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

18.25: To Narrator or Not to Narrator

In our second episode on Dan Wells’ audio-only book, “Dark One: Forgotten,” we provide you with tools and advice to consider when deciding whether or not to have a narrator. We also talk about location-aware dialogue, or how you can have your characters info dump without it being an info dump.


Take something that you’ve already written, and adapt it for audio. 

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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: Different audio formats use narrators differently. Narrator, telling, and no narrator, showing, changes the pacing. Immersion versus distance! Create space for the audience to imagine. Keep in mind what you can let the audience imagine, and what you need to specify to fit your story. Do think about narrator or not as craft, but also as a business decision.

[Season 18, Episode 25]

[Mary Robinette] This is Writing Excuses.

[DongWon] To Narrator or Not to Narrator.

[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] We’re going to talk about narrators today. We had a moment in the last episode where I said that Forgotten doesn’t have a narrator, and Mary Robinette said yes it does. We’re going to talk a little bit about that difference. There are a lot of audio things, as audio becomes a much bigger part of the market, people are starting to play with the form a little, we’re starting to see full cast audio a lot more than we used to, we’re starting to see a lot of different things. So there are full audio dramas, radio dramas, and then there are dramatized audiobooks, and they use narrators differently.

[Mary Robinette] Yeah. So when you’re thinking about an audiobook, an audiobook is something that was written for prose, for print, not necessarily prose but written for print, and then is read aloud. A dramatized book is something that, or a full cast… Let me step first… The full cast, where you have multiple voices, instead of a single narrator. Then you have dramatized audio which is usually full cast and then sound effects. Then you move over to radio plays, which come from the stage side into the audio realm. So in those cases, you are dispensing with all of the basic conventions that come out of novels, short stories, and you’re starting with more stage and cinema conventions and moving I. There’s some overlap in between. But those are… That’s kind of your basic range.

[Dan] Yeah. These are not necessarily very clean-cut categories. There is a lot of play in between them. But, for example, if you go and listen to I Am Not a Serial Killer, that is a narrator reading the book. He will read everything, he will read the dialogue, he will read the narration. He will change his voice now and then when he’s doing a different person’s part. But it is one person reading it. Listen to Zero G, and it has full cast and sound effects, and it has a narrator to say the inner parts. To describe sometimes how the main character is feeling, what a location looks like. Which is similar to that audiobook, but changed a little bit. Then, something like Dark One: Forgotten, there is nobody just saying inner thoughts out loud, there is nobody describing the setting. It is all right there on the page, much more like a classic script would be for radio or TV.

[Erin] What’s interesting with Dark One: Forgotten, though, is that because it is in the style of a podcast, the narrator… Like, the characters in the world are directly addressing the audience. There’s a part where it’s like, “Oh, I’m not going to put this part in,” or “Let me let you know what I’m going to do right here,” or “I’m interviewing this person,” where there letting you know what’s happening from moment to moment, almost like a narrator, but within the world. Which I find like a really interesting way of like mashing things up. One of the things that I do for Zombies Run is I’ve both written the script part where they’re just like, “Runner! You need to go over here. Somebody’s attacking you. A zombie’s behind you.” Which is, there’s no narrator really, they’re just talking to you like you’re somebody that they’re talking to over a headset. But I also write in-world radio for Zombies Run, where somebody is actually doing a radio show within the world, and similarly, they are addressing the audience, but it is a fake audience that we’ve fictionalized for the sake of the Zombies Run universe. It’s fun. Each one is a slightly different technique.

[Dan] Yeah. That’s so cool. So, one of the questions that I want to get to in this episode, and I’ll just throw it at you, Erin, is what do those different styles do for you? Why would you choose one over the other, aside from the constraints of the medium that you’re working in? When does having a narrator really help you, and when do you prefer to dispense with the narrator altogether?

