, they are now in a different location. This should sound like an office.

[Howard] I have some questions about how you document that, how you make those notes. But I don’t think I get to ask them until after our break.

[Erin] All right. Thing of the week is Zombies Run which is a game that you can play or listen to, experience I will say, on Android and iOS. It is a thing where you are somebody living in the zombie apocalypse, and you are being forced to run from place to place while conversations are happening in your ear and people are asking you to fetch things and do things. What it is sort of outside of the world of playing it is this brilliant way to kind of make fitness and gaming and audio work together in a really fun way. I’ve written some of the scripts for this in later seasons, and you’re just running from place to place as really intricate stories happen around you. It helps you to think, wow, running is fun, and not, ugh, my knees.

[Mary Robinette] I’m going to tagteam in on this.


[Mary Robinette] Because I love Zombies Run so much. It’s the only thing that has ever gotten me to run. When I developed tendinitis in my hips, I was mad, because I was like, “But I need the rest of the seasons.” So I’ve been thinking about doing Zombies Housecleaning.


[Erin] I will say one random thing about this, which is when we were in sort of peak Covid period, we actually had a zombie invasion come into the town so that nobody could leave.

[DongWon] Oh, that’s great.

[Erin] People started doing zombie, , like, housework and, like, how could you work out in your house.


[Erin] To try to adapt the format to what was going on.

[That’s so smart]

[Erin] So we are here for you, and for all of you, so listen and enjoy.

[Howard] Audio cues. Dan, audio cues. How do you notate those in your script? How do you keep track of that? Because, I mean, I have a hard time as a cartoonist who writes prose sometimes, I have a hard time remembering to describe the room, because I know I come from, “Oh, I’m just going to draw pictures for this.” How do you notate it, how do you keep track of it, how does it go on your… How do you even…

[Dan] Yeah. Well. It’s weird. This is why it took me five or six months to write that first episode. First of all, while I have written scripts for TV and for some other things, I really was kind of making this up as I went. So the first thing to tell people is don’t necessarily expect the way I do this to be the way everyone does this. In particular, I did not use, for example, Final Draft to write this audio script, which is kind of the standard software if you are writing for Hollywood, but is not something that audiobook people necessarily know what to do with. So I did it all in Word. What I did is really tried to get myself into the mindset of that kind of found audio that I did. That everything we hear is something Christina recorded on her phone. Then, in lieu of narrative descriptions of what a room looked like, I would start each scene with a little bracketed paragraph, maybe just a couple of sentences saying, “Okay, they’re in a coffee shop now. The audio needs to change, we need to hear in the background people murmuring or plates clinking, maybe somebody occasionally shouting Order up.” Something like that. So that it sounds like they’re in a diner or a café. When the phone gets dropped or manipulated because they pick it up, I would mark that. If somebody is shouting at them from farther away, I would say, “Distantly we hear…” And then the dialogue. So just kind of… That was my way of doing those audio cues. In brackets. To just let the audio engineer that assembles all of this no this needs to sound like it’s coming over a phone. This needs to sound like it’s being shouted across a park. This needs to sound like it’s being recorded in a closet.

[DongWon] So, I mostly work on prose fiction, on books. The thing about writing a book is you can do whatever you want in it and it doesn’t increase the marginal cost of the next page. Right? Every page cost the same, no matter what’s on it. Now one of the things we run into in terms of getting a story adapted for TV or film is how expensive is it going to be to film this. So, was that a thing that was kind of in your mind as you were doing this, knowing you are going to have this full cast video? Was there a limitation for you, and somewhere was there a brake on, oh, if I put them in a new location, we’re going to have to come up with a new Foley for that, we’re going to have to cast another person to play this waitress in this coffee shop or this… There’ll be interjections from other people, being like, hey, could you keep it down? Did you feel like, oh, I can’t do that too many times, because that increases the cost by this much or was it more free-form, solve it, and once it’s in production…

[Dan] Yeah. For me, some of that TV writer training came out. There were absolutely cases where I’m like, “This would be a very natural spot for a waitress to come and ask a question. But then we have to hire a waitress, so I’m not going to do that.” I wasn’t concerned very much with Foley or with sound design. What I did find myself doing was making sure the conversations themselves were long and interesting. So that in a given hour long episode… I call them six episodes. It’s a six-hour book that’s kind of split into parts. Initially, we thought we might be releasing them one episode at a time. But… So in a given hour, there will only be maybe five or six scenes. They take a long time and we get to really dig into it and have a long conversation. This served a couple of different purposes. It kept costs down in that we only had to hire five extras for that episode to do the interviews instead of like 20. It also meant that we could really dig into some of these questions. One of my very favorite conversations in the entire series is in episode two, where they go to a cult expert.