[Erin] I can’t remember if we said this in a podcast or just while talking, but at some point we were talking about showing versus telling and how that changes the pace. When you have a narrator, it’s a more telling media. You’re being told what’s going on. So it is a little bit slightly different paced than when you’re… Let me rephrase. When you’re… When you have a narrator, it makes you feel, I think, more like you’re listening to a story. So it feels like you’re around a fireside, and, weirdly, unlike in prose, that actually slows down the pace, I believe. It feels like, okay, we’re just gathered around and I’m going to tell you what I am doing. When you don’t have a narrator, you’re within the story yourself. You feel like you are a part of the story, I think, more. For that reason, it feels faster paced in the tension is higher.

[Mary Robinette] Yeah. I think of it as immersion versus distance. So the more present a narrator is, usually the more distant you are, because you have someone who is describing the things to you, but you are not participating in the scene. Whereas when the action is happening around you, you are in fact participating in the scene, because you are at least directly hearing what is happening. So you are a direct witness in that case. So, in puppet theater, we use show, don’t tell, for very different reasons, because you are literally doing a puppet show, not a puppet tell. There, what I’m thinking about, is that immersion. It’s like, the example that I use is I could say, “There’s a clock on the wall.” Or, I could have someone say, “Oh, looks like it’s 9:05 now.” One of them has you deeper into the world. So, for me, I think about it in terms of immersion versus distance on whether or not I’m going to use an active narrator. The other thing is that sometimes that narrator is the most efficient way to change a scene.

[Dan] Yes. I really like that way of thinking about it, the immersion versus distance. I found several times adapting Zero G from the prose that I wrote into more of a script format that there were so many times when I was describing how Zero felt or what he was looking at and I realized, “Oh, I’m gonna have someone reading this. I can just make this dialogue instead.” That happens so often. Really, that’s what was going on. There were moments when it needed to be a narrator doing it, and there are moments when it felt so much better and so much more natural to have the character themselves say it.

[Mary Robinette] One of the things that I find when I’m writing for… Erin, I don’t know if you find this too, but when I’m writing for… Knowing that there’s going to be an actor on the other end, is that I can have my written dialogue be more ambiguous, because I can put a note to them and then trust them to do the thing. Like, having a character on the page say, “What!” Like, I can’t do that without adding a lot of context around it, extreme numbers of punctuation marks, in order to get that “what!” As opposed to “what.” Those are two different things. An actor, I can trust, usually, to do that. On the other hand, if there is a possible way to misinterpret a line, an actor will find it.


[Dan] I think it was Margaret Dunlap, and I apologize if I’ve misremembered who it was. But she was telling me about a videogame that she had been writing dialogue for. For one particular dialogue tree, she had to come up with five or six options that were all different. Basically, she used the word what, then with some script notes to say, said in this tone of voice for all five.


[Howard] Yeah. That was Margaret.

[Dan] That was Margaret. Which I thought was so brilliant.

[Howard] Got paid for writing the same words six times.

[Mary Robinette] Yep.

[DongWon] Amazing.

[Howard] Yeah. One of the things that I wanted to point out is that just from our episode title, to narrator or not to narrator, you may be thinking of white room stories, like They’re Made of Meat is the classic example. Where there is no description, is just dialogue. We call it white room because you have no description of what’s going on. All of your cues come from what is in the dialogue. If you take a white room story and move it into the audio realm, suddenly the fact that there are two different actors, two different voice actors doing the voices, gives you more information. If you add sound design in the background, the sound of a café or the sound of science-fiction space, which shouldn’t make any noise, but for some reason always does, you can create something that makes it no longer white room, but the energy… And, for me, as a writer of comedic pithy tight dialogue, the energy remains there. You don’t need the dialogue tags that you often have to resort to to say who’s speaking. So I love what an audio drama affords you, which is the ability to do that fast banter and keep all those pieces there so that the energy doesn’t get slowed down by a narrator explaining to you what they’re doing.

[Erin] I will say, on the other hand, the challenges that physical description when you don’t have a narrator means that you need to be sometimes coming up with reasons that, in dialogue, your characters will be saying where they are when they’re both there and they know that they’re there.