[Mary Robinette] Oh, I love that one.

[Dan] They’re thinking that it might be somehow involved with a cult that is trying to cover this up. First of all, the actor they got for that was so great.


[Dan] His mannerisms and the way he speaks… Some of that was written in, and a lot of it was just the actor really bringing his all to it. But that’s like a 15 minutes scene. It’s huge. Because it was so long, that gave them the chance to just really probe every corner of this question. Is it a cult? Maybe because of this. Probably not because of this. Let me explain all of these other things which, for me, is fascinating, to just let interesting people talk to each other. Yeah.

[Mary Robinette] That was one of the most Dan Wells-ian scenes.


[Mary Robinette] Because I’m like, “Um. Here we are. Dan is just going to bring out everything that he knows about death cults and cults.”

[Dan] Yeah. Here’s my quirk.

[Mary Robinette] Like, you didn’t have to look up up any of these, did you?

[Dan] Here’s the part where the expert just sits and talks about what they’re an expert in.

[Mary Robinette] So, I’m actually curious about a process thing. When you are doing these, when they were recording them, was the cast recording together or were they recording separate?

[Dan] Much of them were done separately. There were places where they would bring definitely Christina and Sofia in to try to record together as much as possible. The two leads. Then, on occasion, I think the cult expert and maybe the drug scientist and maybe one or two others, they brought them in and had all three people in the room at the same time to try to get as much of a conversational feel to it. I mention those two instances in particular because I know there’s a lot of talking over each other, there’s a lot of interrupting each other. Something like, for example, in episode… I want to say four, there’s a conversation with a pharmacist. That one I think they just recorded her separately, because it didn’t involve as much back and forth. So it was easier to… For them, to just do it by themselves. But, yeah, I was really happy that for some of those scenes they got everyone together and just let them play it out.

[Mary Robinette] Did you get to be there for those?

[Dan] I was invited to be there for those and was not able to fit it into my schedule.

[Mary Robinette] Do you know if they got to do ad libbing?

[Dan] There are a couple of places where I know that some ad libbing happened. In particular, like I said, that cult guy, he added a little bit to it. But overall it is surprisingly faithful to the script that I wrote. Sophie did more ad-libbing than anybody else.

[Mary Robinette] That fits.

[Dan] Which fits her character. She’s very much the kind of firebrand kind of character. I got to hear the unedited audio for several of these, and Sophie is the one who got bleeped all the time.


[Dan] I do not swear much, and I don’t typically include a lot of swearing… A lot of English language swearing in my books. I put tons of Spanish swearwords. This was an opportunity for me, knowing that it would be audio and that Christina is the kind of person who would bleep it out, to just give Sophie the worst mouth…


[Dan] And she swears a blue streak, and then it just bleeps out. I got to hear the unedited, and she just went off. Because the script had said, “What the [bleep]” That kind of stuff. Sophie just improvised all of that.


[DongWon] Delightful. I have sort of a format question again. We’ve seen this explosion in fiction podcasts over the last several years. Right? Whether it’s a [culmination] or whatever it is, there have been all these… Serialized storytelling has come back in this big way with full cast production, often with like big stars. You guys recorded a six episode podcast and released it as an audiobook. What went into the decision to do it as a single audiobook, as opposed to trying to do it as an actual podcast?

[Dan] I wish that I had a good answer for you.

[DongWon] Okay.

[Dan] That was a decision that I was not privy to. We didn’t really know exactly what format this was going to be in until it came out, really. There was… Right towards the end of the process, there were some factors that made communication difficult between us and the people producing it. So, I like the decision they landed on. I think it makes it easier. We don’t have to worry about a tail of people who listened to three and then forgot to listen to the third one… Err, the fourth one, and then it all falls apart. So I think that they probably made the right decision, although part of me does wish that we had released them one week at a time. Just because that’s how they were written, and I like the idea that you’re following this story as she’s recording. Because she… Kind of the conceit in the story is that she finishes recording everything. She edits it together, and uploads it on the spot. Then, most of the episodes begin with her saying, “Well, lots of comments on the thing from last week.” Which I thought would have been a fun little bit of interactivity. But…

[DongWon] Well, you get the variations of intros that change a little bit over time and that element, too. So… Yeah. It was really well done where it felt very cohesive as a single audiobook. But the conceit of it was also a real delight, in terms of hearing the audiovisual episodes within the greater whole as well.

[Howard] The question everyone wants to ask right now, the hot question on everyone’s mind, is how much has 15 years of experience as a podcaster for Writing Excuses…


[Howard] Helped you write this book as well as you did?

[Mary Robinette] Yeah, that was exactly the question that was burning in my mind.

[Dan] Exactly the thing that everybody wanted to know. I don’t know. I don’t have an answer to that. Sorry. It just made me brilliant. That’s what it did.


[Mary Robinette] There you go.

[Dan] Yeah. I can promise to all listeners that it will make you brilliant as well. One thing I do want to talk about and make sure that we hit this point before we end is, like I said, this was a collaboration with Brandon Sanderson. He had the initial idea of let’s do this as a kind of fake podcast. Then I wrote the entire thing and sent it back to him. He made one suggestion that, in hindsight, I can’t imagine the story without it. It’s embarrassing to me that I didn’t think of this. One thing I made sure to include…

[Mary Robinette] Wait. You’re not going to tell us?

[Dan] I am going to tell you. One thing I made sure to include in episode four, because it deals with memory. What’s really going on is that the serial killer is impossible to remember. That effect kind of rubs off on to his victims. People forget them as soon as he takes them. That made it very difficult for a long time before anyone to even notice this was happening, let alone do anything about it. So I loved the idea, and you see this pop up in episode four, that she realizes she’s already researched this. She has an external hard drive that she’s carrying with her that has hundreds of hours of audio she’s already researched and forgotten about. I thought, “Oh, that’ll be really creepy, and that’ll be really cool.” Brandon said, “Yes, but what if something happens and she gets forgotten?” That’s what happens at the end of episode four, which, again, in hindsight, how could I have done this without that?

[Mary Robinette] Yeah.

[Dan] She spends episode five and six basically also impossible to remember. Sophie forgets who she is, everyone forgets who she is, and she’s kind of suddenly on her own, really at the mercy of this weird supernatural effect in the world and all of this stuff. It was a really vital part of that collaborative process to come up with that and then figure out how to make it work.

[Howard] From the listener standpoint, the discovery that she’d already been researching this gave me chills. The plot twist, the disaster of suddenly being forgotten, was that moment where… As a writer, I’m always doing the why did the meta not explained to me that this was coming? Why did I not see this from the meta? It was that moment where I was like, “Of course, that’s what has to happen. That’s the only possible disaster that we could have that would fit the tone of this book.” So I see why you’re so frustrated with yourself…

[Dan] Yeah.


[Howard] That Brandon had to think of it for you.

[Dan] Frigging Brandon no. It was really good. But, yeah, in hindsight, it is inevitable that that would have to happen. That is the kind of third act twist, all is lost, oh, no, no one can remember me, I’d lost my entire support structure. Everything we built up so far has fallen apart. Which gave me the chance to really dig into the concept of memory. This is something you, if you’ve read a lot of my other books, I get into this a lot. There’s three books in a row in the John Cleaver series that are really dealing with this. I love that idea of what is memory and how does it work and how do we interact with it. It’s kind of a bit of a hobby horse of mine. So it was fun to see that from the inside.

[Dan] All right. We are going to be done with this episode. We are going to use this as a spine, is guideposts for the next seven. We’ll be going to a lot of different topics. But right now, we’re going to end with some homework.

[Mary Robinette] The homework assignment that I have for you is that I want you to think about something that you remember that no one else does. Then I want you to come up with a supernatural reason that that happened.

[Mary Robinette] In the next episode of Writing Excuses, we learn how I started writing prose, and how you can immerse readers in your world with clocks. Until then, you’re out of excuses. Now go write.