[Erin] You know what I mean? Right. We all know we’re in this room, but like, wow, this chair’s comfortable. It’s a little bit more of those like location aware…

[DongWon] Isn’t this coffee shop so nice?

[Erin] Dialogue lines. Exactly. Like, “This coffee shop? I never liked that one.” Whatever it is. Like… I think that that’s really fun to figure out how to make it work. It’s like the same challenge people have with info dumping in that you want to make it seem like really natural to the scene that your writing without fully disrupting what’s happening between the characters.

[Mary Robinette] Yes. I want to talk about that more when we come back from the break.

[Mary Robinette] Everyone, we want to introduce you to our new producer, Emma Reynolds, and Emma is going to tell you about our thing of the week.

[Emma] The thing of the week is the Earbug Podcast Collective which is a weekly newsletter that is sent out. It is coordinated by one of my friends and mentors in the audio serial area whose amazing. But it is curated by a different person each week. It’s just a great way to get your hands-on, or I suppose your ears-on all of the different audio content that is out there for inspiration for you.

[Dan] All right. So, we’re back. I want to talk more about this white room concept. In particular, I… One thing I said at the beginning of this year, because I’ve been doing so much audio and now getting back into more traditional novels, is that I had initially kind of fallen off the wagon and forgotten how to write scene descriptions. So the first draft of the actual Dark One novel that I turned in was basically people talking to each other as if they were in an audio drama.


[Dan] No one was moving around doing actions, there was no description in between the lines of dialogue to break up what was happening. There was very little scenic description of where they were. That’s because my brain had gotten so embedded into this audio space, where that kind of stuff wasn’t a part of the script. That really kind of hit home for me the differences that arise when you start breaking these formats, when you start jumping from one to another. Because there are things you can do in one that work really well, but don’t work at all when you do them in a different format.

[Mary Robinette] One of the things that I enjoy playing with is… That comes out of audio drama, is using this idea that Erin was talking about before hand, of the interaction with the world to describe what is going on through dialogue. So, in The Spare Man, I don’t describe actually that much of what Gimlet, the little dog, does. Frequently, the way I am keeping her alive in the scene is through dialogue. That she’s… Like… When someone is having a conversation, it’s like, “Is this dog allowed to have people food?” That tells you everything that’s going on. But part of what that does for me is that it creates space for the audience. I think any time that you have the narrator they’re describing things in a linear way, that removes some of the audience space to imagine the world. One of the things that I think is fun is thinking about deliberately creating that space for the audience. When you’re coming back to prose or when you’re in the audio realm, is thinking where do I want to allow and encourage the audience to do some lift for me, because that is going to make the story more immediate for them, because it’s going to be… They’re going to be active participants in this story.

[DongWon] I really love that idea. Sort of pairing that with what Erin was talking about in terms of show, don’t tell, one of the things about balancing the showing and the telling is about trust. Right? When you make space for the audience, what you’re also doing is saying I’m trusting you to fill that space. I’m trusting you to meet me over there. Right? So making sure that that on-ramp is very easy for them, it’s a very easy path for them to follow to meet you where you are, I think is really important and one of the key skills in that. So you can have that little moment of here’s what Gimlet is doing and that’s filled in, backfilled by us when we hear that, and we then fill in what the dog has been doing for the last like 30 seconds. It’s such a delightful way for you as the creator to take a moment and say, “I see you, audience, and you are participating in this story too, and this is a thing we collaborate on.” I think that’s a beautiful thing that audio drama can do in a way that prose fiction can do, but it’s not as natural of a fit. So I love hearing ways that you pull that in.

[Howard] There’s a technical tool… Technical? A way of thinking about the absence of the narrator that I find it really useful. In the Dark One: Forgotten, when she says, “I’m recording this in my dorm room.” We don’t get much of a description, really, any description of the dorm room. It’s assumed that all of us have in our head a picture of a dorm room. If, at any point in that story, there’d been action in the dorm room where Sophie and… The name of the main character is…

[Dan] Christina.

[Howard] Christina. Where Sophie and Christina decide to go out the back door… I’ve never been in a dorm that had a backdoor. But if that’s a piece of blocking that you’re planning on having in your story, you have to do a little more than just the shorthand when you give us that description. You have to do just a little bit more lifting so that the blocking that happens later works. I describe this as a technical tool. It’s something that you have to keep in mind so that you know which pieces you can just let the audience imagine on their own and which pieces you have to specify.

[Dan] Yeah. I think it’s important that we kind of draw a line on this. The title of this episode is To Narrator or Not to Narrator. I don’t want you to think that that is… That that is a decision that has to be made from project to project. It can be made scene to scene, or even sentence to sentence. There are times within a completely normal traditional novel where you might decide to pull that narrator way back and let dialogue or action do the lifting rather than having the narrator. There are times even in an audio thing where you might want to have a narrator step in and do more.

[DongWon] One thing I do want to bring up, though. If you are making the decision of do I want to do this as a traditional prose project or single voice narrated audiobook versus a full cast production, from the business side, there’s an important decision that you will be making there, which is that the right situation is very different for an audiobook versus a full cast production. When you start getting into the full production, you are now walking into dramatization territory, which is what film and TV producers will want if they’re going to adapt your work. So, one thing to keep in mind is if somebody shows up and says, “We want to do a full cast production.” That’s a totally exciting cool thing to do. Be intentional about what you’re doing and realizing that if you give up those rights, that may interfere with your ability to do a film or TV adaptation down the line. Now, I know, in a lot of cases, it still works, just doing the thing because the thing that’s in front of you and it’s exciting. But it’s one of the things I want to make sure is clear as were talking about this, that these are different from audiobooks, not just in craft and practice, but in a business sense, you’re making a different choice by participating in that or not. There’s some blurry space in there. If you have like two or three narrators, I don’t remember exactly the distinction, but there’s sort of three categories in there. So there’s some difference.

[Mary Robinette] It’s…

[DongWon] You probably know this better than I do, actually.

[Mary Robinette] One of the big demarkers is whether or not you have changed it from the original form. So, you can have a full cast with almost… I’m not sure if there’s a cap on the number of char… Of narrators that can be in there, as long as you don’t change any of the words.

[DongWon] Okay.

[Dan] With Zero G, they did full cast audio, but we retained film rights. I don’t know exactly how Sarah worked that out, but we worked that out.

[DongWon] It is possible to do it.

[Mary Robinette] You just have to…

[Howard] As an aside, this is one of those cases, fair listener, where having an agent…


[Howard] Is very helpful. Because they can look up these exact questions for you so you don’t have to.

[Dan] Solve the problems for you.

[DongWon] This is kind of an edge case. Right? You can tell from the way I’m talking about it I don’t have this immediately to mind as… This is not something I’ve dealt with a bunch. It’s a thing I’ve dealt with once or twice. So there’s a conversation to be had in these gray areas. There’s blurriness, there’s ways to negotiate it.

[Mary Robinette] It’s true, actually, that my definition on that may also be linked to whether or not it is narration versus acting.

[DongWon] Right.

[Mary Robinette] As far as the union is concerned.

[Dan] Yeah. That’s a good [garbled distinction?]

[DongWon] Exactly.

[Dan] Too.

[DongWon] Right. Then the union starts to come in, that’s a whole nother set of questions that need to be answered as you do it. So, anyways…


[DongWon] Here’s a few things that the decision of narrator or not to narrator is a craft one. It is also a business one. Make sure you’re talking to your publishing team if you have one. Make sure you’re being intentional about the choices that you’re making, as you go into those choices.

[Erin] It can also be an experimental one. Which is to say that you can also just see what happens if you take something that you’ve written just as a regular narrator full prose, and what would happen if you took the narrator out or tried it in an audio format, and see what you learn. Because one thing that I think you learn a lot about in audio is which details you’re going to want to have your narrator or your characters mention. Because, there, I think, is a limit, especially in a more fully acted production, to how much people want to listen to a narrator before they’re like, “Get back to the drama.”


[Erin] So you learn like maybe this longer passage that I might be able to put on the page is going to come off much differently, like, when I’m listening to it, especially if it’s not in audiobook format listening, but more of a full cast.

[Dan] Yeah. One of the elements that gives me fits when I’m trying to write these pure audio dramas, for example, with the Moon Breaker videogame, is fight scenes. Doing those in something that has no narrator gets so hard. You can actually go and listen to the Moon Breaker episodes and see me doing these kinds of experiments that Erin’s talking about, saying, “Well, what happens if I just do a straight fight scene and say, okay, Foley guy, lots of laser noises for like 20 seconds and then the story will keep going.” Then other episodes are much more intentional, like, I’m going to block this entire thing out so that I know exactly what’s happening, and the only things that are going to happen in the fight scene are ones that I think we can depict with clarity with pure audio and no narration. It is very hard to make a fight scene intelligible without a narrator describing what is happening and no visuals to let you see it.

[Howard] I’m just reminded of the time when Mike Magnola on a panel said, “Oh, yeah. I really trust this artist. In one of the scripts I said hell boy fights an army of skeletons for six pages.”

[Laughter] [Oh, boy. Wow.]

[Erin] I think this comes back to why I think narrator or not is such a cool tool, because I was thinking about this fight scene. I’m like, if you want your audience member to feel like, oh my gosh, I’m in the middle of the battle, I don’t know what is happening, attacks are coming from everywhere, then having no narrator is great because you’re in that feeling of, like, I’m just hearing swords and screaming and dying. But if you want them to actually be able to figure out who stabbed who with the whatchamacallit, then maybe you need the narrator, because the point is for them to understand it, not to sort of just be absorbed by it.

[Dan] Yeah. Those are… That can become a really valuable tool if you think of it in those ways. Like, what am I gonna use this lack of narrator to produce a specific effect, rather than just, oh, boy, I don’t have a narrator. This is going to suck.

[DongWon] You use that to great effect in Dark One: Forgotten. Right? So, at the end, when she is captured by the serial killer, we don’t exactly know what happens to her. We know that she experiences some stuff that’s pretty bad, and she has to go to the hospital afterwards. It’s unclear what he has done to her, what injuries she has sustained. I think letting my brain fill that in is more horrifying then if you’d described, oh, he hit her. She fell down the stairs. Whatever it is. Right? It becomes a very upsetting sequence of events that was very tense and difficult to listen to, in a good way. I think by me having to fill in those details…

[Mary Robinette] Making space for the audience.

[Dan] I am very glad that it had that effect on you. When I wrote that scene, this was back when I was still on Twitter, and I got on and said, “I just wrote a scene so brutal, Brandon Sanderson will regret ever collaborating with me.” It… We had to tone it down a little, but… Yeah. That…

[DongWon] That’s how it came through. I was like, “I am in a horror movie right now.” You know what I mean? But that’s the intended effect, I think. That’s what you were trying to produce. Forcing me to produce all the worst horror movies I’ve ever seen in my brain, I think, was a great shortcut for you to get the effect that you wanted.

[Erin] Almost makes you complicit in the violence itself.

[DongWon] Yes. Thanks for making me feel worse about it.


[Howard] I think that Dan Wells being complicit is a note to end on. Almost.


[Mary Robinette] So, now it’s time for your homework. I want you to do something which is actually the way I started writing prose. I want you to take something that you’ve already written and I want you to adapt it for audio. When I started writing, I tried going straight to script and it was a disaster. So I started writing a short story, and then converting it into audio. Because I wanted to write audio. You, my friends, are going to take something you’ve already written. As Erin suggested, you’re going to be stripping out narration, you’re going to be figuring out what sound effects are. Try to convert it for audio.

[Mary Robinette] In the next episode of Writing Excuses, we explore writing as an act of hospitality and reader agency. Until then, you’re out of excuses. Now go write.